Going from the outfield to the pitcher's mound doesn't quite compare with going from Thatcher, Ariz., to Siberia. But for Leon Johnson, both constitute major life journeys.
The former Brigham Young University outfielder is just hoping his current venture proves as beneficial as the one that took him from playing baseball in the Arizona desert to unsuccessfully attempting to toss a ball in the frigid climate of the Russia Novosibirsk mission.
"Trying to play catch on ice doesn't really work that well," said Johnson of his brief baseball experience while serving an LDS mission from 2005-06. "That was about the extent of my baseball."
But just last week, throwing became Johnson's primary focus when the former 10th-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs was converted from outfielder to left-handed pitcher. Johnson left the Peoria Chiefs, the Cubs' Single-A affiliate, on June 7 and reported to extended spring training to begin the transition.
The move is surprising on two levels. Last spring, the Cubs used a high-round pick on Johnson after the Cougar sophomore displayed speed and defensive ability in his first season at BYU. Johnson set the Mountain West Conference single-season record for stolen bases with 29.
There's also the fact the Cubs' newest southpaw isn't even left-handed.
Growing up in a baseball-playing family (his older brother Elliot made his major league debut earlier this season with Tampa Bay), Johnson, a natural right-hander, was encouraged by his father to play the game left-handed a move that just might pay off. Left-handed pitchers are always a valued commodity in professional baseball, and while Johnson thinks he can patrol center field with the best of them, he struggled at the plate in the minor leagues.
"I just could never figure out the hitting," said Johnson, who was batting .220 with Peoria this year.
The combination of those factors compelled him to consider a position change. When Johnson approached his coaches about a switch, the organization complied.
It wasn't a reckless decision, however. Johnson said he has always aspired to pitch, to the extent that he continued to work on each of his pitches after high school and used to throw curveballs to teammates in the outfield during warm-ups.
"I've actually always wanted to be a pitcher, but I never had the arm until after my mission," he said.
While his baseball experience in Siberia was limited to that one game of catch on the ice, time away from the game allowed Johnson to remold himself as an athlete. Before his mission, Johnson said, he threw like an Iron Mike pitching machine, his arm lacking what he called "whip." Upon his return, he retooled his mechanics.
"You're able to reteach yourself," he said. "My body wasn't used to throwing a certain way, so I was able to teach myself correctly off my mission. So it was a really big blessing."
The transition, however, wasn't entirely easy. Johnson, who spent one year at Eastern Arizona College before his mission, said he couldn't spend more than 15 to 20 minutes in the weight room upon his return, and fastballs that were actually coming in at 85 miles per hour appeared to be traveling 100.
Although Tampa Bay drafted him once again, this time in the 29th round in 2006, Johnson chose to attend BYU, citing Cougar coach Vance Law's ability to work with returned missionaries as a primary reason.
"I knew it was going to be an uphill battle," Johnson said. "I didn't want to go into professional baseball like that."
Now, about a year removed from signing a contract with the Cubs organization, Johnson is facing another challenge, but he feels things have worked out for the best. While teams usually proceed with caution when it comes to pitcher development, Johnson hopes to be pitching later this season for one of the Cubs' rookie league affiliates.
In the meantime, he's been able to share his journey with his older brother, who is currently playing for the Durham Bulls. Johnson said he speaks with his brother on a weekly basis, and while they're cautious about calling when they know the other isn't playing well, Johnson doesn't hesitate to seek out Elliot's advice."If I'm struggling, I'll call him," he said. "I trust his insight."
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