- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 3, 2011

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.”

Back in the office, Mr. Johnston sorted through reality with Keith Lieppman, the Athletics‘ director of player development.

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 temporary duty that allowed Mr. Johnston to play baseball ended after then-Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter upheld the five-year active-duty mandate for Naval Academy graduates.

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.

“It’s out of my control,” said Mr. Johnston, whose Naval Academy appointment eased the financial burden of college on his family.

“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.

Requests to return to baseball went nowhere until last year, when he was released from active duty eight months early. Mr. Johnston had stopped thinking of baseball as an option. The Athletics had grown accustomed to Mr. Johnston’s on-again, off-again career. They retained his rights and invited him to spring training. When he wavered, Mr. Johnston’s parents, Karl and Glory, insisted he’d regret not playing.

This April, Mr. Johnston played eight games with the Single-A Stockton (Calif.) Ports. Seven hits in 22 at-bats followed. But Mr. Johnston was soon exiled to Arizona to clear roster space.

Consistency was the toughest part of returning. He struck out too much. He just missed pitches he used to smack. Throwing and blocking pitches behind the plate didn’t come back easily, either. All of it frustrated Mr. Johnston, accustomed to playing at a high level.

“Baseball is a game of repetition,” he said. “I have the tools to play. I just don’t have the tools and the time and the experience playing. That’s how you refine yourself.”

So, three weeks ago, Mr. Johnston found himself deep in conversation with Mr. Lieppman, a 41-year veteran of the Athletics organization. The catcher was in an awkward position, Mr. Lieppman acknowledged, with more touted or more compensated prospects ahead of him in the organization. Mr. Johnston was the oldest player at the facility. He was also, Mr. Lieppman said, the most dedicated and hardest-working.

“In my mind, he has so much more to offer,” Mr. Lieppman said. “It seemed to be lost playing in Arizona for the short term. If he was able to take his passion and enthusiasm for baseball and apply it in a different way, it would benefit him and others a whole lot better.”

The next day, Mr. Johnston retired.

But he hasn’t surrendered baseball. Mr. Johnston, finished with active duty but in the Individual Ready Reserve, lives in San Diego and wants to coach college baseball. He’s excited about that. This is where he can lead, where he can impact lives. Mr. Johnston applies for assistant coaching jobs, studies for the Graduate Record Exam and tries to build a client base to teach baseball at local batting cages.

There isn’t a trace of regret in his voice.

“I don’t see how I could be bitter,” Mr. Johnston said. “I chose to go to the Naval Academy. … I knew there was a commitment. I did everything by the book to try and get out of it. … It got taken away from me. They made the decisions.

“But whatever life presents to you, you’ve got to be the best at whatever you’re doing.”

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