Butte ballplayer Rob Johnson has chosen to end his injury-plagued career and announced his retirement from baseball on Friday.
Johnson, 31, made the announcement on social media. He has been at the San Diego Padres spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., since February, working on transitioning to pitcher after a career as a catcher that took him to the Major Leagues with three different teams. He sustained his latest injury in the conversion to pitcher and the seriousness of it, one that would require what is known as Tommy John surgery to repair it, influenced his decision to retire, instead.
“My wife (Kristan) and I prayed through this for a long time and we were both ready for the transition,” Johnson said in his post. “I showed up to spring training excited and ready to pursue yet another dream: Pitching in the Big Leagues. Spring Training was going very well and I continued to develop the skills in order to make a team and move up through the minor leagues. My pitches were competitive and producing outs consistently.
“I was feeling confident this was really going to work. We were only a couple of days away from starting games and I hurt my arm throwing a live bullpen. I thought ‘Ok, this happens and I will rehab it and get back to action.’ I did just that. I stayed in Arizona rehabbing for a couple of months.
“I was on a great throwing program and I was working on mechanics. I returned ready to go, mentally. However I was dealing with some pain still. I appeared in my first game and did well. I made my second and third outing and the results were the same. I was days away from getting out of Arizona and reporting to a team for the summer. I was getting pretty excited. I made my last appearance and it didn’t go quite like I had planned…I knew my elbow had not healed completely and I couldn’t sustain a full season of pitching.”
Rehabbing from injury was nothing new for Johnson, who made his Major League debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2007. He suffered knee, arm and hand injuries during his career in baseball’s most physically demanding position. The most serious, however, until the recent arm injury, was labrum tears in both hips five years ago while with the Mariners. The number of players who’ve come back from even one torn hip labrum is quite small, and it is an injury usually afflicting pitchers. Johnson, however, did so and continued with the Padres, New York Mets and last year was on the roster of the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
The conversion to pitcher seemed like a longshot, but Johnson was the emergency pitcher in tours with the Padres, Mets and Cardinals, and actually pitched a few innings in blowouts with very good success. The success led him and the Padres to take a chance on the transition.
“I started this transition throwing my fastball in the low 90’s (mph), a cutter/slider 84-87, and a split 81-84,” Johnson said. “My last outing I was throwing a fastball 79-81 mph. I recently received the results of my MRI and the news was as expected. I had a completely torn UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament). This is the ligament you need to throw a baseball with velocity. The reconstruction operation is also referred to as Tommy John surgery. This is not what we wanted, but it has to be God’s plan not my plan. I am a firm believer His plan is a better plan.”
Johnson graduated from Butte Central High School in 2001 after starring there in football, basketball, track and golf. He also was a standout during summers for the Butte American Legion baseball program. Johnson then went on to Saddleback Junior College in Mission Viejo, Calif., to further hone his baseball skills before transferring on to the University of Houston. He was drafted three times as an amateur, once each by the Philadelphia Phillies and the Miami Marlins, before the Mariners took him in 2004 in the fourth round and began his pro career, rocketing up the minor league ladder.
He was born in Anaconda and spent a portion of his childhood in Whitehall before he and his family moved to Butte before he entered high school.
“I chose to retire,” Johnson said. “I am at complete peace with the results. Although this is a tough transition out of the game I have played and loved for 25 plus years and 11 years professionally, I am confident the next adventures will be filled with great joy as well.”
Johnson was also on Team USA during World Cup play in 2006, participating in the tournament played in The Netherlands. Johnson spent two full seasons in the Major Leagues and varying portions of seven others. In later years, he was called upon to mentor young pitchers in pro organizations, helping to develop them in the high minors before the callups to the Majors. The list of such prospects included the likes of Matt Harvey of the Mets, and three of the Cardinals starters of last year — Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. In the Majors, he saw starting duty with the Mariners, Padres and Mets along with being a relied-upon backup.
Johnson made no mention in his announcement about possibly continuing in baseball in a coaching, instructional or scouting capacity. His career stats, offensively, included a .200 batting average, eight hme runs and 64 runs batted in. His strengths were considered to be defensive, and as a game-caller.
“I am so excited for the next stage of our life,” Johnson said. “The details are a bit vague, but we would never turn down a new adventure. I am excited to share it with the friends and family I have been blessed with.”
He went on to express gratitude to his wife, to their three children, to his parents, Bob and Eileen Johnson of Butte, to his sisters, Kellie and Karly, and to his many friends for their support of his endeavors.
He also thanked his agent and all his coaches.
“There are so many people I could thank on a personal level for their support, so here is a big, thank you to you,” Johnson said. “I know nobody can do anything without the support of others and a community of people and trust me I know who you are.”
Johnson said he would post his personal top 20 moments in baseball at a later date.