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Baltimore Orioles' Pitcher Jim Johnson

Aug 12, 2013 10:28AM ● By Cate Reynolds

By Tom Worgo

Talk about taking advantage of an opportunity. Jim Johnson got a big one last year when the Orioles named him their closer at the start of the 2012 season. It marked his first shot at finishing games for an entire season. Johnson certainly made the most of it. He went on to save a Major League-leading and franchise-record 51 games. His stellar season earned him a spot on the American League All-Star Team.

The 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound Johnson finished the year with a 2.49 ERA in 71 appearances.

Prior to 2012, he had been relegated to a setup role for most of his Orioles career. That changed when he took the closer’s job from Kevin Gregg in the second half of 2011. Johnson’s road to the big leagues was a long one. He labored in the minors for seven years before making his Major League debut in 2006. Johnson, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., in the offseason, also leads a productive and meaningful life off the fi eld. He devotes a lot of his time to charity work, and as a teenager, he served six years as a volunteer firefighter in the tiny upstate town of Endicott, N.Y. We recently caught up with Johnson during an early season home stand vs. the Dodgers.

You spent seven years playing in the minor leagues. Did you wonder if you were going to make it the big leagues?

Yeah, I thought about it a lot. There were times I thought about not continuing to play. But I just had to give it everything I had while I had the opportunity. And I did.

When Orioles manager Buck Showalter first came to watch you pitch at Double-A Bowie on a rehab assignment in August of 2010, was it true he didn’t know who you were?

Buck said that is not true [laughing], but I remember someone distinctly telling me that he asked, “Who is Jim Johnson?” They told him to look at the guy wearing his pants down [to his shoes]. I was sitting in the bullpen. He had no idea who I was.

How would you describe your relationship with Buck?

I feel I have a good relationship with him. He knows what I bring to the table and I know what he brings to the table. As far as a manager, he has a great baseball mind because he is not complacent with the standard way to do things. He is always trying to improve himself and his understanding of the game. I try to learn from him and maybe one day I will be trying to teach people, too.

You had a breakout season last year, saving 51 games and making the All-Star Team. What did it mean to you to play in the All-Star Game in Kansas City and what was it like for you emotionally?

It was obviously a big highlight in my career. It was fun. It wasn’t something I set a goal to get to. I just looked at it as a bonus and something I enjoyed doing. It reminded me of how I felt when I made my debut. Just that nervous energy, like in the first pitch there. But after that, it was pretty easy. But I enjoyed the playoffs a lot more than the All-Star Game. I will tell you that. It was a great atmosphere. Everybody that was here last year is looking forward to that again.

How grueling is the travel for a 162-game schedule? Do you have to be mentally tough for it or has it become routine?

After having done it for so long now, I would rather fl y on a team flight any day than take a 14-hour bus ride like I did in the minors. You have to remember the things you have done before. You get used to the Major League travel and your family gets used to it. It’s a lot of different cities and a lot of different time zones.

You were a volunteer firefighter before baseball. How did you get involved in that?

A couple of my buddies joined so I decided to join with them. It was an interest of mine. There are a lot of similarities between what happens in a baseball clubhouse and what happens in a fi rehouse. There’s a lot of fraternal partnerships that go along with that.

What did you do as a firefighter? Could you see yourself doing that if you hadn’t played baseball?

I did pretty much did everything. I was also an EMT. The most common calls were car accidents and medical emergencies. Those are the things I saw the most. You saw some fi res here and there, but nothing too crazy. I’m not sure what my career path would have been without baseball. But yeah, I’d be doing something like that.

What kind of charity work have you devoted your time to?

I work a lot with a baseball league for handicapped and disabled people. There’s also a challenger league here, which is pretty much the same thing. There’s a group back in my hometown of Endicott called SCORE and they are trying to rebuild a hockey rink that has been nonexistent in the county since probably 2005. There’s a military program here with the Wounded Warriors that involves Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] patients. This year, I am doing stuff with Baltimore firefighters.