Steve Johnson admits that last year there were times when he'd be in Gulf Coast action, look around at the almost surreal surroundings- only one or two fans, a drab, dusty practice field and wonder, "This is pro ball? I gave a chance at playing in college for this?"
Steve had seemingly been set for Boston College last summer when the Dodgers persuaded him to change his mind and sign. But he managed to get into only six games, dropped his only two decisions and was shut down with a sore arm. Hardly the way the state of Maryland's high school Player of the Year had imagined how things would be.
But he worked hard to recover this spring though he wasn't surprised when the camp broke that he was left with the extended gang, still toiling on those practice fields. And the Dodgers knew that he had far more ability than that brief encounter last year had demonstrated. So, when a 911 call came from Jacksonville which was suddenly short on pitching, they nominated Steve as the person to fill the void.
The Suns were in Birmingham so he flew there, got into uniform and proceeded to the bullpen. He really didn't expect to get in but the Barons were busy blowing the Suns away so the call came. And there he was - in a Double A game with a decent-sized crowd cheering the home guys.
"My knees were shaking, "He recalls now. "But I just wanted to throw strikes, do what I could do and see what happens. "Turns out he did just fine. Two innings without allowing a single runner- six up, six down.
And then, naturally, as quickly as possible, to get on the phone to his parents. "I couldn't wait to tell them what happened but my dad surprised me when he answered because the first thing he said was, 'You did great.' They had been able to hear the game on the internet. So, he was asking about every ball hit- were the flies hit hard? How about the ground outs?'"
Steve's dad Dave knows his pitching for he was in the big leagues for eight seasons plying that craft. Now he does pre-game TV shows for the Orioles and conducts a baseball school on the side. Steve, of course, was a star pupil.
Steve doesn't get people out with mid to upper 90's heat. Rather, he's a 6-1, 185-pound righthander who relies a lot on a sinking fast ball that usually hovers around 90 and also throws an advanced change.
After the game it was on the bus for a long ride to Jacksonville. "The only seat I could get was in the back. Things didn't smell too good back there. That made for a long day. "
His new teammates proved to be more than friendly and helpful, he says. "Oh, there was some rookie stuff but not too much. "
First baseman Craig Brazell, who had spent time in the big leagues, introduced himself and asked, "Where did you play last year"
"The GCL, " was the answer.
"The GCL!' Brazell exclaimed. "I thought you looked young. How old are you?"
"18! Good Lord ! I played in the GCL and let's see, you would have been eight years old then. And now we're teammates."
Steve was to get another taste of action three days later. This was in no blowout for Alvis Ojeda turned a 1-0 lead over to him when he entered in the sixth. He gave up a single but also notched two strikeouts in a scoreless inning. He got through the seventh without any damage as well.
And he almost got to bat for they don't use the DH in AA when two National League farm teams play each other and this game was against Huntsville, a Brewers affiliate. Steve hadn't hit since high school so, "The first fast ball I saw, I was going to rip." He didn't get the chance, though, for the guy in front of him grounded into a double play.
In the eighth, he notched another "K" but then gave up a double. "So they brought in Mark Alexander; he got the next two outs and pitched a scoreless ninth. So we won 1-0."
That was it, for the record, 4-2 innings with a perfect 0.00 ERA. And a marvelous experience. "Everything about was great. We'd sit on the bench, then go to the bullpen. The fans were great."
It soon was time to return to the extended camp but that's about to end and Steve will be among those going to Ogden where the crowds are also sizeable and appreciative. He'll also be taking a new attitude with him.
"This showed me what it's really like in pro ball. Now I have my goals set."
At the same time he showed the Dodgers that they have another young pitcher of considerable promise.