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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.”