BRIDGEWATER — Two years ago, Cody Johnson was an Eastern League All-Star, and seemed to be on the right track with the Yankees organization after the first-rounder was dealt from Atlanta.
Now, after being released by New York earlier this season after struggling at Triple-A Scranton, the 24-year-old again finds himself looking for a job after getting let go by the independent Atlantic League’s York Revolution on Wednesday. Johnson wasn’t in the lineup yesterday, and a trip down to the clubhouse to catch up with him yielded the unexpected vision of him in street clothes with his bag packed while his now-former teammates were getting ready for that night’s game.
Despite struggling to a .162 batting average since July 3 (6-for-37 with 20 K’s), he was still hitting a healthy .268 on the season, complete with 10 home runs and 29 RBI in his first 47 games with the club. It was a bizarre move, but one that allows the slugger to find the situation that’s best for him. Clearly, nothing that’s happened this year would fall under that category.
“My words (to describe this season), you can’t say them on tape,” he said.
“It’s been crazy. I started out and felt like I was in a good situation; I felt like I earned a job in Triple-A with the Yankees, and the Yankees were always good to me. I spent two and a half years there, and I felt like they gave me an opportunity. But, what you realize is once you get to Triple-A, it really becomes a business. You’re at that one last step before you get to the big leagues, and they need guys there that are ready to play, and ready to contribute in New York. And that’s different than contributing in say Oakland, Houston, different markets.
“They need guys in Triple-A that can play, and unfortunately for me, I didn’t get that opportunity to play every day. I was DH’ing three-four days a week and splitting a job with Luke Murton, and he ended up getting his release a month later. And they brought in guys who had been in the big leagues and had some time, and with the injuries they’ve had, they felt like they needed guys that could play and contribute right now in the big leagues instead of guys who were still developing. I happened to be the odd man out, but I appreciate them giving me my release instead of just leaving me sitting around.”
The first phone call Johnson got after that came from York. He showed up on May 20 and took a while to get going, but hit home runs in three straight games at the end of June and seemed to be a key contributor for a Revolution team that was trying to make a second half playoff push. But his July struggles saw him fall out of favor, and anyone who’s covered Johnson long enough knows that he needs to be in the lineup every day to emerge from his strikeout-heavy slumps.
“You need to be able to play,” he said.
“The select few guys can pinch-hit and sit on the bench and then the one, two days a week they play and come out and hit. Personally, I’m not one of those people. That’s not me, I need at-bats every single day, so here in York, it was kind of a similar situation. We signed more guys, they had some older guys come in, and now I’m an odd man out. But I want to keep playing baseball, I love doing it. If I want to keep doing it, I need to find somewhere with at-bats.”
While the numbers certainly weren’t there in Scranton for the affable Florida native — .167/1/4 in 18 games — that certainly wasn’t the case when he found a different Pennsylvania home this season. His ten home runs were good for second on the team, and he’s been left to have a “what am I doing wrong” sort of feeling now that he’s looking for his third team on the year.
“I know who I am, but you just realize that baseball is a business,” he said.
“Every team goes through changes, and you learn that a little bit more in Indy ball, because it’s about winning. We haven’t been winning lately, and you don’t have a minor league system where you can call guys up and switch things around, so your only option is to sign new guys and flip-flop and change the whole makeup of your team. Unfortunately, I’m a casuality of that. But they’re giving me the opportunity to go somewhere else and find a job where I can play and see what comes of it.”
Should that opportunity not arise — and to be sure, someone with the incredible raw power and first-round pedigree like Johnson has should have no problem finding work — he does have a backup plan. His hobby of installing car audio could become a lucrative business should he choose to hang up the cleats for good.
“If I make it in baseball, great. If not, I have to have something I can do,” he said.
“I signed right out of high school, I can go back and get a four-year degree, but in this day and age, a four-year degree doesn’t do a whole lot for you. It gets you a minimum wage over somebody with a high school education. But unless you have a masters or a PhD…and in some fields, a masters is considered just OK. It’s technical degrees and it’s people with skills, and that’s where the jobs are right now. You have to find yourself a niche market, and that’s what I feel like I have with car audio. No matter how bad you think the economy is, people are out shopping and the malls are full. Everybody always has money to spend on hobbies, and that’s the market I’m trying to get into.
“I enjoy doing it, and I don’t want to do something I don’t enjoy. I don’t just want to go to a job for eight hours a day, go home and be miserable. I want to do something that I enjoy doing every single day, and that’s why I play baseball. The last few years, that’s turned into a job for me, and I’m trying to rediscover the joy in that…of it being a game, and a not a job, and that’s hard. With the situations you’re in — upper minor leagues, independent leagues — you see the business side of things, and it makes it harder to play.”
But, to be clear, there’s no doubt in Johnson’s mind that he can still just that: Play. And play well.
“I know I can still play at a high level,” he said. “I know myself, and I know my ability and I don’t doubt my ability. I just have to play. I have to be able to get consistent every day at-bats. That’s who I am.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com