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Baseball: Johnson follows in brother’s footsteps

Vicky Jacobsen | Thursday, April 11, 2013

Two seasons ago, the Notre Dame coaching staff wasn’t really sure what to do with junior catcher Forrest Johnson.

Irish coach Mik Aoki, who was then in his first year at Notre Dame, took the unpolished freshman aside to let him know he might not get a chance to play with the team.

Pitching coach Chuck Ristano saw potential in Johnson’s monster arm and tried to convert him into a pitcher.
But Johnson didn’t show much more promise on the mound.

“Coach Ristano took me out and we threw a bullpen. Fastball looked pretty good, slider was okay,” Johnson said. “The deal breaker was the changeup. I’ve never been a pitcher my entire life, I’ve always been a catcher, so naturally I wouldn’t have a changeup lined up. But I threw a changeup 90 feet over the backstop, so that was the end of my pitching career here.”

But even as Johnson spent his first two seasons at Notre Dame relegated to the bench and the bullpen, he was impossible to ignore, in part because of his relationship with his fiery older brother, Cole, who graduated in 2011.

“Forrest is a pretty intense kid. We got to know his personality by getting to know his older brother, who pitched for us,” Ristano said. “We play a game in the bullpen when pitchers try to match each other’s pitches, and Forrest was catching Cole. And Cole didn’t think Forrest was doing a good enough job, so in the middle of the bullpen Cole would yell at his brother. And even though I’m the coach, I can’t do anything to stop a brotherhood rivalry, so I tried to make sure they didn’t kill each other.”

Threats of bodily harm aside, the younger Johnson said his older brother motivated him even when he knew there was no guarantee of playing time in his future.

“He’s definitely one of my heroes, because he had a similar experience to what I did. He was a recruited walk-on here and then worked his way up the system,” Johnson said. “He ended up getting drafted and is doing great now, so I definitely learned a lot from him in terms of my hard work. When I see him do something, it makes me feel that I can do it.”

The younger Johnson says he began to feel things “click” in his sophomore season, as he began to see dramatic improvements in his skills and his identity as a player. But he was still second in line behind Joe Hudson, a junior who would be drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the sixth round of the MLB draft in June.

“That destroyed me, it really did,” Johnson said. “All the guys on the bench just want to get on the field, that’s really all you think about. It really does crush you when you’re seeing your best friends out there, you’re working just as hard if not harder than anyone out there, and you’re not getting to play, not getting your opportunity.”

But Johnson finally got his opportunity after Hudson left to join the Reds organization. He won the job at the beginning of the season and has started all 30 games so far this spring.

“It really is the greatest feeling in the world, being out there, especially being on the bench the last two years and not really seeing even a single pitch,” Johnson said. “More than even for me, it’s great for the guys still on the bench who look up to me as kind of the guy who made it through, because there are a lot of times where there’s not really a light at the end of the tunnel. To guy who hasn’t had that opportunity right out freshman year, to work up the system, I think it’s good to see for everybody.”

Johnson now finds himself in an odd role for someone so intensely competitive ¾ he’s responsible for calming a struggling pitcher.

“It’s hard, I think, for Forrest,” Aoki said. “His family tends to be a group of Irish hotheads. I think he’s done a really good job of gaining the trust and respect of his pitchers. They can feel confident in throwing their breaking stuff because they understand that Forrest is willing to put any body part in front of the ball to keep it from going past him with a runner on third.”

But don’t think Johnson has completely changed his ways.

“I have that football mentality,” Johnson said. “There’s kind of that inner part of me that just wants to hit something when I get mad, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve seen how you have to conduct yourself as the catcher. You have eight guys looking at you, so you have to maintain solid and positive body language all the time.

“It’s easy when things are going well, but when things start to get tough, when pitchers start to throw balls or guys are making errors, it really takes a lot to take a deep breath and talk to the pitcher.”

His footwork and hitting have improved, but Johnson’s throwing arm remains his greatest asset, and he maintains there is no better feeling than throwing out a runner on the base paths.

“We almost dare runners to run, because we have that kind of faith in Forrest’s ability to catch and throw,” Ristano said. “That’s why I think to this point there haven’t been a really high number of base runners who have attempted steals. We just tell our pitchers, be quick to the plate, dare them to ru, and Forrest will throw them out.”

And if Johnson is more like a linebacker than a Dr. Phil behind the plate, his coaches wouldn’t change that about him, either.

“He’s got that fire about him that we sometimes have to reel in,” Ristano said. “But I would rather as a coach have to reel him in than ask him to be competitive. He wouldn’t have been able to be the player he is now if didn’t have that fire.”

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at v[email protected]