The question pounded through Jonathan Johnston’s head as he sat in an office at the Papago Park Baseball Facility in Phoenix three weeks ago.
What am I going to do?
That wasn’t so different from the question that stalked the 2006 Naval Academy graduate around the world over three deployments with the Navy. Each mile cruised on the USS Peleliu and USS Curts pulled him further from his professional baseball career in the Oakland Athletics organization.
At first, Mr. Johnston’s catcher’s mitt, bat and Wiffle balls came along. But as the miles piled up - from the Persian Gulf to the South Pacific to the Gulf of Aden and a hundred other spots - so did the denials by the Department of the Navy to his four requests for an early exit from active duty to play baseball. Hope teased him, then faded. The glove and Wiffle balls finally stayed home.
“I have no shot,” Mr. Johnston recalled thinking. “There’s no way they’re going to consider me coming back and playing.”
Twenty-seven-year-olds don’t normally play in the Arizona Rookie League, where Mr. Johnston was assigned. This is baseball’s lowest rung, where just-drafted teenagers or prospects up from the Dominican Republic are indoctrinated in the game’s basics. There wasn’t another spot for the left-handed hitting catcher in the Athletics‘ organization. He could earn $1,500 a month to play 11 a.m. games in empty stadiums a world away from the big leagues. Or he could walk away.
“You’re like a CEO,” Mr. Lieppman told him, “doing an entry-level job.”
Mr. Johnston’s baseball dream didn’t always feel this tenuous. The Athletics drafted him in the 42nd round in 2007, after he had played on the Midshipmen baseball team but when he was aboard the amphibious-assault ship USS Peleliu. A lieutenant, Mr. Johnston was the ship’s gunnery officer, in charge of weapons, including its five .50 caliber machine guns.
When the Navy allowed Mr. Johnston to pursue baseball in 2008, he joined the Kane County (Ill.) Cougars, a Single-A affiliate of the Athletics. Thirty-six games in, Johnston had a .350 on-base percentage, 11 stolen bases and orders. In five days, they said, you need to rejoin the USS Peleliu in Bahrain.
The change left Mr. Johnston reeling. He ran his division on the ship like a baseball or football team. He wondered how to lead, while pushing the ache of not playing professional baseball to the back of his heart and mind.
“That’s the toughest part of this whole thing. All this has been out of my control. Even in baseball,” said Mr. Johnston, who had four younger siblings back in Trenton, N.J.
Some moments cut through the tedium of life at sea, like the USS Peleliu breaking up a pirate attack on a merchant ship, the Gem of Kilakari, in the Gulf of Aden on Aug. 10, 2008.