Jim Johnson's baseball dreams were born just off the banks of the Susquehanna River in the quaint upstate New York town of Endicott. The river flowed just past the left-field line of his high-school baseball field. With a population of about 13,000, it's the epitome of Small Town, USA.
This is where Johnson — a self-described 'grinder' — spent his time between the baseball field and the local firehouse, where he was a volunteer firefighter. Had he not pursued baseball, he would have been a fireman.
It's known as the birthplace of IBM, but years ago, the computer giant outgrew Endicott and left it behind. A lot of the old IBM buildings still remain, but the town still hasn't recovered. Storefronts are empty, times are tough, and like many other rust belt towns across the country, dreams fall hard.
"We're hurting in a lot of ways," said Ed Folli, the former baseball coach at Union-Endicott High School.
But Tuesday night will be a memorable day in Endicott, where locals will be watching Johnson's first moment in the national spotlight in the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Kansas City.
"This is Yankees country," said Folli, Johnson's high school coach. "Even the staunchest Yankees fan I know is a Jim Johnson fan. Every TV in this town will be watching and rooting for Jimmy.
"There are a lot of people here who are excited for Jim," Folli said. "I tried to explain that to him, but I don't think he has any idea. I don't think he really understands the emotions being generated through this town."
Johnson's career grew from humble roots in Endicott and weaved its way through seven years in the minor leagues and morphed through different roles in the Orioles organization.
This year, his first as the Orioles' full-time closer, he leads the major leagues in saves with 26 at the All-Star break. Right-handed hitters are batting .113 against him, the second-lowest average against among AL relievers.
He's one of three Orioles, along with center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters, playing in tonight's All-Star Game — the most the Orioles have sent since 2005 — but he's the first first-timer.
Johnson, 29, is the third longest tenured player on the Orioles — only Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis have been with the club longer — but he's still a virtual unknown outside of Baltimore.
But that takes nothing away from his impact to the Orioles' surprising first half. Sometimes, consistency gets ignored.
"He's easy to overlook because he doesn't have these glaring outings where he goes out there and he strikes out three, but he gets the job done every time," said Wieters, who is making his second straight All-Star appearance.
These days, Johnson lives by the mantra of being even keel. There's no fancy display of emotion on the mound like other closers. The strong stride of his 6-foot-6 frame and a biting sinker is what lets you know he's there.
It wasn't always that way.
After spending his first two full seasons in rookie ball, he grew frustrated. He thought he had shown his ability as a budding starter — he was 7-4 with a 4.04 ERA in those two years in Bluefield. He arrived in Sarasota weeks early for both seasons, finding a home with a family in Tampa.
But Johnson was just 20 years old at the time. He was impatient — and thinking about quitting the game to go back to Endicott.
"My back was pretty much against the wall," Johnson said. "I went into camp and actually didn't make a team out of camp that year, which was shocking. After a month of waiting it out, I started seeing a return, which made it a little easier.
"If I didn't see a return I definitely wouldn't be here today," Johnson said. "There were times when I was close to not playing and just being done with it. I felt like I had failed."
That season, he was assigned to low Single-A Delmarva, where he met his wife, Elizabeth. Later that season, when he was promoted to high Single-A Frederick, he began a life-changing relationship with then-Keys pitching coach and former Orioles great Scott McGregor.
McGregor, who later married Jim and Elizabeth in 2007, was able to hone the fire in Johnson.
"He was and still is really hard on himself," said McGregor, the organization's pitching rehab coordinator. "That's part of being a great athlete, but he was really, really hard. He would pitch seven innings and have one bad stretch and he'd dwell on that. I would tell him, 'why don't you look at the other six innings?'"
"I always knew, with his talent, he can be tremendous," McGregor added. "The last year and half is when his mental strength really got locked in. That's why he's so good now."
The next season, Johnson had his first taste of the majors, but he didn't establish himself at the big league level until 2008 — as a reliever. He took over the closer role — with varying success — late in 2009 after George Sherrill was traded at the deadline.
"When you spend seven years in the minor leagues, for the most part, without really getting a foothold in the major leagues, you're going to be thinking, maybe this isn't going to work out," Johnson said. "I wasn't a first-round pick who was fast-tracked to the big leagues. I had to grind it out every step of the way."
"There's a term for hockey players, my second favorite sport," said Johnson, a lifelong New York Rangers fan, finally offering a smile. "I would consider myself a grinder."
Now, he has a home in Sarasota, Fla., with Elizabeth and his two children, 3-year-old Abigail and 3-month-old Levi. Johnson said becoming a father has made a huge impact on his life, and his focus. "Your priorities change real fast," he said. "They change more when you have two."
In Sarasota, the family has become involved at their new church, Harvest Methodist Church, where Johnson rarely gets recognized.
"I think that's what he wants," Elizabeth Johnson said. "That's how he wants it to be. That keeps him who he is and true to himself. He truly does it for the love of the game. He doesn't do it for the money. He doesn't do it for the fame or for people to recognize it. He just does it because he loves the game."
Elizabeth joked that when she went to the rental car place in Kansas City on Sunday, the clerk didn't know who her husband was.
She laughed. She's used to it.
"He was like, "Who? Jim Johnson?'" she said. "I said, 'Yeah, he's a no-name now, but just wait after this game. Everybody's going to recognize him.'"
Adam Jones, CF
Stats: .289 batting average, 20 HRs, 44 RBIs, 54 runs scored, 19 2Bs, 11 SBs
Tidbit: After hitting 16 home runs and knocking in 34 runs through the first two months of the season, Jones only had three homers and seven RBIs in 26 games in June. In eight games this month, he is batting .188 with one home run and three RBIs.
Matt Wieters, C
Stats: .247 batting average, 12 HRs, 44 RBIs, 35 runs scored, 14 2Bs
Tidbit: The switch-hitting Wieters batted .384 in 73 at-bats against left-handed pitchers in the first half and only .200 in 210 at-bats against right-handers, but 10 of his 12 home runs came from the left side. He has six home runs at Camden Yards and six on the road.
Jim Johnson, RP
Stats: 1-0, 1.21 ERA, 26 saves, .151 opponents' batting average
Tidbit: Johnson leads the major leagues with 26 saves in 27 opportunities. In his only blown save, on June 5 against the Red Sox, Johnson picked up the win after the Orioles scored twice in the top of the 10th and he retired the side in order in the bottom of the inning.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun