Pitcher Jim Johnson is Orioles' renaissance man

About two weeks after his 2010 season ended, Jim Johnson walked into a classroom at the State College of Florida-Bradenton campus, settled his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame behind a table, and put his right arm through an entirely different test.

For about two hours, Johnson, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip flops, took an exam to complete a written communications course. First, he answered questions, then he penned a short essay.

The presence of a major league pitcher in the room couldn't have mattered less. On this day, Johnson was just like any other student — albeit a 28-year-old one — working toward a college degree.

"I am a little bit older than the normal demographic of that place, so it probably looks a little weird when I'm walking on campus," Johnson said. "But they don't know who I am."

Nor do Johnson's Sarasota, Fla., neighbors, who know him as a husband and father of a 23-month-old girl but have no idea what he does for a living. Nor do many of the people Johnson comes in contact with around his in-season home in Canton, where he dines and walks around unrecognized just a couple of miles away from the stadium he has pitched in for the past four seasons.

Only Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis have been Orioles longer than Johnson, but while their names and numbers adorn jerseys and T-shirts throughout the stands at Camden Yards, Johnson remains a relatively anonymous member of the ballclub. That is despite Johnson's being one of the team's best pitchers and a possible solution to its starting rotation woes.

"I like everything about him. What's not to like?" said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who acknowledged Wednesday that there is a strong possibly that Johnson, a starter coming up through the minors, will join the rotation by season's end. "Jimmy never trumpets the things that he's doing or his accomplishments. He just does them because they are right. He's not a guy that needs all the recognition. What he needs is the respect of his teammates. He's a baseball player that just happens to be a pitcher, and that's a great compliment. He's a piece of what we're trying to do here."

He also is one of the Orioles' most interesting characters, a fact obscured by his omnipresent game face, gruff exterior and edgy personality, which can challenge teammates and reporters alike.

Before signing with the Orioles, eschewing a scholarship to Georgia Tech and shelving his desire to be an architect or engineer, Johnson was a volunteer fire fighter and a handyman's assistant. Now, he balances his baseball career with being a student, a young father, the organizer of an annual charity golf tournament and a burgeoning contractor who remodeled his own home.

"He gets his hands into a little bit of everything," said Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, who also lives year-round in Sarasota and spends time with Johnson off the field. "If something needs to be built, he's going to try and find a way to build it. Once he gets his mind set on something, he's going to get it done. He's going to try and become as much of an expert as he can in every situation."

'Wake-up call'

Johnson is 5-3 with a 2.64 ERA in 43 appearances this year, and his 58 innings are 52/3 more than any other reliever in the American League had pitched entering Thursday. It has been a nice follow-up to a 2010 season that was challenging for him in between the lines but rewarding outside them.

The big right-hander struggled early, was sent to the minor leagues for the first time since April 2008, then missed more than three months with damage in his right elbow. Admittedly not great with free time, Johnson put his energy toward rehabilitating, spending time with his wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Abigail, organizing his golf tournament and going back to school.

"I think it was a wake-up call for him, very honestly," said Gini Johnson, the pitcher's mother. "I think it really made him think about, 'OK, I'm 26 years old, and what would I do if my playing days are over?' It really put a seed in his mind, and it was like: 'You got some time. Let's do it.'"

He was always a good student, so much so that when Orioles scout Jim Howard dropped by the Johnson family's upstate New York home after the club drafted him in the fifth round in 2001 out of Union-Endicott High, it was a courtesy visit more than anything. Howard figured there was no way Johnson would sign. To Howard's surprise, Johnson did, keeping his word.

Even in choosing pro baseball over college, Johnson decided he would eventually get his degree. That plan was further ingrained during countless talks with veteran teammates who had expressed regrets that they didn't do the same.

Johnson started with two classes last fall through the State College of Florida, then took two more during the winter. He plans to complete his liberal arts classes, then transfer his credits to South Florida. He's not sure what he wants to major in, though he has always been interested in engineering and architecture.

"You can't play baseball forever. I'd love to, but sometimes you don't have those choices," Johnson said. "It's not a bad idea to get some things accomplished when you can. Hopefully, it will be a very long process because that will mean that I'm still playing baseball."

Johnson, an avid New York Giants fan, wrote a comparison paper on news sources focused on the media's coverage of concussions, one of the prominent topics in the NFL last season. His paper about contaminated foods and pesticides also proved challenging because he had to get a hold of university professors and other experts while maintaining his baseball schedule.

"I don't ask for any special treatment," Johnson said. "Some of the guys think it's funny. We'd be on the road and guys would say, 'Let's go grab a drink.' And I'd be like: 'I can't. I have to go write a paper.'"

Happy outside spotlight

Such stories bring a smile to the face of Johnson's high school coach, Ed Folli, who marvels at his former pupil's ability to prioritize his career with other responsibilities. Johnson drew a stream of scouts to Union-Endicott High, and they kept coming even after he was knocked out of one big game in the third inning. In Johnson's next start, he threw a no-hitter, striking out 17.

