Aaron, Alomar, Griffey, Alou, Boone, Niekro, Ripken. Baseball fans will recognize the connection between those names for having one or more family members making it to the major leagues and some even having the honor of playing together on the same field at the same time. Baseball is a sport that is known for its “family” spirit and can anyone forget the final scene of “Field of Dreams?” “Dad, wanna have a catch?”
Here in Adams County, there are family connections with baseball everywhere, especially with fathers coaching sons in the local Knothole ranks. In Peebles, there is a family that definitely has baseball running in their blood. Judd Johnson and his two sons, 18-year old Brady and 10-year old Brock, are living the father-son baseball dream.Judd is a 1984 Peebles graduate who spent eight years as a southpaw pitcher in the minor leagues with the Braves and Twins, son Brady recently graduated from Peebles High School and will be taking his talents to the mound at Otterbein College, while son Brock is just getting started, having just finished a season of “C” league baseball with his Dad as his head coach.
In an interview with The People’s Defender last week, the three Johnsons sat down to discuss baseball and family, and their memories of the game to this point in their lives.
“My first memory of baseball was being on an undefeated team when I was seven years old,” said Brock. Playing tee-ball at six years old was the first time Brady could recall being on the field and for Judd can go back further than that.
“I was four years old and not old enough to play yet,” recalled the elder Johnson. “They let me on the team in Peebles anyway. I couldn’t catch real well, but I could hit.” Judd is carrying on another tradition in his family as his own father coached him until he got to the equivalent of what we refer to as “A” ball today.
Judd Johnson has one of the best baseball histories to tell here in Adams County, from Knothole ball in Peebles to Triple AAA ball in the minor leagues.
“I was always a pitcher as far back as I can remember,” said Johnson. “After my junior year of high school, I played Legion Ball in Portsmouth and then after high school went to play at Wilmington College.” After his sophomore year at Wilmington, the head coach there got the head coaching job at the University of Cincinnati, and Johnson followed him to the Queen City for his final two years of college for Division I baseball.
The scout that spotted Johnson on the mound is a familiar name in Cincinnati sports circles, though perhaps not for baseball. Hep Cronin, father of present-day UC head basketball coach Mick Cronin, was a scout for the Atlanta Braves and saw Johnson pitch and though Johnson was not drafted, he signed as a free agent one day and the next day he was on a plane to Idaho to the Braves’ Rookie League team.
He spent seven years pitching in the Braves minor league system, going 1-4 with a 4.60 earned run average in that first year of rookie ball in Idaho Falls and then improving to 6-2 with a 1.74 ERA in his next year, that being with the Durham Bulls. Johnson’s minor league pitching spanned those seven years with the Braves and ended with a stint in Salt Lake City with the Twins AAA club.
“I got called in one day in Salt Lake City and they just told me they were going to release me,” said Johnson. “I came home and I was kind of bitter for awhile and had a couple of other opportunities but I just decided that it might be time to look for a real job.”
In that time in the minors, Judd found himself staring down some of the biggest names in baseball, saying that he faced such future major leaguers as Derek Jeter, Frank Thomas, Alex Rodriguez, and Jim Thome. His list of teammates is impressive also, including Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez, Mark Wohlers, and Chipper Jones.
“Being from Adams County and getting to travel all over and see a lot of things I would never have gotten to see in my life is an experience I will never forget.”
Though the career may not have ended in the fashion that he may have liked, Johnson did bring home one treasure from his time on the road, his wife Stacey, who is of Canadian descent.
“We were playing in Ottawa and happened to be at a restaurant where we met and it just sort of took off from there. That was in 1993 and we got married in the fall of 1994.”
That combination of a Canadian lady and a Peebles man produced the two sons, who have both now had the same experience that their father had, that of having “Dad” as a baseball coach.
“It’s pretty cool that my Dad was playing for the Atlanta Braves and now he is coaching me,” said Brock. “I just hope I can follow in his footsteps.”
Brady, the oldest son, is a bit more philosophical about the Dad-son coaching relationship
“To be honest, says Brady, when I was younger I always heard that I was only getting to play because your Dad is the coach and that kind of bothered me but I knew I was playing because I was good enough and he often reassured me of that.”
“It was fun playing for him but it was hard at times because he expected a little more out of me. All in all, it was a fun experience. I learned just to roll with the punches.”
“It wasn’t fun for Brady at time I know,” said Judd. “Dads are naturally a little harder on their own than everybody else and I’m hard on Brock too but I am a little older and perhaps a little wiser and maybe learned after Brady that I should back off and just let Brock have a little more fun. It’s a learning experience for me too.”
“It’s been hard on Brady being compared to me sometimes but I honestly tell him that at this stage he is better than I ever thought about being. It’s been good for him in the way that I have been there, done that, and I can try to help him avoid some of the same mistakes I made.”
No matter what facet of life it involves, a father tries to impart lessons to his children and in the Johnson’s case, both sons can express what they have learned from their father.
“Work hard,” says Brock, keeping the lesson simple. “I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned playing for Dad is to just have fun out there,” says Brady. “It’s not a game if you are not having fun.”
“I’ve always told Brady when he is out there pitching to just worry about what he can control,” said Judd.
For any father or mother even in any sport, it is always a special privilege to be able to coach your own child, though it takes an extreme commitment of time and effort.
“For me, it gives me the opportunity to spend more time with my boys,” says Judd. “It’s something that I love doing and that they have grown to love doing and it’s just watching them mature and get better and know that they can go out and execute something that we have worked on in practice. It’s just that feeling and for me being around baseball all my life and being able to share that has been the most special thing.”
When asked for parting advice for the Dads out there who are coaching their sons, Judd had a simple reply.
“Just let them have fun. That’s the most important thing. If you make a commitment to play something, they need to go full out and give it all you got. Make sure they learn fundamentals and have fun. It happens fast so take the time to enjoy it.”
Mark Carpenter can be reached at 937-544-2391 or on Twitter @adamscosports.