By Travis M. Smith | KBEC Sports
Three preseason conversations ago, Jay Johnson sat in a half-broken rolling chair and doubted how much longer he’d coach.
Johnson was obviously uncomfortable as he spoke about his Red Oak ballclub and the upcoming season. It was evident in the tone and measure at which he chatted inside the narrow office on the backside of the gymnasium.
But Johnson’s discomfort had nothing to do with the prospects of that season. Let’s not allow that narrative to spin.
To put it simply: He was “playing” through pain thanks to years of pushing his baseball talent to the limit for the better part of two decades.
Johnson had bad knees, which is far from a life sentence or career-ender for coaches. It’s likely common. So were his bad back and shoulder.
The bum knee, back and shoulder, which were all surgically repaired over a four-month period following that 2017 season, prevented Johnson from doing what he loved most — playing the game. He struggled to do even the simplest things, such as hitting fungo pre-game or throwing batting practice during the week.
Johnson spent much that season coaching from the bench or leaning against a perfectly good fungo bat. That Hawk team finished the season 18-10-2.
Again, it just a bum knee. But for a baseball lifer, having to sit and watch stunk. It was understandable to see that the joy of the game had fled — even if just for a bit for the then-300-plus-win coach.
We should also take into account how exactly he got to that faux black leather rolly chair.
Johnson is a 1983 graduate of W. W. Samuell High School in Dallas. He went on to star as a middle infielder at Dallas Baptist University, where he roomed with now-Midlothian head baseball coach and former DBU catcher, Ray Hydes.
In fact, the Associated Press reported the two combined for five hits to eliminate Southern California College from the 1985 NAIA Baseball World Series at Lewis-Clark State College. Johnson finished the day 3-for-4 and scored three runs in the 10-2 semifinal victory.
The Patriots, who were in their first NAIA College World Series, ultimately fell in the championship game to Lewis-Clark State, 10-6.
DBU won an NAIA-best 56 games that season.
Johnson played for two more seasons at DBU and was eventually selected in the 19th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Atlanta Braves. He was the 32nd DBU baseball player drafted in program history. There have been 131 former Patriots drafted, signed as a free agent or join an independent professional league since.
Johnson ultimately appeared in 142 games in the Braves’ organization at the rookie and Class-A levels. As a 21- and 22-year-old, he collected 88 hits, 20 doubles, six home runs and swiped 14 bases. He also recorded 68 RBIs and scored 62 runs, all while carrying a .221 batting average and .606 OPS.
At age 23, Johnson returned to DBU to complete his bachelor’s degree. He went on to land high school baseball coaching gigs at Dallas-based Thomas Jefferson and Sunset High Schools before finding an 11-year home in Palmer.
In his final season, Johnson led the Bulldogs to their first state tournament appearance since 1994. The club also appeared in the 2A regional finals in 2006 and 2008, both under his tutelage.
Johnson then parlayed his 2011 District 13-2A Coach of the Year recognition into a job as the head coach for the Red Oak Hawks. He replaced Heath Autrey, who departed Red Oak for then-district rival Corsicana.
Fast-forward nine years to the present day, which brings us to the entire point of this history lesson.
Johnson and the Hawks stepped onto the field Thursday, March 12 in hopes of snapping an early-season three-game skid. Robert E. Lee High School sat in the opposite dugout.
Senior pitcher Christian Samuels (2-0, 0.48 ERA) took the ball for the Hawks and tossed a seven-inning complete-game gem. He needed just 95 pitches to record five strikeouts, walk two and allow one unearned run on two hits.
The single run Samuels allowed came in the bottom of the sixth inning. Red Oak had already plated two runs by that juncture — one in the first inning on a bases-loaded walk and the second with an Andrew Rivas single in the fifth inning.
Samuels eventually struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh inning to record the Hawks’ fourth win of the season.
More importantly, it was also the 400th win over Johnson’s 24-year coaching career.
It’s certainly a good thing he decided to stick around the ol’ ball field.
The Hawks are currently 4-9 on the year and will look to end a two-game losing streak following the COVID-19 suspended season.
Red Oak followed the one-run victory against Lee with losses against Waco Robinson (6-0) and Mildred (4-2) on March 12 and 13, respectively.
Johnson currently sits with a 400-272 career coaching record, which includes a 127-123 mark over his nine seasons as the Hawks’ skipper.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith