Canada's new best arm: Josh Johnson

* Josh Johnson, whose father was born in Calgary, is WBC eligible and says pitching in 2017 would be a tribute to his father Al. .... Day VII with Team Canada, a win over Mexico

2013 Top Canadians eligible for draft 2013 Canadians in College  Letters of Intent 2012 Canadians in the Minors  2012-13 Canadians at Canadian schools

By Bob Elliott

DUNEDIN _ Best Canadian player with the Blue Jays? Brett Lawrie.

Best pitcher? Is this a trick question?

It has to be bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos during batting practice on one day’s rest?

In breaking news ... the best Canadian arm on the 2013 Jays is Josh Johnson, former National League ERA champ, acquired from the Miami Marlins, whose father was born and raised in Calgary.

Now, we’d feel a whole lot better about this -- and so would Baseball Canada director of national teams Greg Hamilton -- had we found out this months before the World Baseball Classic.

It is a discovery similar to finding out Jameson Taillon had Ontario roots weeks before the 2010 June draft and therefore would be WBC eligible.

“That's a long way off, I’d consider pitching for Canada in 2017, I’d be 33,” said the 6-foot-7 right-hander sitting at a locker in the Jays clubhouse on Friday morn.

“Wearing a Canada uniform would be a good tribute to my father ... for all he’s done for me.”

WBC eligibility is determined by a parents’ country of birth and Johnson’s father, Al Johnson was born and raised in Calgary.

“We’re fine being called Canadians,” Al said from Tulsa, where he works for Williams Energy.

Al Johnson lived in the Parkdale area of Calgary until age 15. Their house was off 7th Ave., near the Foothills Hospital.

He played hockey and baseball in Parkdale and attended Queen Elizabeth High School.

Al attended baseball camps at the Foothills Stadium, where ex-pros “taught us how to play the game right.” He played for coach Bob Davies.

“I was 15, catching 18 year-olds,” said Al. “Calgary is where I fell in love with baseball.”

And like every Alberta-bound teenager from wrassler Bret Hart, to singer Paul Brandt, to Calgary Flame Mike Vernon, he headed to The Stampede in July: “very year.”

Al’s church ran a food booth as a fund raiser. Once his four-hour assignment either peeling potatoes or cooking corn, they were free to go on rides or go to the grand stand.

“I loved the rodeo, but chuck wagon races were the most exciting. All those horses, wagons, everyone going so fast. There were so many things to watch. That was exciting.”

Al used to watch his mother's cousin, Norman Edge, Jr. ride Brahma Bulls.

“Fun to watch, but not for me,” Al said.

Edge’s father was honoured in 1974 by the Stampede as a ”Pioneer of Rodeo.”

Al said he played with some “pretty good hockey players,” but is unsure if anyone that went on in hockey.

Al’s father, also named Al, worked for Mobile and Triad oil companies. He ran supply and demand camps for oil wells in Fort St. John, B.C., 40 miles from the B.C./Alberta border.

“Without a place to buy supplies, he made sure there was food, clothing,” Al said. “The last few years he’s told me stories about working well sites in northern Alberta.”

Al compared it to the oil wells and pipeline work currently being done in North Dakota: housing, food and equipment had to be brought in “it’s almost like off-shore billing.“

For Christmas they’d head north to Edmonton to visit with his mom’s side of the family, at Helen Weitzel's house.

The Johnsons moved to Minneapolis in August of 1972 as Al’s father enrolled at the University of Minnesota to attend grad school.

Al married his high school sweetheart, Bonnie Johnson, which made it a Johnson and Johnson wedding. Bonnie was born and raised in Minnesota and is half Native American (Minnesota Chippewa Tribe). They have been together 40 years. Josh is 1/4 Native American – a registered member of the tribe.


* * *

Then, it was back to Minnesota to live and work.

The first sport the Minneapolis-born Josh took part in was not baseball, but hockey, recalling: “playing on a rink at the park with my brothers as a three-year old. I wasn’t playing baseball at that age.”

“When I was skating I was probably in the best shape of my life,” said Al.

Despite his Canadian background Al didn’t see an ice surface in the future of his five sons in hockey-mad Minnesota. Too expensive. Al told his boys he’d teach them to play outdoors, but the family could not afford to buy equipment for five boys.

