Johnson wait worth it

The Baltimore Sun

Jim Johnson's biography section in the Orioles' media guide is one line. Fourteen words, to be exact.

It lists his nickname as "J.J." That he graduated from a high school in New York and was signed by scout Jim Howard. That's it.

It's not as if there hasn't been time to study Johnson. Besides second baseman Brian Roberts, he is the longest-tenured Orioles draft pick on the 40-man roster.

But there are no other glimpses into the life, the personality of a man who in seven weeks has gone from forgotten minor league starter to the most effective member of the Orioles' bullpen. Johnson has thrown more relief innings (29 1/3 ) than any other Oriole, and his 1.23 ERA, .236 opponents' on-base percentage and .153 opponents' slugging percentage are by far the best on the team.

Those who know Johnson well say he is private, that he simply doesn't like talking about himself.

Len Johnston, the Orioles' minor league camp coordinator, who was one of Johnson's first instructors when he was drafted in 2001, puts it this way:

"You'd talk to him, but he wasn't too friendly. He was kind of hard to get to know. The last couple years, you see he really is friendly. It surprised me."

That sentiment is not a shock to the 24-year-old pitcher.

"I feel like I have to spend an amount of time with somebody before I get in-depth," he said. "I don't know if it is a trust thing, it's just the way I have always been."

When Johnson gets in-depth, though, pay attention. Because he's not a garden-variety jock with interests limited to baseball, golf and video games.

He's a handyman, rehabbing a fixer-upper home in Florida. He's a former volunteer firefighter-emergency responder who has performed CPR three times in attempts to resuscitate heart attack victims.

If he weren't a baseball player, he likely would have been a fireman. Or a carpenter. Or maybe an engineer if he had accepted that baseball scholarship to Georgia Tech. He loves to fish and to snowboard and to do anything outdoors.

"People that know me know I do a lot of different things. I don't like to be idle," he said. "I always have my hand in something and am doing something hands-on."

Like woodworking. He remembers watching his grandfather build toys for charity and then "helping" his father construct a deck when he was about 10.

"I kind of fell in love with it," Johnson said. "It's almost therapeutic sometimes, to go out into my workshop and get sanding done or get something finished."

His two-car garage in his Sarasota, Fla., home is a converted workshop filled with tools. He has built toy chests for his nieces and a bookshelf for an Orioles minor league trainer. He is in the process of restoring an antique secretary's desk, and he created identical bookshelves to accompany it.

Last offseason, he opened a stairwell, redid the stairs and added a closet underneath. He installed new floors and rewired the electricity. Next offseason, he's renovating his bathrooms. His old high school coach calls him "a regular Bob Vila."

"We've told him to watch it with the bandsaw. You don't want to get a finger," said his mom, Gini. "But it is a creative outlet for him. He really is an enigma in some ways because of all of the facets of his personality. He really is diverse."

At least the Orioles won't have to worry about their young reliever running into burning buildings. Unlike in his native New York, there's no volunteer fire company he can join in his area of Florida.

But when he was a teenager, emergency-service work was a major passion.

"If I called his house looking for him and his mom said he wasn't there, I knew what was coming next," said Ed Folli, Johnson's baseball coach at Union-Endicott High School. "'Did you try the firehouse?' Because that's what he loved. He loved the firehouse."

It provided Johnson with the same sense of fraternity that a baseball clubhouse does. He has always loved being part of a team, and seemingly has always loved baseball.

"He was a horrible sleeper as a child; he'd be up at 2 in the morning," his mother said. "The only thing on TV at that time were reruns of baseball games, and we'd sit there at 3 in the morning and watch baseball. He loved the game from the time he was able to recognize it."

Johnson grew to 6 feet 5, a perfect pitcher's body with a right arm that could hurl 94-mph fastballs.

Howard, now the Orioles' lead advance scout, loved everything about the kid: his size, the downward sinking action on his fastball, his tight curveball, his no-nonsense demeanor and his desire to start his pro career as soon as possible.

The only negative was that he didn't grow up in a year-round baseball environment. Endicott, N.Y., a small town near Binghamton, is known more for being the birthplace of IBM and late cartoonist Johnny Hart (of "BC" and "The Wizard of Id" fame) than producing pro athletes.

Still, at Howard's urging, the Orioles selected Johnson in the fifth round of the 2001 draft and paid him third-round money (a $400,000 signing bonus) to skip college.

He turned 18 in June that year and the next day left for the minors, where he began a snail's trail to the big leagues: one season in the Gulf Coast League, the next two at Rookie-level Bluefield and the following split between Single-A levels.

In 2005, he spent almost the entire year at high-A Frederick, where he met his future wife, won 12 games and the Jim Palmer Prize as the organization's top pitcher.

And still he seemingly was an Orioles afterthought. Two more seasons in the minors followed, with two one-game stints in the big leagues, including a disastrous eight-run, three-inning spot start in 2006. By this spring, Baseball America had dropped him from 13th to 29th in its ranking of Orioles prospects.

"We've been very frustrated, and I know Jimmy himself had a strong mental challenge," his mother said. "He stayed focused, committed, driven. To me, there was always too many bodies in front of him and he was being overlooked."

So Johnson worked harder.

This spring, minor league pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt helped Johnson lengthen his stride, allowing him to throw on more of a downward plane. Johnson developed a better feel for his pitches, and his fastball, which had straightened out some in the minors, demonstrated more movement and sink.

By April 11, he was promoted to the Orioles and immediately rattled off an 18-inning scoreless streak, pushing him into the club's primary setup role. His shining moment came May 13 against Boston, when he entered with the bases loaded and no outs and induced a double-play groundout by Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez on his 10th pitch and then a Mike Lowell flyout to preserve the Orioles' lead.

Typical of his personality, he didn't make a big deal of it. Or what he has accomplished so far this season.

"It's good to play a part in the team's success," he said. "Pretty much my whole mind-set has always been not just to be in the big leagues, but to be successful in the big leagues. I don't want to be a warm body, I want to be somebody helping out."

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