Mark Johnson drew rave reviews for his handling of a young, up-and-coming group of Cubs prospects while managing the club’s Short-A affiliate at Boise (Idaho) last summer.
He expects to see many of the same players he guided to the Northwest League championship series in 2012 in his first season with the Cougars, which opens at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark on April 4.
Johnson knows there’s an advantage to familiarity, especially with many players among the group beginning their first full professional seasons. That’s why he doesn’t plan to deviate from a simple approach. The schedule is expanded and the proximity to Chicago brings a built-in challenge, but that won’t affect what Johnson stresses before each game.
“Your routine has got to be spot on day-to-day, every single day. Being mentally prepared when you’re starting at this level is critical,” Johnson said. “Obviously, we’re going to be physically prepared, but mentally going into the first season of pro ball and cold weather and in Chicago, it’s vital.”
Johnson managed in a far different atmosphere in Boise the past two seasons. While Cubs allegiance stretches throughout North America, fans didn’t quite flock to Idaho to see the organization’s future as they are expected to in Geneva.
The Hawks’ average attendance of 2,399 fans in 38 openings ranked sixth in the eight-team Northwest League, more than 2,000 spectators behind the league-leading Spokane (Wash.) Indians.
Shortly after the season started, Cubs director of player development Brandon Hyde visited Boise and returned a frustrating correspondence to senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod. There were rudimentary on-field mistakes and an overall unprofessionalism in the clubhouse, among other things.
That is, until Johnson had the chance to explain his fundamentals-first philosophy after the first few games.
“They weren’t performing early on and something clicked, and it was a totally different team to watch the last month than it was the first month. Completely different team,” Hyde said. “And the staff just did an amazing job of staying with it, staying with the process, staying with the development. But also, the confidence kind of fed with that group, and it was an extremely exciting team to watch the last month.”
McLeod soon agreed, balancing Hyde’s report with his own observations from a late-season visit.
Whether it was their clubhouse comportment or more serious approaches to early work and batting practice, McLeod noticed the Hawks “got professionalized” because of Johnson’s ability to juggle the many roles of a lower-level minor league manager.
“As a manager, Mark Johnson is very competitive, right?” McLeod said. “So then you’ve got that own competitiveness versus, ‘OK, we have to develop these players.’ ”
A major league catcher for parts of eight seasons – including 1998-2002 with the White Sox – Johnson briefly played alongside Cougars pitching coach Ron Villone with the 2008 St. Louis Cardinals.
Hitting coach Tom Beyers, a Cubs organizational coach or coordinator since 2000, advanced as far as Triple-A during a minor league playing career from 1979-1983.
“We’ve got three guys that can really communicate with the players and we understand; we’re players’ coaches,” Johnson said. “We’re in it for them. We’re totally vested for them. We want to see every one of them get to the big leagues and we’re going to do and say everything we can to help make that happen.”
For Johnson, those messages start with the basics and build from there.
“You’ve just got to let them be aware of what could happen if they’re not prepared and what they need to expect,” Johnson said. “No matter how much you tell them and preach it, it’s something they have to experience for themselves, even if it’s for the second or third time.”