Sargent Johnson instilled many lessons in his son regarding hard work, dedication and determination, but he also passed along something else that Deron still carries with him in his job today. And that's a passion for the game of the baseball.
As MLB.com celebrates Black History Month, we will tell the stories of influential African-Americans throughout the game of baseball. Today we'll explore Johnson's story, from his days of playing Little League under his father's tutelage to making a move into a scouting role and eventually emerging as the man in charge of the Twins' scouting department.
The love of baseball is something that Deron Johnson, 44, remembers having from an early age, with his first real memory coming when he was 7 years old and hoping to play Little League for the first time. His father had to work on Saturdays in the shoe repair shop, so Deron's uncle took him to sign up instead.
But when the two arrived to the tryouts, they learned that Deron didn't meet the age requirement for his Little League. His birthday was in October and the cutoff was sometime in August.
"I went back to my father's shop and I was bawling," Johnson said. "My father said to me, 'Son, you'll just have to wait until next year.'"
That very next year, Sargent Johnson was with his son for his first Little League season. While Deron's mother, Dolores, was there watching all of his games, Sargent Johnson coached Deron's teams for the next few years, stopping when Deron advanced to Babe Ruth League baseball at age 13. He was a demanding coach, but he impressed his players by beating them in sprints at the end of every practice.
Along the way of teaching the game that he loved, Sargent Johnson led his Little League teams to two city championships. He also helped to coach a few future Minor League players, including his son, as well as one Major Leaguer -- Tony Longmire -- who played parts of three seasons with the Phillies.
"He touched the lives of many young African-American boys from Vallejo in the late '70s and early '80s," Johnson said. "He was a really good coach. Tony still mentions to me that my dad was the best coach he ever had. He really taught us the game and was passionate about it."
That's not to say that baseball was always Deron's first love. As he was growing up, Johnson was better known throughout his hometown as a basketball player. He even skipped his junior year of high school baseball to concentrate on basketball. But soon Deron realized that was perhaps a mistake.
"After basketball season in my senior year, I realized that this probably wasn't going anywhere," Johnson said. "I was a 6-foot-2 guard and so I decided to go back to baseball."
Johnson was accepted to St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., and he made the baseball team as a walk-on. He played four seasons there, primarily as an outfielder, and although he went undrafted following his senior year in 1988, he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent. But in July 1990, with less than three full Minor League seasons, Johnson was released by then Pirates farm director Chuck LaMar.
The possibility of becoming a scout was first planted in Johnson's mind during the 1992 baseball season. He had traveled to nearby Candlestick Park in San Francisco to watch Will Pennyfeather, his former roommate from the Minor Leagues who had just been called up to the Pirates. When Johnson was waiting to see Pennyfeather, Pirates assistant GM Cam Bonifay stopped to chat, having remembered him from his playing days with the organization. He asked Johnson whether he was interested in scouting.
But Johnson wasn't sure he was quite ready to return to the sport.
"I was still bitter, because I think every released player doesn't feel that they got a fair shake," Johnson said. "I said, 'Nah, I think I will probably do some other stuff, but I appreciate it.' Two years later, Vern Followell hired me as an area scout for the Twins."
Prior to joining the Twins, Johnson spent a little over a year as an assistant coach with the University of San Francisco. He was in charge of recruiting, although it was a limited role since the team had only two scholarships. But Johnson realized quickly that he had discovered a new love.
"I liked that part of the job -- going out to games and seeing who would fit us," Johnson said. "We couldn't get the same player that a Cal or a Stanford or a Santa Clara could get. We would have to get the guy that we could project on and where you'd think, 'This guy might be good in two years.' I liked that part of it more than hitting infield [practice] to guys or throwing batting practice and all of that. I loved being away from the field, and recruiting was my niche."
"Sometimes I have to pinch myself and remind myself that I watch baseball games for a living. I'm so fortunate that I love what I do."
-- Twins scouting director |
While Johnson was still in his coaching role, the Northern California area scout position opened up with the Twins. A
few of the local scouts in the area recommended Johnson to Followell, who is now Minnesota's pro scouting coordinator. Johnson acknowledges that at the time, the Twins were looking for minority candidates for the job and he took advantage of the opportunity. He was hired as the area scout in January 1994.
Johnson had many mentors in the Twins organization, including then-general manager Terry Ryan, then-scouting director Mike Radcliff and Followell. But one of Johnson's early influences in scouting was Jim Guinn, who was an old-time scout who worked part-time for the Oakland A's. Guinn had signed Rickey Henderson and Claudell Washington, and at a time when there were few of the old-school scouts left in the game, he took the time to help Johnson learn the ins and outs of the business.
"[Guinn] was just a great man and gave me a lot of pointers on not just scouting, but life in general," Johnson said.
Johnson moved on to become the Twins' West Coast scouting supervisor in 1998, and in 2007, he was promoted to director of scouting. Now as one of the few African-American scouting directors in the game, Johnson hopes to be a strong example to others in his field.
"There is a lot of pressure," Johnson said. "You've got to make sure you do the right thing and make the right choices. You have to be a good person and work hard -- show up early and leave late -- if you are going to be an example, not only to the younger minority scouts in the industry but also to my kids as well. I've been given a great opportunity and I don't want to let down those who provided me with that chance."
Johnson is entering his fourth season as Minnesota's director of scouting and his 18th in the Twins' organization. He said that he's blessed to be a part of an organization where longevity is the standard and the scouting department is known for its continuity. With every year, Johnson said he is growing in his role as scouting director -- overseeing a 27-man scouting staff and running the team's First-Year Player Draft every June as he tries to keep the Twins' Minor League system stocked with talent.
His father was the one who helped push Deron to believe that anything was possible, and now he's trying to instill those same lessons into his four children. Perhaps his own career path is the best example of that.
"It's an incredible dream come true," Johnson said of where his career has taken him. "The travel gets old, staying at a different hotel every night. Once April starts, I'll be hopping on different flights every day. But sometimes I have to pinch myself and remind myself that I watch baseball games for a living. I'm so fortunate that I love what I do."