"He was a high-profile athlete in high school and a low-profile person," Folli said. "He just never sought attention. How many guys in high school who are good athletes spend their relaxation hours — if that's what you want to call it — at the firehouse? He was a volunteer fireman. He liked carpentry and cabinet-making and all that stuff. Those are not the kinds of things that most high school athletes are into."

Folli and Johnson still speak regularly, mostly keeping their conversations to family stuff and New York Rangers hockey. Folli, a long-time baseball man, respects the fact that his former player doesn't reveal much about what goes on inside the clubhouse.

"I've coached 32 years, and some guys coach a lifetime and never have a Jim Johnson," said Folli, who attended an Orioles game at Camden Yards last month. "I'm happy I had one of him."

Others who know Johnson well — and he lets very few into his inner circle — aren't surprised that his interests and post-career goals differ from many of his teammates'. Johnson has never been shy about doing things his way. That started at a very young age, when Johnson's parents equipped his bike with training wheels, only to have their young son demand that they be taken off.

"He said: 'I don't need those. I'll do it myself,'" Gini Johnson recalled. "We used to call him Bart Simpson. He was a challenge as a child. He was very intense, and he wanted to do it his way and the right way."

A new role?

While Johnson seemingly takes pride in carrying a chip on his shoulder, he can be funny and engaging. When Showalter watched him pitch in person for the first time during a rehab appearance at Double-A Bowie last season, Johnson served up a home run. As he walked back to the dugout, Johnson made eye contact with his future manager and said, "How do you like me so far?"

Johnson also is self-deprecating, joking about the fact that on the day he came to Camden Yards for the first time to sign his contract, he wasn't afforded a clubhouse or stadium tour like other signees. In fact, he had to shower and change in the Warehouse. Cal Ripken Jr. had announced his retirement, and the clubhouse was flooded with luminaries and reporters, keeping Johnson out.

He has a soft side as well, admitting that anything his young daughter wants, she gets, and one of his goals in baseball is to provide for his family and others. He regularly gives back to his former high school, and his golf tournament in February benefited the Miracle League of Manasota, an organization dedicated to providing an opportunity for every person to play baseball, regardless of his or her ability.

Johnson serves as the commissioner of the Orioles' fantasy football league and organizes pools for just about every major in-season sporting event. But that's as far as he'll go with the fun and games.

Johnson is not shy about calling out a teammate, especially one he feels is not maintaining a certain level of professionalism. Even Showalter, who doesn't mince words, called Johnson "one tough bird."

"When I first came into pro ball, I got the impression that people had that 'happy to be there' mentality," Johnson said. "I wasn't happy to be in Rookie ball for three years in a row. I wasn't happy sweating my [butt] off in Florida and not getting anything for it. It wasn't that I was a mad person or an angry person. Some people were there more for being buddy-buddy and this and that. I just felt like you're paid to do something and you have a short window to do it, so why not put all your energy into trying to get better?

"Things that work for me don't necessarily work for other people. Everybody has their own way of doing things, and if you are good at doing what you do and it works for you, then by all means, go do it. It's not easy to get to this level, and some people take it for granted. There's a couple of people that I've talked to a little bit about it, about how you're not given everything, and you have to earn everything. Some people listen, and some don't. You can only help the people that want to be helped."

Johnson has become close with first-year Orioles reliever Kevin Gregg. During games, they sit next to each other in the bullpen and talk about situations and how to approach different hitters. Gregg said other relievers chide Johnson for being grouchy, but everybody respects the way he goes about his business and the arsenal he takes to the mound.

"We get on him about being 'Angry Jim,' but there is a reason for that. Part of that is what makes him so good," Gregg said. "He truly believes in himself and his ability, and he's willing to learn. That's the best combination you can have. He's turning into a guy who can be a mainstay. Guys who stay in this game don't make excuses. They are not scared of confrontation with a teammate, in a good way. He's learning those things. He's trying to better those around him and, at the same time, better himself."

Johnson's competitiveness and three quality pitches have spurred support for his returning to a starting role. Johnson stays out of the debate even though it appears he'll get his wish.

In one of his rare moments of introspection, Johnson acknowledged he's far better equipped for such an assignment than he was in 2006, when he allowed eight earned runs in three innings in his big league debut.

So much has changed since for the organization's third-longest-tenured player, who remains a relative mystery in his adopted city, and that's just fine by him.

"It doesn't matter if I get recognition or not because I enjoy what I'm doing, and that's all that really matters," Johnson said. "You look back a couple of years, and I was nowhere near ready for the big leagues. I'm not the same pitcher I was. I've learned a lot, and I'm glad the Orioles have been patient. I'm hoping that they are glad that they stuck with me, too."

Notes: Lefty Brian Matusz allowed eight runs (seven earned) on eight hits and three walks in 32/3 innings in his start for Triple-A Norfolk against Toledo. … Righty Chorye Spoone, designated for assignment this week, cleared waivers and was outrighted to Bowie. … The start time of the Orioles' Sept. 1 game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards has been moved from 7:05 p.m. to 12:35 p.m.