PCL: Bees’ Johnson managing nicely, thank you
By Steve Luhm | The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Sep 03 2013 12:23PM
Little did Keith Johnson know, when he came to Utah for the final two seasons of a 12-year professional baseball career, his life would change forever.
Johnson played for the Salt Lake Stingers in 2002 and 2003, during which time he, one, met his future wife and, two, decided on his future profession — coaching.
Today, Johnson is a decade into his second career.
He manages the Bees, who Wednesday night open the Pacific Coast League playoffs against Las Vegas at Spring Mobile Ballpark.
As a young player trying to navigate baseball’s food chain, Johnson could not have imagined such a scenario.
In those days, when he thought about coaching, Johnson envisioned how upset he’d be if his players didn’t take the game as seriously as he did.
"I worked very hard at my craft," said Johnson, who doubted he had the patience for the job.
"The expectations I had for myself weren’t the same expectations everybody has for themselves. I thought I would get frustrated — or I would frustrate the players. I didn’t think it would work."
Johnson reconsidered during his two seasons in Salt Lake, when youngsters like Chone Figgins and Alfredo Amezaga often turned to him for advice and instruction.
Many times, Johnson acted as a buffer between manager Mike Brumley and unhappy young players who somehow thought their careers were being held back.
"Guys would get a little frustrated sometimes because they didn’t know why Brumley was doing what he did," Johnson said. "I’d sit down, talk to them and explain the situation, the best I could."
Players like Figgins and Amezaga were "more talented than I was, obviously," he said. "But I think I helped them and I thought, ‘If guys that age are comfortable listening to me, maybe there’s something to this coaching thing.’"
Veteran Bees’ broadcaster Steve Klauke believes Johnson made a good career choice.
"His strength as a manager is his relationship with the players," Klauke said. "He knows the trials and tribulations they’re going through because he did the same thing."
Johnson, 42, was raised in central California. At Hanford High School, he was the quarterback in football, the point guard in basketball and the shortstop in baseball — his first love.
"I had a passion for it," Johnson said. "I’ve always been a baseball rat."
Growing up with four older brothers was a challenge. Many times, Johnson didn’t get picked to play in neighborhood pickup games because that’s how one brother, Henry, wanted it.
"I’d sit and sit and go get the foul balls and hope someone had to go home before we ran out of daylight, so I could get an at-bat," Johnson said.
"... Henry was tough on me. He said he did all that stuff to make me tougher, but I think he was tough on me just to be tough on me."
In 1992, Johnson was drafted by the Dodgers. He needed surgery on his arm after his first season, however, and getting to the major leagues proved to be an arduous journey.
It finally happened in April of 2000. Johnson was playing in Edmonton when the Angels called.
"Really surprised," he said. "We’d only played two games because we kept getting snowed out and I didn’t play in either one. So, yeah, surprised. Earth-shattering. Awesome. I can’t explain the emotion I felt at the time."
Johnson’s stay with the Angels lasted a month. He batted four times and got two hits — both in Toronto.
"The first one was an 0-1 splitter off John Frascatore to left," Johnson said. "The second one was a first-pitch fastball away from David Wells that I hit right back at him. It went off his glove."
After the final two seasons in Salt Lake, which is now his full-time home, Johnson became the Bees’ manager in 2010. This season, he was named the PCL’s Manager of the Year for leading Salt Lake into the playoffs.