March 16, 2011 Lefty Jay Johnson pulled on a Philadelphia Phillies uniform this week with all the rest of the minor leaguers in Clearwater, Fla.
Yes, he’d been 0-for-3 during previous drafts and workouts.
Johnson (Sussex Corner, N.B.) was drafted in the 26th round by the Toronto Blue Jays from the Texas Tech Red Raiders in June of 2010.
The Jays and their doctors did not like the looks of the bone chips in Johnson’s left elbow after an MRI.
Johnson was selected in the 25th round by the Baltimore Orioles from the Prairie Baseball Academy Dawgs in 2009.
The Orioles and their doctors did not like the looks of Johnson’s left elbow.
Baseball is a mistress like no other as former Montreal Expos scout Danny Menendez used to say, the way it can grab you heart.
So, this spring Johnson paid his own way to fly to Arizona.
Johnson worked out for the Mariners and was impressive.
The Mariners’ doctors didn’t like what they saw.
Blair Kubicek, who turns 63, is a baseball lifer. He’s played and coached across the country, down east, in Victoria, BC and 15 years at the Prairie Baseball Academy in Alberta.
“Jay called and said ‘it didn’t work out,’” said Kubicek. “He was pretty down.”
Kubicek knows people.
People know him.
They take him at his word.
Kubicek made a call to Clearwater, Fla. and Pat Gillick, former GM of the Blue Jays, Orioles, Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies, now an executive with the Phillies and slated to be inducted this July in Cooperstown along with Robbie Alomar and Bert Blyleven.
Kubicek made his best, most passionate plea, for the “most courageous player and one of the three best players he had ever coached.”
Gillick replied “you really like this kid, don’t you Kubie?”
The answer from Oyen, Alta. was a resounding yes.
“Tell your guy to stay put,” Gillick told Kubicek.
Johnson worked out for Phillies scouts in Arizona and Florida, impressed and was told he’d be given a contract.
Then he phoned his former coach.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been as emotional as I was when Jay called to tell me that someone was going to sign him,” Kubicek said. “Jay was on the other end of the line, almost in tears, but the old fart in Alberta? ... He was in tears.”
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Jay Johnson’s signing was not headlines in any of the Philadelphia papers.
Heck, it may not even make headlines in most Canadian cities.
But the Jay Johnson story is a good ‘un as they used to say on Gunsmoke.
The Phillies have RHP Scott Mathieson (Langley, BC) in camp. He’s battling for a spot after batting the hum-drum life of re-habbing from not one but two Tommy John surgeries.
Johnson has had one Tommy John operation where a ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body (the forearm, hamstring, knee, or foot of the patient), plus two other elbow operations.
He didn’t sign for six figures.
He may have signed for a red Phillies jacket and a pen.
Jay Johnson isn’t in it for the signing bonus.
All Jay Johnson wanted was a chance.
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Johnson wanted the chance so much he went into his own pocket to leave to east coast of Canada for Phoenix.
Les McTavish (Stettler, Alta.), Johnson’s former coach at Vauxhall Academy, set up the tryout through Mariners’ scout Wayne Norton (Port Moody BC).
Johnson drove from home to Bangor, Maine, flew to Philadelphia -- who knew it would be the destination he’d be shooting for years down the road -- and on to Phoenix.
He paid $500 for the one-way ticket.
He didn’t want to come back.
“I pitched well enough at the tryout, it seemed as if (the Mariners) wanted to sign me,” Johnson said from Clearwater. “I had no pain and was throwing fairly hard.”
Again Johnson failed the physical.
He phoned coach Kubie.
So, Kubicek, who met Gillick back in the 1990s during his five-year coaching stint at Edmonds Community College in Seattle, when the Vancouver-based National Baseball Institute came to visit.
“He still asks me about our starter that day -- Jason Rooker, from Everett, Wash. -- he saw him through the canteen window buying something from my wife, Anne,” Johnson said. “He even remembered the kid’s hometown. He only pitched an inning for us. What a memory.”
Who knows what Gillick thought when Kubicek called?
Gillick knew he was not hearing about the next Randy Johnson or Steve Carlton.
Gillick also knew who he was speaking with -- a trusted baseball lifer -- who would not stick out his neck unless he believed in someone.
