Monday, April 1, 2019

Ben's ’Birds

Posted By on Mon, Apr 1, 2019 at 9:55 AM

When the Memphis Redbirds open their 22nd season Thursday night at AutoZone Park, they'll do so with their eighth manager. But 37-year-old Ben Johnson will be the first native Memphian to deliver the Opening Day lineup card to the home plate umpire. So it's a homecoming of sorts for the former Germantown High School centerfielder, but with a recent standard almost impossible to match, particularly for a man in charge of his first Triple-A club.

"I'm in a position to put these players in a position to succeed," emphasizes Johnson. "I don't know that every manager puts his players first in their day-to-day. Their dream is my dream; I want them to be great. I can help them with that."
click to enlarge Ben Johnson - COURTESY MEMPHIS REDBIRDS
  • Courtesy Memphis Redbirds
  • Ben Johnson

Born at Baptist East in 1981, Johnson entered professional baseball as a St. Louis Cardinal, adding a layer to his homecoming this season. The Cardinals chose Johnson in the fourth round of the 1999 draft, but traded him to San Diego a year later. He made his debut with the Padres in 2005 and played in 98 big-league games, his last with the New York Mets in 2007. (Johnson suffered a severe injury to his left ankle sliding into second base, one that contributed to his early retirement as a player. "The body went," says Johnson, "and it took some time for the mind to grasp that.") He chose to stick with baseball, becoming a scout for four years (2014-17) with the Arizona Diamondbacks before joining the Durham Bulls (Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) as third-base coach for the 2018 season.

The Bulls fell to Memphis in last season's Triple-A National Championship Game but, for Johnson, the event led to a career-altering meeting with St. Louis president of baseball operations, John Mozeliak. "We had a good conversation, and that started the ball rolling," says Johnson. "He didn't ask about my interest [in the Redbirds job], but just how interested I was in coaching. How I felt about coaching. He knew from my response that I love coaching." Mozeliak happened to be the Cardinals' pro scouting director in 1999 when the Cardinals originally signed Johnson as a player. The reunion had a road map.

"I'd see Mo on the scouting trail, and I covered the Cardinals [as a Padres scout]," notes Johnson. "You make sure you speak to a guy like that when you see him. There was some depth to it, I guess."

Early in his playing career, Johnson spent offseasons in Memphis, but he and his wife and two children have lived in Phoenix for more than a decade now. "Better weather, more players coming together," notes Johnson. "It was better for my career [in baseball]." But the lure of Memphis — and the Cardinals system — seemed more than serendipitous. "Interviewing for this job hit home more than any other position I'd ever interviewed for," says Johnson. "We grew up Cardinal fans."

Coming of age in the 1990s, Johnson admired the Atlanta Braves dynasty, particularly outfielder David Justice. But the Cardinals were in his heart, notably Ozzie Smith and a man he now counts as a colleague, Cardinals bench coach Willie McGee. "Sometimes when you meet your heroes, they're not [what you'd like them to be]," says Johnson. "It's all about the players with Willie, and it's genuine. He's transparent with the players."

When asked about managers who have influenced his own philosophy from the dugout, Johnson starts with his high school coach, Phil Clark. "He helped me through the initial pro phase of my life," says Johnson. "He helped me with what to say and what not to say to scouts." Johnson also appreciates the influence of Dave Clark (currently the third-base coach for the Detroit Tigers) and Craig Colbert, his manager at a few levels in the Padres' system. "There were days we didn't like each other a lot," says Johnson. "As I matured, we started to get along better. He had a big part in bringing me up as a player."

Johnson's first big-league manager was Bruce Bochy, a man who has since won three World Series as skipper for the San Francisco Giants. "There was no 'eye wash' with [Bochy]. No false hustle needed. Fake energy is not necessary. I don't need you to sprint from field to field in spring training if you're getting your work in. Be a professional. Show up on time, work hard, and we'll be fine."

Johnson chuckles at the notion of filling the shoes of his predecessor, Stubby Clapp, a Memphis favorite before he won two straight Pacific Coast League titles as Redbirds manager. Now the Cardinals' first-base coach, Clapp is the first man Johnson calls with questions any rookie manager will confront. "The Cardinals have made it clear that it's my fault if I don't reach out," says Johnson. "I've probably asked Stubby a hundred questions. He's genuinely interested in what I have to say. He gives me an honest answer, and in a way that doesn't make me feel like he's annoyed."

Having benefited from his own development as a minor-leaguer, Johnson has a grasp on priorities as the Redbirds take flight under his watch. "We have a really talented young group," says Johnson. "I'm not judged by wins and losses. It's how we go about handling our business, and building the foundation of development. The number-one goal is to produce championship-caliber players for our major-league team."

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