Four years after his first opportunity to join a Major League Baseball organization, Sean Johnson had never pitched a professional inning. Searching for a home with an independent league team in New York, Johnson took a call at 1 a.m. Tuesday that changed his fortune.
Johnson, a native of Durango, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Houston Astros organization Tuesday. He boarded a plane for West Palm Beach, Florida, and joined up with the Gulf Coast League Astros of the Florida Rookie League.
“It felt really good getting that call,” the 6-foot-7, 230-pound right-handed pitcher said. “It was a lot of waiting. The draft didn’t work out for me. To finally get that call from the Astros while I was up in New York, it was exciting.”
Johnson attended Fountain Valley School of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He went to the private school looking to further his hockey career but discovered a love for baseball in the process. He had an offer from a Division III college in Wisconsin to play both sports at the next level, but a separated shoulder suffered his senior season led Johnson to pursue baseball and give up competitive hockey.
He signed with Iowa Western Junior College and helped the team to a national championship in 2014. After his freshman season in 2013, Johnson was drafted in the 31st round of the MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs. Instead of signing with the Cubs, he returned to Iowa Western in 2014 and helped the team win the title. After completing two years at the junior college level, he signed with the University of Mississippi to play baseball for the Ole Miss Rebels.
“I didn’t start pitching until my junior year of high school,” Johnson said. “I felt immature to the game and wanted to learn more, and I wanted to see if I could get drafted higher as I got older and continued with collegiate ball.”
Johnson’s parents, Lori and Michael, live in Durango. Lori is a math teacher at Durango High School and Michael is the owner of Four Corners Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Michael said he pushed his son to continue with his college career and wait on pro baseball.
“I’m the one who wouldn’t let him go,” said Michael. “I wanted him to go to college. I probably have more regrets than him after he didn’t get drafted, but he did graduate. Hopefully, that will translate into a front-office job or something after his baseball career is over.”
Johnson had the talent to be an MLB draft selection again, but an arm injury his junior year took him off of scouts’ radar. He needed Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. He took a medical redshirt and tried to come back a year later, but his return to the mound was premature, and Johnson suffered a setback. He made only 10 appearances that year and threw 32 2/3 innings to post a 3-1 record with a 4.96 earned-run average. Still, he posted impressive wins against second-ranked Louisville and retired 17 batters in a row in an outing against Cincinnati.
He came back for his senior season and appeared in seven games but only started three times. He posted a 1-1 record with a 4.76 ERA in 17 innings of work, and opposing hitters managed only a .217 average against him.
He finished his career with the Rebels with a 4-2 record with a 4.80 ERA, 29 strikeouts and 26 walks. Every Southeastern Conference game and every stadium he stepped into, Johnson was surrounded by the best of college baseball.
“Ole Miss was a lot of fun, I can’t lie about that,” Johnson said. “They have the best fans and are in the best conference in the nation. It was a big opportunity going down south and playing in the SEC coming from Durango.”
Through all the experiences, the Tommy John surgery followed Johnson everywhere he went. His velocity suffered, and that led to losing a starting job in the rotation.
“When everyone sees you had surgery, they knock you down a notch,” Johnson said. “Most guys don’t get that surgery until they’re in the pros. Everybody thinks Tommy John is some magical surgery, but really only like 30 percent of players come back to what they were or better to what they were before. It’s a big-time thing. For me, I gotta take the time and work until time catches up and my arm catches back up.”
Johnson’s tireless work ethic he developed since he was a 3-year-old running around in the yard helped him overcome that surgery that derails so many careers. His parents have watched him work back from the ailment with the same tenacity they saw from him at a young age.
“He is absolutely on a mission to be a full-time pro,” Michael said of his son. “I have no doubt he will be one of the hardest working guys on the team. When he was 12, he played at the field at Folsom Park baseball field, and I would have to drag him off the practice field when it got dark. He would stand at home plate and try to throw the ball over the center field fence, and he could do it. He never wanted to leave, and he’s been that kind of worker his entire life.”
Johnson has gotten a lot bigger through five years of college. He grew from his 6-6, 180-pound frame as a senior in high school to the 6-7, 230-pound force he is now. But it is the part of him that hasn’t grown that may continue to help him pitch after elbow surgery. His index finger on his throwing hand is shorter than it should be. His freshman year of high school, Johnson said he broke his hand on a growth plate. That abnormality helps him throw pitches with a lot of movement without generating a ton of torque on his elbow.
“The rest of my hand kept growing, but my pointer finger stopped growing,” he said. “So now my four-seam fastball actually releases off my hand like a cutter, and my cutter grip actually comes out like a slider. I can throw the crud out of those pitches.”
Johnson’s parents are ready to visit Florida and see their son pitch. They visited Mississippi four times and never got to see him pitch. He’s as anxious to earn a spot in the starting rotation as they are. Like all rookies, Johnson hopes this is the first step in a long road to the majors.
“I’m ready to get a feel for professional baseball, whether I’m a starter or a reliever,” he said. “I’ll work to get some velocity back, pound the strike zone and try to move up a level this summer if possible.”