Cougars' manager once considered military career
GENEVA – Cougars manager Mark Johnson spent parts of eight Major League seasons in dugouts across North America.
Had it not been for his ability to hit and call baseball games, the former catcher would have preferred the vantage point of a foxhole.
"Oh, yeah. I'd have went in the Marine Corps," Johnson said. "My dad was a Marine and then chief of police, so he had a lot of discipline in the house and all that. So I kind of grew up wanting to go in the Marine Corps, and baseball kind of took over. It was definitely on my list. I even thought about, even if I got done playing, I'd go enlist, you know. But baseball has been my fate."
Johnson had a hunch about his future when the White Sox selected him near the end of the first round of the 1994 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The 26th overall pick out of Warner Robins (Ga.) High School signed two months before his 19th birthday.
That same summer, countless contemporaries who were weeks removed from receiving their high school diplomas joined the Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force.
Until his midteens, when coaches and scouts spotted Johnson's ability and foretold of his chances to play baseball for a living, Johnson thought he might be a military man himself. His father, George, had served in the Marines, and just missed duty in Vietnam.
Johnson's older brother, Jeff, enlisted in the Corps out of high school. He served in Operation Desert Storm but saw little combat.
"By the time I was a junior in high school, I mean, I knew I was going to get drafted. I knew I was going to get drafted high and I didn't think about [enlisting] anymore," Johnson said. "Well, I shouldn't say that. I did. I still do, but you know, I think it's an honor to be in the military and to serve your country.
"But also, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity at that time to play professional baseball. I got drafted in the first round, so it was a no-brainer."
Johnson's father began as police chief of La Grande, Ore., before the family relocated to his parents' native Georgia when Johnson was just starting grade school.
Johnson's grandfather and a few cousins served in the Army, although none were what Johnson called "career guys."
Often spotted wearing a "USMC" T-shirt before or after games, Johnson has not sensed any budding military interest in his 8-year-old son, Will, who has been a clubhouse fixture since school let out.
Should that happen, consider Johnson well-versed in the subtleties.
"On this side of it, being a coach and a manager, you can tell the guys that have that background in them. Their parents were military or they grew up in that household that had that military, that discipline," Johnson said. "The way they dress, the way they act, the way they talk, the way they handle themselves. So that says something right there about the military and what they do and how they create good people and hard-working people and instill those values. I can't say enough good things about it."
• Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @kevindruley.
IN THE COUGARS DEN
Entering Wednesday, outfielder Kevin Encarnacion was batting .412 (14 for 47) with two homers and four RBIs in four games since joining the Cougars from Short-A Boise.
Catcher Willson Contreras started 1 for 7 (.143) in July before Wednesday and had five hits in his past 24 at-bats overall.
Quad Cities first baseman Jesse Wierzbicki, who'll be in town with the River Bandits for a five-game series beginning today, led the team with six home runs was second with 46 RBIs through Tuesday. A 24-round pick of the parent Houston Astros in 2011, Wierzbicki played collegiately at North Carolina, where he also was a catcher.
Saturday's 6:30 p.m. game against Quad Cities is Military Appreciation Night. Free admission is open to all active duty military and their families, along with local veterans. Military ID must be shown at the box office. ... This month's Major League Baseball All-Star Futures Game will feature Cougars alumni on the mound (2011 pitcher Yordano Ventura) and in the dugout (2009 manager Steve Scarsone). ... Mascot Ozzie T. Cougar is slated to appear at the Pheasant Run Parade in St. Charles from 5 to 6 p.m. today before heading over to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark for tonight's series opener against Quad Cities. The first 1,500 fans will receive patriotic foam claws.
LEADERS IN THE KANE COUNTY COUGARS CLUBHOUSE (THROUGH TUESDAY)
Albert Almora, .343
Bijan Rademacher, .303
Dan Vogelbach, .272
Rock Shoulders, 15
Dan Vogelbach, 12
Willson Contreras, 6
Dan Vogelbach, 48
Rock Shoulders, 44
Oliver Zapata, 34
Marco Hernandez, 10
Oliver Zapata, 9
Gioskar Amaya, 8
Stephen Perakslis, 3.13
Nathan Dorris, 3.34
Felix Pena, 3.38
Tayler Scott, 4
Three players tied with 3