“It’s a good thing I don’t have to give a 20-minute speech about Pat Gillick,” Kubicek said. “I’d be crying after two minutes.”
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A call was placed from Clearwater to Phillies scout Brad Holland in Arizona.
“The pitcher was in Peoria after working out for the Mariners,” Holland said. “The toughest thing on these short-notice workouts is finding a field and a catcher. I called my brother, after Pat and Benny Looper called, and told him we were coming to his high school team’s practice.”
Both Johnson and Holland headed for Mesquite High School in Gilbert, Az. ... home of the fighting Wildcats.
Johnston loosened up his arm playing catch with the high schoolers and ... “I could see from the outfield he had a special arm,” Holland said.
Johnson threw 20-to-25 pitches and was done.
Holland phoned Gillick in Clearwater, who no doubt was pacing as if waiting for a return call from Jim Turner, Joe Carter’s agent at Louisville’s Galt House during the 1992 winter meetings
For Gillick, it’s all about the thrill of the chase.
“I’m glad it worked out,” Holland said. “It’s a story of a guy finally getting his opportunity. He wanted a chance, a chance to live everyone’s dream.
“This shows if you’re persistent in what you believe in, it will come to pass,” Holland said. “He’s a type-A personality, very outgoing. He’s a guy who’ll have your back and you’ll have his.
“The ball came out of his hand easy at 92-93 MPH,” Holland said. “He throws with a low 3/4 with good movement. He’ll be real tough on left-handed hitters.”
Holland has been with the Phillies for four seasons after being a college coach with the McNeese State Cowboys -- where our first ever Canadian Player of the week pitched RHP Chris Howay (New Westminster, BC) pitcher -- and the University of Louisiania-Monroe Warhawks.
Holland signed OF Aaron Altherr, a ninth rounder, who was at Class-A Williamsport in 2010, and is ranked 10th over-all on the Phillies prospect list by Baseball America.
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After landing in Tampa and making the half-hour drive to Clearwater, it was audition time on a bullpen mound at the Carpenter complex in front of the Phillies brass:
Benny Looper and Chuck Lamar, assistant general managers; Dallas Green, senior advisor of the GM; super scout Charlie Kerfeld, scouting director Marty Wolever, Gillick and Holland watched Johnson’s bullpen.
“I was stoked, I threw first, I knew there wasn’t anything to worry about, I had a job on my father’s fishing boat to go back to, if it didn’t work,” Johnson said. “I knew I had stuff. Every team has wanted me until it reached the medical stage.”
Surgery may be down the road for Johnson.
If so, it will be No. 4.
His first came in 2003 as a 13-year-old when he had a surgery (“similar to Tommy John reconstruction”) at the Boston Medical Center.
Dr. James Andrews has written studies that Tommy John surgery has moved move the major leagues to the minors, to colleges, to high school and down to the first and second year teen-agers.
He spoke of mostly children pitching on four teams and playing year round in California, Texas, Florida and Georgia while throwing 1,000 innings a year.
How does a 13-year-old from New Brunswick with it’s short season need this kind of surgery.
“I was small for my age, maybe 5-foot-2, was throwing fairly hard and I threw on a few cold nights,” said the 6-foot-2 Johnson.
Then, in 2006 he had his second surgery “to clean out his elbow.”
Two years later, in Johnson’s first year at the PBA, Kubicek noticed that Johnson could not straighten his left arm from the earlier surgery in Boston.
Again, Kubicek callled Gillick, who set up an appointment with Dr. Lewis Yocum, in Anaheim.
“I remember Jay’s father saying ‘fix his arm, I don’t care if he ever pitches again,’” Kubicek said. “Pat phoned me back around 11 o’clock and it was set.”
Dr. Yocum and his staff looked over Johnson and diagnosed a bent-elbow syndrome.
“He was 83-84 MPH before the surgery and 91 his first time out after the surgery,” Kubicek said. “He had 12 K’s when we were at Southern Idaho. There were scouts there wondering if they should put him in as a first baseman or a left-hander. He could hit too.”
The fourth operation?
“I don’t think it’s needed, unless they think it’s necessary,” said Johnson. “It’s no secret I have some loose bone chips and spurs in there.”
Which reminds us of Frank Wills, former journeyman reliever, one spring day at Dunedin. Wills was leaning on a small tub which held bunches of bananas for players to eat.
