Naval officer returns to active duty on diamond

Naval officer returns to active duty on diamond

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- Baseball's long had history with the United States military.

After all, Hall of Famers who served their country include Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Hoyt Wilhelm and Jackie Robinson. And that's just to name a few Major Leaguers with ties to the armed forces.

Yet in the 156-year history of the U.S. Naval Academy, it's never graduated a position player who made the Major Leagues.

Lt. Jonathan Johnston, however, is trying to break that mold, even if he knows it won't be easy.

After all, Johnston, 26, is just getting back into the game after spending the past four years on active duty with the Navy and being deployed three times.

He could have been spending that time in the A's organization -- he was drafted as a catcher by the club in the 42nd round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft -- but instead he was putting his leadership skills to a different use, earning a slew of honors, such as the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, along the way.

And even though his dream continued to be playing in the big leagues, Johnston said he has no regrets about attending the Naval Academy and serving his country in the years following graduation.

"The word regret doesn't even enter my mind," Johnston said. "I had great coaches at the Naval Academy and I got better there. It got me to where I am and made me a better person and a better leader."

Now, Johnston finally has his chance to reach his goal of getting to the Majors with the A's, as he's playing in the independent California Winter League in Palm Springs to get ready to attend Minor League Spring Training at the A's complex in Phoenix.

It's been a relearning process for Johnston after so much time away from the game, but he said he couldn't be any happier being back on a baseball field.

"It's just great being out here playing the game," Johnston said. "It's been a few years, but getting out here has been fun. It's the best way I can describe it. Just going back to into the routine is the hardest part. Playing baseball is fun no matter how hard it gets. I don't look at it as difficult -- I just look at it as fun."

It's easy for Johnston to think of baseball as a place of respite considering his journey after starring at the Naval Academy, where he batted .317 with 35 stolen bases as a senior in '06.

He was undrafted after that season but later worked out for A's scout Craig Weissman, who recommended his club to draft Johnston the following year. Johnston then had a chance to partake in Spring Training in 2008 after serving two years of active duty and achieved his dream of playing professional baseball when he was assigned to Class A Kane County (Ill.) of the Midwest League.

But after batting .228 with a .350 on-base percentage and 11 stolen bases in just 36 games, Johnston received a call that he had to leave early to report to San Diego for duty aboard the U.S.S. Peleliu.

His temporary status, which allowed him to play baseball after two years of active duty, was revoked after Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter issued a policy that required all Naval Academy midshipmen to fulfill their five-year active commitment.

Johnston tried the available avenues laid out by the Department of Defense to get back to his baseball career but was rejected four times. He took it in stride and graciously served his four years before leaving active duty a year early because he met the criteria and qualified based on service time.

He's now a member of the Individual Ready Reserve and is highly unlikely to see active duty while he serves out the rest of his mandatory eight years in the military upon graduation from the Naval Academy.

It was admittedly a struggle for Johnston, but he said he knew what he was getting into when he chose a free education at the Naval Academy after attending high school at Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J.

"The whole time I knew I had a commitment and was willing to fulfill it," Johnston said. "I signed my name to a piece of paper and I'm all about commitment. So when the Navy said I couldn't play, I couldn't play, and I served."

Now, Johnston can play and he's doing everything he can to try to make his mark with the A's organization despite turning 27 this month. His age means he'll have to advance quickly in the Minors, as the A's will want to test Johnston by starting him out in high Class A or Double-A, depending on how he does in Spring Training.

But the organization clearly hasn't given up on him, judging by his invitation to Spring Training and the fact that the scout who signed him, Weissman, arranged for Johnston to play in the California Winter League, which features more than 100 players and a dozen coaches.

The league is the perfect steppingstone for Johnston and many others to get ready for Spring Training, and so far, Johnston has been a hit in more ways than one. His leadership skills have shined through, and he also batted .385 with a triple through his first seven games.

"Anyone who's ever met [Johnston] just wants to root for him," league founder Andrew Starke said. "He's a quality guy. He's really excited to be out here from everything I've seen. I can't even imagine the kinds of things he's seen, but here he knows what he'll get every day. He'll get to play every day in sunshine and get to do what he really loves. So it has to be really satisfying for him, and for us it's great to watch."

Johnston's tools, which include a strong arm, speed and athleticism, have certainly impressed the coaching staff at the Winter League. And of course, he's not lacking in leadership, either.

"He's done well," said league instructor Dana Williams, who played in eight games with the Red Sox in 1989. "The catching and throwing came first. But he can run and he has some pop in his bat. The only thing is that he's 27, so he'll have to play in Double-A, but I think he can do it. To have a leader like him behind the plate is huge for a team. I know he'll be prepared."

Johnston's next step will be admittedly tougher against better competition in Spring Training and will only get more difficult from there, but for now, he is relishing his chance to finally live his dream.

"I can't wait," Johnston said. "It's going to be a challenge and it's going to be fun. Playing baseball every day -- you can't beat it. You just can't."

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.