Al has worked lived in Minneapolis twice, Maryland, Scranton, Pa. Farmington, N.M., near the Duane Ward statue and Tulsa three times.

Did he have trouble keeping a job.

Ah, it turns out he has been with Williams for 28 years. His company buys up other companies, Al goes in to assist with the transition and moves to the next place.

“We usually go to Miami for Josh’s first two starts, see maybe we see four or five a year,” said Al. “Being in Pennsylvania was ideal: two hours to Philadelphia, two hours to New York. I saw a lot more.”

Al, became a naturalized American citizen in 2003, and Bonnie will fly into Toronto April 3 for their son’s debut on the weekend against the Boston Red Sox.


* * *

Josh, one tall drink of water is the youngest -- and tallest of Al and Bonnie's five boys, born within eight years of each other.

The eldest, 6-foot-5 Ryan, works in video gaming technology in Nashville.

The 5-foot-10 Aaron is in his 13th year in the U.S. Navy and lives in Hampton, Va. He serves on the USS Enterprise and will soon be moved to the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

The 6-foot-2 Micah, same height as his father, lives in Minnesota working for a company which builds air traffic control console.

The 6-foot-5 Tyler is in Tulsa and has his own landscaping business.

And then there’s the baby Josh.

The five Johnsons, all grew up to to be good sons, and Al gives credit to Momma Bonnie. They have given their parents 12 grand kids, with Josh’s wife, Heidi, giving Al and Bonnie their first grandson.

“I wanted Josh to go to Oklahoma University,” said Al. “You never know about an injury. Josh was drafted and signed four days later. He wanted to pursue the pro path.”

Johnson, who received a $300,000 US bonus,  the best pick of the round, is prepping for his eighth season in the majors.

“It was great that the Marlins allowed him to come to the big leagues at 21,” Al said. “We thank the Marlins. This is going to be a big change, but a good opportunity for him.

“Scoring runs was a struggle with the Marlins,” said Al Thursday night after the Jays had put up a nine spot and six in the second against the New York Yankees for his son.

It won’t be like that any other night.

There was a time when all five Johnsons were playing ball: 280 games a year combined on their schedules. At age nine and 10 Al said Josh’s teams were playing 120 games a year.

“The first thing I wanted to teach them was that the team came first,” said Al.


* * *

Bonnie took Josh to a parade in 1987 -- the Minnesota Twins World Series celebration in 1987 after beating the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 and Josh fell in love with baseball. Kirby Puckett was his favourite player.

Four years later living in Oklahoma, his grandmother visited as the Twins met the Atlanta Braves in the 1991 Series. Again, the Twins won in Game 7.

Some dude named Jack Morris took the ball from manager Tom Kelly and would not give it back until the Twins had beaten the Braves 1-0 in 10 innings.

“We were in front of the TV cheering every pitch,” said Josh, proud member of Twins Nation.

Morris replaced Allan Ashby in the Jays broadcast booth.

“I met Jack this spring,” Josh said, trying not to sound excited.

And this year a full crowd of Johnson friends will be there as Johnson makes his first visit to Target Field.


* * *

Josh hasn’t been to his father’s home province.

“My four older brothers all made trips to Alberta, I didn’t get to see the mountains,” Josh said. “I’ve only been Toronto in 2009 with the Marlins.”

Johnson pitched a complete game, 11-3 win June 14, 2009 allowing seven hits and striking out six in a 119-pitch outing. The only Jays still here from that day are Adam Lind and Dirk Hayhurst.

Oh, and of course there was the Johnson’s December visit to Toronto.

No press conference.

Only a meeting with realtors.

They found a downtown condo.

“We liked the city,” the right-hander said. “We went for diner, people left us alone ... but when we left restaurants people would say ‘we’re excited to have you here.’”

There is more excitement at this time of year since the Jays gathered in 1994, set for a three-peat which never came.

The excitement level will go up a notch if fans see Johnson duplicate his 2010 season (11-6, 2.30, 186 strikeouts in 183 2/3 innings.)

Especially knowing his Canadian roots.


* * *

“If Josh Johnson is right,” said former Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, earlier this season at Bright House Field in Clearwater, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, “he’s as good as Justin Verlander.”

Halladay throws around compliments the way he allowed hits during his Cy Young award winning seasons.