My goal right now is to get the 25 guys I have — at any particular moment — and try to get them better and try to get them to the big leagues. If in the meantime someone happens to see some value in what I do, then I would love it. —Keith Johnson
SALT LAKE CITY — On June 21, Salt Lake Bees manager Keith Johnson rushed out of a postgame press conference, ran onto the field, and met his family to watch a fireworks display.
"There's so much of this stuff that drives you crazy a little and it's just an opportunity to grab a little bit of perspective," Johnson said. "To come out and enjoy something with your family and share a moment, it's awesome."
Because of his team's grueling 144-game minor league schedule, such moments are sometimes hard to come by for the Salt Lake skipper. So he takes advantage of them whenever he can.
Johnson is in his fourth season as manager of the Bees. His history with Salt Lake began before he took the reigns of the team. Johnson made a stop in Utah's capital city as a player, playing for the franchise in 2002 and 2003. It was during that time that he met his wife, Malena.
"We met here at the ballpark," Johnson said. "We had a few lunches and some dinners and our relationship kind of took off from there."
Johnson is the father of two kids: Korey Rush, who just started at the University of Nevada on a football scholarship, and 10-year-old Maya. He says being a good father can be a challenge at times during the season.
"In the offseason I'm just Dad," Johnson said. "I take care of everything, but (during the season), even if I'm home, my mind is still on things like, 'How can I help the pitchers get better? How can I help hitters get better? In this situation should I've done something different? Should I have played this guy here?'"
The skipper's mind is hard to turn off, especially when his job is to help his players achieve their dreams. Sometimes his wife has to step in and stop him from working and thinking.
"All the time things continue to go through my mind," Johnson said. "Trying to get these guys to the big league, it's never really off all the way. There's times when my wife makes me turn it off, but when she doesn't do that it's always kind of on."
One reason why he stresses his job so much is the joy he gets seeing his players succeed. Johnson began his managerial career with the Angels' Single-A club Cedar Rapids. There he managed Efren Navarro and Andrew Romine. Years later he got the opportunity of letting those players know they had received their first major league call-ups.
"To be the first manager to be able to tell them that they're going to the big leagues," Johnson said, "guys I have managed since my first year managing and watched their careers come up, I mean that was awesome. It was a great experience and it was a moment I'll never forget, and a moment they'll never forget."
Sometimes, Johnson will break that good news after having a little fun.
Johnson will call in the players to his office and with a stern voice ask, "What did you do at the hotel last night?"
When the player is adequately scared and is confusingly asking, "What are you talking about?" Johnson will break the good news.
A part of a manager's job is to know how to read players and Johnson knows that for some guys the call-up is such a special moment, that has to be a serious moment.
"It's different for everybody. For some guys it's just an an overwhelming feeling, that there's no joking around about it," Johnson said.
The Bees skipper is in his 11th season with the Angels, and like the players that he manages, he hopes to one day be called up to the big league ranks.
"Ideally, I think we all would (like to be in the majors), but I am not going to sacrifice the players' goals for mine," Johnson said. "My goal right now is to get the 25 guys I have — at any particular moment — and try to get them better and try to get them to the big leagues. If in the meantime someone happens to see some value in what I do, then I would love it."
It's a testament to Johnson that he takes the unselfish approach to his team. In that regard, win-loss records in the minor leagues may not necessarily be as important as player development. Developing players is what Johnson feels is his most important duty as manager. It's that approach that has caused players a great appreciation for their manager.
Navarro has played under Johnson at multiple levels, and feels that Johnson could manage him at the highest one as well.
"We've watched each other grow," Navarro said. "It's amazing how much he's learned and how much he's improved as a manager. I actually think right now he is major league ready and I'm pretty sure that's his goal too. Being a player and being able to watch your manager grow is pretty amazing."
It's not just his players that are taking notice of the good work Johnson has done. On June 19, Angels assistant GM Scott Servais was in Salt Lake to check on the franchise's top affiliate. While here, Servais had some words of praise for Johnson.
"He has done a good job," Servais said. "He knows the game and has been with the Angels for a long time. I think as we evolve and try to get better and try to try new things in player development, K.J. has been ready to step up and try different things that have been thrown on his plate and guys have responded. I am sure he will get an opportunity in the big leagues here sometime soon."
Johnson, though, isn't letting the future get in the way of the present. Right now he is just concerned about how to get his last-place team turned around and back on the right track. But even after a long losing streak, or a heartbreaking loss, he still knows that his family will help him keep everything in perspective.
"I come home and no matter if it's a game where we got walked-off on, we had a rough road trip or whatever and I come and my daughter runs up to me and just yells, 'Daddy,' and it's just perspective," Johnson said. "How bad are things really when you still have your family and you still have people that love you?"
So even if the Bees struggle, Johnson can look for those small moments with his family to keep his outlook as bright as the fireworks-laden sky.