Navy isn't playing games with Johnston

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

A man speaking broken English cried through the radio. Something about an attack. Shots fired. Grenades launched. Pirates.

Aboard the U.S.S. Peleliu, the officers in charge expected such distress calls. On that day, Aug. 8, the ship was stationed in the Gulf of Aden, a strip of water between Yemen and Somalia known among seafarers as Pirate Alley. The hijacking was 10 miles from the Peleliu, close enough for the ship to send out rescue teams.

Steering one vessel was Jonathan Johnston, a 24-year-old Navy lieutenant junior grade. He maneuvered toward the Gem of Kilakarai, the cargo ship from Singapore under attack by two boats full of Somali pirates. Within minutes, the pirates caved to threats from Johnston's team and skulked off, toward the horizon. Johnston had commanded a mission that thwarted the attack, an achievement that would earn him the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. As much as he wanted to rejoice, to remind himself that being an officer in the Navy is about protecting people and saving lives, Johnston couldn't.

His mind was somewhere else.

Nearly two months to the day earlier, Johnston had been in Clinton, Iowa. He played minor-league baseball for the Kane County (Ill.) Cougars, a Class A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. And he was standing on third base, potentially the go-ahead run.

Finally, Johnston was starting to feel comfortable again. His professional baseball career had been a mess of starts and stops, a traffic light gone haywire, and on June 9, when he dashed home with speed unusual for a catcher and slid in safely, it represented the apex. This was worth celebrating.

So he did, the rush of scoring the winning run equaling anything the military provided. The feeling carried him through the next morning at the gym and back onto the bus, where he checked his phone. There was a message from his commanding officer in the Navy.

Three days later, Johnston boarded the Peleliu in the Persian Gulf. He hasn't played an inning since.

"It takes a lot to get me down," Jonathan Johnston said.

It's the middle of August. He's aboard the Peleliu. He's not allowed to divulge the ship's precise location.

"I'm very angry," he said. "I was ripped away from something I love."

He's not sure he should be talking. He doesn't want a reprimand. He just doesn't understand why, and nobody has been able to give him a sufficient answer.

"I didn't know what to do that day," Johnston said. "I didn't want to talk to anybody. I had to go to the manager when we showed up at the park later and tell him I couldn't be in the lineup. He had to take me out."

On Nov. 2, 2007, Navy Secretary Donald Winter issued a policy memo upholding every five-year commitment from Naval Academy midshipmen. Erased was the deal other service academies afforded professional athletes with contracts: serve two years, then double the remainder of your commitment in the reserves, and you are free to pursue your sports career.

"I realize we're different services," Johnston said, "but I don't think I'm any less of a patriot or officer than those guys are."

The Navy does not concern itself with the other branches.

"Because we're a nation at war, we need every available body to go to that mission," said Lt. Cmdr. John Daniels, a Navy spokesman. "This is just one way the Navy is showing our full commitment to the global war on terrorism."

Johnston grew up near Trenton, N.J., the oldest of five kids. He came from a lower-middle-class family and accepted appointment to the Naval Academy because it gave his siblings a better chance of being able to afford college.

Once there, he distinguished himself on the diamond, batting .317 and stealing 35 bases as a senior. Johnston went undrafted, teams scared off by what was believed to be the two-year Navy commitment, and he was commissioned May 26, 2006.

Two months later, he reported to the Peleliu in San Diego. During some down time, a friend introduced him to A's scout Craig Weissman, who gave Johnston a tryout and liked what he saw enough to recommend drafting him in 2007. In the 42nd round, with the 1,266th pick, the A's chose Johnston.

Word took a short while to reach him. Johnston was on the Peleliu for his first deployment, a humanitarian mission in Asia. He wouldn't return home before the season ended.

Different scenarios coursed through his head. He could do drugs and be discharged. Or he could be like Kyle Eckel, the Philadelphia Eagles fullback who was kicked out of the Navy shortly after his commission.

None of those fit Johnston's character. He figured he would spend his two years, like former NBA star David Robinson had, and then start his second career.

"I'm trying to be as honorable as I can be," Johnston said. "I don't want to be the guy who tries to get kicked out. I could've done that a while ago. But I don't want to.

"I enjoy my time here. I enjoy leading people. The friends I've made, that I've served with. The only thing that makes it difficult is I have this baseball opportunity."

Capt. Ed Rhoades, the commanding officer on the Peleliu, empathized with Johnston and did everything possible to heighten his chance of playing baseball. When Winter, the Navy Secretary, visited the Asian humanitarian mission in August 2007, Rhoades and his executive officer, Capt. Pete Sciabarra, assigned Johnston as his guide in an attempt to bring the ballplayer's plight to his attention.

"He had done everything we asked him to do," said Sciabarra, who retired in April after a 27-year career. "We felt he was getting stonewalled."

Neither Winter nor Rear Admiral Mark W. Balmert – Rhoades and Sciabarra's boss in the chain of command – budged. So as the policy tightened, Rhoades risked the ire of his superiors by placing Johnston on temporary assigned duty with the U.S. Military All-Stars, a fatigue-clad group of baseball-playing servicemen that travels around the world handing out equipment and playing exhibition games.

Aside from asking him to travel for a two-week tour in Central America, the military all-star team left Johnston alone to play for Kane County beginning last spring. It was a perfect situation: His bosses supported his baseball career and found a way to make it a reality even if Navy policy dictated against it.

When Rhoades retired, the Peleliu's new commanding officer, Capt. Marcus Hitchcock, kept Johnston on the temporary duty. In Kane County, about 40 miles west of Chicago, he improved daily. Johnston's batting average crept up to .228. His on-base percentage was a solid .350. Johnston swung with no power, the main reason scouts are skeptical he can make it to the major leagues. His left-handed swing projected something more than the five extra-base hits in 114 at-bats he'd accumulated by June 9, however, and when he led off the ninth inning with a double, he felt the pop emerging.

Then came the phone call. The disappointment. The longest trip of his life.

Johnston barely had time to call the organization and explain what happened.

"He called me from Bahrain," said David Forst, the A's assistant general manager. "And I can't forget what he said."

Johnston's words were simple.

"Please don't forget about me."

These days, Johnston is back in school. He's learning to be a damage control assistant. He spends his mornings fighting fires at a training facility. In the afternoon, when class lets out, he returns to the apartment in San Diego he shares with an officer who played football at the academy, puts on workout clothing and goes to the Stadium Golf and Batting Cages.

There, he faces a pitching machine that throws dimpled yellow balls at 70 mph, and he swings himself back to the summer. As it stands, he can't play until May, 2011.

"This is one officer on one ship," Sciabarra said. "He may turn out to be a great leader in 10 years, but his chance to make an impact on the Navy in the next five years with baseball can be huge if he goes out and is a great role model."

That, and Johnston's two medals – his second a Joint Service Achievement Medal for the goodwill trip with the military baseball team – and his reason for enlisting … all of that, Sciabarra figures, should add up to something.

Only he knows better. Johnston is in a compromising position, weighing his country and commitment against the desires afforded regular citizens. Nearly 50 percent of officers leave the Navy before the end of their sixth year, according to Navy figures, and Johnston said he is done after his five-year commitment.

Even though President-elect Obama will likely appoint a new secretary, the Navy moves at its own glacial pace. So the possibility of Johnston getting to play anytime soon again hinges on an inconsistent military-wide policy that the Navy interprets as a strict fundamentalist.

The chances are dim.

"I'd like to think this is going to happen," Johnston said. "I mean, I really want to believe it. Everybody I talk with that knows me, they think it'll come through.

"Good things happen to good people. Right?"

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