By Steve Robinson | February 17, 2019 - 10:54 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Upon finding out that Major League Baseball pitching coach Derek Johnson was coming to speak to his teammates and baseball fans earlier this month, University High sophomore pitcher McCallan Conklin said he wanted to hear how Johnson got into the majors. Junior shortstop Jacob Mote said he wanted to hear Johnson speak about what attention players should give concerning caring for their arms.

Pioneers senior pitcher Jack Sauser wanted to hear Johnson speak about how Johnson teaches pitching, first at the college level, and now in coaching pros. Sauser has aspirations to getting to the pros himself someday.

Yet, when Conklin, Mote, Sauser, and members of U-High’s baseball’s four grade levels and 300 plus guests filed into Ruth A. Stroud Auditorium to hear Johnson, a 1989 U-High grad and 1994 Eastern Illinois University grad, speak to those assembled, they found he spoke not just about how to handle situations in baseball, but how what they learn from being in the game can be carried over into everyday situations.

Johnson has coached at both the college and major league level, beginning his coaching career in 2002 at Vanderbilt University for 11 seasons before entering the pro coaching ranks, first in the Chicago Cubs minor league system from 2013-15. From there, he went to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2016 where he spent three seasons. This year, he is taking his coaching talents to guide the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff.

He started by saying teams that to compete and succeed well have a number of elements. First off, he said, the players find “they found joy in competing in the game, and they found joy in working with each other.” He said the teams he was part of “competed in everything they did, whether it was on the field, in the weight room, in the classroom.”

“Baseball is a hard game,” Johnson said. “You have to take the small moments where you are successful and use those. But you also have to get through some of the tougher moments. While there are some individual moments for players, the team will make you better, and that’s how you have to look at it.”

There were 14 keys to how players could improve, and they weren’t solely related to baseball, Johnson said. First on that list was ceasing spending time with what he termed “the wrong people” – those he defined “take the happiness out of you.”

“You guys all have strengths and you have some weaknesses, too,” Johnson said, addressing the players, who all wore their jerseys, each a different shade of the school’s green and gold colors to denote which of the four school year teams they play for. “Take your strengths and try to become a great player using those strengths. Don’t worry about your weaknesses.” He said most people will find that logic “counterintuitive,” but Johnson said he wanted the boys to keep their strengths in mind as a means of succeeding in the game.

He also said players tend to live in the past because if they have a bad outing, it gets relived. Johnson advised the boys to try not to hang on to the past. “You have to get to a point where, no matter what happens in a game, you can say, ‘So What? Next pitch.’ If you’re really a good team and you’re really a good player, you don’t need that bad pitch. Being a good baseball player is about having a short memory.” He said if a team can collectively take that approach, they will win games.

From a personal point of view, Johnson, who never played professionally, told the gathering that when he went from college coaching to being a coach in the pros, at first with the Brewers, he put his concerns aside and asked himself, “Why not me for a first pro coaching job?” He said the kids should also ask themselves as a team, “why not us?” as a means of thinking in order to succeed over the course of a season.

About making it to and coaching in the majors, “I pinch myself all the time because of how awesome this is,” Johnson explained to the gathering. The lesson there, he said, is that the high school players should remember to take in the memories of being part of the team.

He said he wanted the kids to think in terms of a formula they should use throughout their lives to handle situations not just related to baseball. The formula is E + R = O, or Events that happen plus Response to those events equals Outcome. Depending on how they respond to an event determines the outcome of the situation, he explained.

Johnson’s last piece of advice to the players was “Stop being ungrateful,” he said. “Better yet, be grateful. I’m not saying you guys are ungrateful.” He said compared to people who face physical or personal issues, the players should realize they ought to be grateful for the things they do have.” He suggested the boys give a quick “thank you” their parents for helping them so they can play baseball. “A quick ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ goes a long way,” he added.

On a lighter note, Johnson, author of “The Complete Guide To Pitching” told the players, “You guys have really cool uniforms. We had really bad uniforms when I was here. We looked like the 1976 Oakland A’s.” It was a comment that produced a few chuckles.

“Looking back at Derek as a teammate, you saw his coaching ability,” explained Steve Schulz, a former U-High teammate of Johnson. “He was a coach, even as a teammate. He was the guy who kept everyone out of trouble, kept you level headed, and made sure to tell you positive things, telling you things to help you out. He was a great teammate to have.” Schulz now lives in Lake Geneva, Wis., but came back to his alma mater to visit with and hear his old friend.

“I think Derek would be the first one to tell you he’s always had a passion for coaching,” stated Schulz, now a regional manager for a building materials manufacturer.

“Some people are given the ability to throw at 95 miles an hour, and if he could have thrown 95 miles an hour, he’d probably have been in the major leagues,” Schulz added in talking about his friend. “He knew his limitations and what he did was take his abilities and one of those abilities is to make the difficult seem very simple.”

The “Day At The Ballpark” event Johnson spoke at was a fundraiser for U-High’s baseball program, put together by team parents. Money collected at this event will go to equipment and expenses involved in a spring trip the Pioneers varsity team will take over spring break to a tournament in Sanford, Fla. sponsored by Florida Collegiate Scouting League.

“Derek can give our guys an understanding about the type of work ethic it takes to become great in this game,” said U-High varsity team head coach Steve Paxson. “He’s a large name in the game of baseball and hopefully, our guys will be able to understand a little bit more of what it takes to get to the pro level.”

It should be noted this event was held on Super Bowl Sunday. But considering the weather we had for much of the month of January, and now February, the thought of spending a day watching baseball seems a welcome relief to get us ready for the upcoming season. I also believe U-High’s players, coaches, and fans welcomed the chance to look ahead to the upcoming season, just as Johnson does once he starts coaching in the Queen City.

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