In today’s game, the fireballers get all the attention as far as pitchers go. Finesse guys like the lifelong Brave Greg Maddux, an immortal Jamie Moyer, and one of the games winningest knuckleballers of all-time in Tim Wakefield aren’t a sought after commodity, sadly. They’re overshadowed by the athletes who pull their brims down low, stare intimidatingly at opposing batters, then rear back and let one fly at 101 MPH with the game on the line.
However, we should make an except for a soft throwing, but hard headed Brian Johnson.
The 27 year old was a heralded hurler in his late teens and early 20’s; he shares Florida Today’s Baseball Player of the Year honors with former home run and RBI champ Prince Fielder. Wright compiled an impressive resume both on the mound and at the dish, resulting in a 27th round draft selection by the Los Angeles Dodgers nine years ago. Johnson smartly choice to further his education, which led to the Sox exercising their first round pick for him in 2012 after graduating as a Gator. Sadly, following his drafting and a deserved $1.5M signing bonus, Johnson’s professional career would come to a screeching halt just a month after coming aboard the Sox organization, when a liner walloped off a bat and went straight into the pitcher’s face, smashing his orbital bones to pieces.
But a tragedy much worse than that was yet to be confronted and dealt with: anxiety.
Any sufferer knows the crippling affects anxiety can have, whether it be social or generalized. It can prevent a person from tasks as menial from answering a phone call, to something more daunting like giving a public speech. So try to imagine the barriers a professional athlete may have to hurdle, as they will inevitably find themselves standing –seemingly alone– amongst tens of thousands of spectators. Zack Greinke, for example, admitted that it plagued him in his early years as a Royal, yet he’s found a way to harness the mental health issue and has put together an outstanding career as a Dodger and Diamondback. So the roadmap to success is apparent, and Johnson just needed to find it himself. However, that was a challenge all within itself. The lefty ultimately left baseball for an extended period of time in mid 2015, to focus solely on his health; a decision that not everyone would be brave enough to make.
He went through his trials and tribulations, saying in an article for a former Boston Globe writer (and current disgraced WEEI co-host) that he couldn’t sleep, and had an awful temper with close family members. His joy for the game had dissipated, and the Florida native struggled to even talk to people, a byproduct of stepping away from one of his greatest passions, that being America’s Pastime.
However, Brian persevered. He found massive support within the Red Sox organization, coming from minor league teammates Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts, extending all the way to fans and friends on social media and in day to day life. After taking a hiatus to improve his condition by getting back to doing the things he loved, Brian felt that he was finally able to breath again. He restarted his journey all the way down the pipeline with the A-Ball Lowell Spinners, where he had garnered success as a 22 year old. While some players may have found themselves unmotivated or simply unhappy with a journey back to the single A depths, Johnson –like the late Roy Halladay once did– accepted the challenge, thrived, and proved himself ready to compete again.
Although he may have been viewed as a lost cause in the perception of the public, the Red Sox organization never gave up on the youngster. This ultimately culminated two years after removing himself from the great game of baseball, where he spun a May masterpiece against a tough Mariner lineup, going the distance in a complete game shutout while allowing just five singles, no walks, and eight punchouts. That game, Johnson threw just 24 balls compared to 85 strikes. He was finally resembling the fresh young arm the Red Sox scouting department and front office alike had bore witness to just a few years ago. The 6’4″ rookie’s talent was now shining brightly at the Major League level.
With a fresh season upon us, Brian Johnson is finally healthy; physically, but more importantly, mentally. And with the glimpse of dominance he shared with the Sox fanatics last year, the 27 year old southpaw is looking to lockdown the 5th spot in the rotation, with Rodriguez being out til at least May, Steven Wright possible facing a suspension, and Héctor Velázquez showing much more effectiveness out of the pen (10.1 scoreless innings) than as a starter (0-1, 5.02 ERA).
It’s been quite a battle for Brian. But the opportunity has presented itself for him to inject himself into the already solid starting rotation, and it’s time we see what the first round pick is capable of if he is indeed given the ball every fifth day.