Wills moved slightly and the top of the tube made a popping sound as it slid properly into the bottom of the tube.
“Just my right elbow, nothing to worry about,” Wills said jokingly.
A doctor could walk into any big-league clubhouse in September and find six or eight surgeries waiting to happen.
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In a way, this is a wonderful send-off for Kubicek, who ended his coaching career at the PBA after 15 years this summer. He built a new diamond for Doug Jones’ new Badlands Academy in Oyen. He’ll built three more diamonds in Okotoks for John Ircandia and then likely head east to his roots.
He has current PGA grads to follow in RHP Dustin Molleken (Regina, Sask.) and C Lars Davis (Grand Prairie, Alta.) are in the Colorado Rockies system and RHP Chris Kissock (Fruitvale, BC) is a fast riser in the Phillies system.
“Jay is the most courageous kid I’ve ever had in my whole coaching career, the best pure athlete we ever had a PBA and one of the best three I’ve ever coached,” Kubicek said. “I saw Steve Nash, he could really play hoops, but Jay is the second best point guard in Canada I’ve ever seen.”
Kubicek also coached Corey Dillon a running back with the Cincinnati Bengals and the New England Patriots, and Jerrod Riggan, dealt along with Robbie Alomar from the Cleveland Indians to the New York Mets in 2001, part of a seven-player deal. Riggan pitched in 67 games with the Indians and the Mets. Next came a stop in Japan, however, he wasn't the same after he was hit on the head with a line drive in the college championships.
Kubicek and his pop ran the first Esso gas station west of Toronto to sell a million gallons.
The year was 1961. The price was 26 cents a gallon.
“My father started a price war and it went down to 21 cents,” recalled Kubicek.
Bill Johnson is a sea captain fishing The Bay of Fundy. His elder son Aaron, former catcher for the University of Illinois Fighting Illini in 2010 will join him this year.
“The father said Jay was a real good worker on the boat too, when he wasn’t hanging over the side ... throwing up,” Kubicek said jokingly.
First, Kubicek coached Aaron at the PBA before he went on to Illinois. Jay came out for a couple of visits and enrolled at McTavish’s Vauxhall Academy Jets.
“Jay was an automatic recruit for me,” Kubicek recalls. “I knew the family.
“I compare him to John Rocker on the mound -- not off the field.”
* * *
The twitter world rejoiced with news of Johnson’s signing:
jonbrodyharris “Former minor ball opponent. Brawled with his older brother 2x.”
AlexSmyth “Reppin’ New Brunswick! MT”
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How competitive is the Johnson clan?
Kubicek tells his favorite story. We’ve heard it at least four times, but we ask him to re-tell it again.
Bill Johnson took his family on a sea cruise. He had his two teen-age boys, Aaron 15 and Jay 13, plus their grand parents.
In an effort to keep the boys out of trouble he signs them up for a 3-on-3 basketball tournament.
“The guy on the ship says ‘no no, no, you can’t have a 13-year-old in the tournament against men,’ so the pop says ‘I’ll sign a waiver, there won’t be any problems.’”
And there weren’t.
Team Johnson cruised into the final.
“I should tell you that their favorite coach of all time was Bobby Knight.” Kubicek said. “They’re winning and some guy gives Jay a smack under the boards.
“Next thing you know both Aaron and Jay are pounding on the guy -- Team Johnson got kicked out of the tournament.”
* * *
Now, Jay Johnson rises early and is in a Phillies uniform.
Why does he think he’s a minor-leaguer after being turned down by the Orioles, Jays and Mariners?
“I think it was more of a case where they thought I deserved an opportunity,” Johnson said.
Johnson credits two people for being influential and helping get to where he is this morning.
“My older brother, Aaron, taught me how to play the game,” Johnson said. “Coach Kubie taught me about how to be a man, how to compete.”
Kubicek signed with the Chicago Cubs and headed south in 1968 as a right-hander, injured his arm and went south the next spring as a third baseman with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He never made it north -- in a uniform.
Johnson has his own key to the PBA indoor facility and admits “it was my home” in 2008-09.
He worked out -- riding the bicycle rowing or lifting, going to classes, to practice, staying late after practice. He worked at PBA camps from teaching youngsters to grounds keeping.
“Kubie wanted this just as much as I did,” Johnson said. “Everything Kubie does is from the heart.”