By Mallory Rubin
Dave Johnson always knew he wanted to play baseball but he didn’t know until eleven years ago that he wanted to teach it too.
In 1995 Johnson, who had finished his major league pitching career in 1993 with the Detroit Tigers, joined Harford County’s Grand Slam USA baseball center as an investor. Soon after, he began conducting his own individual lessons at the center.
“That was the first time I felt, hey, I kind of like this,” Johnson said.
(Photos: Sabina Moran/PressBox)
“I thought, geez, I really like doing this but can I make a living out of it?” Johnson said. “And the fact was I couldn’t make a living out of it if I was doing it somewhere else.”
But over the next few years, Johnson realized he could do it on his own and Dave Johnson’s Baseball Academy was born. He wanted to avoid paying rent on a commercial space, so he built a new home for his family in Kingsville with the baseball facility upstairs.
“I thought, well, this is a way to figure out whether I can do this or not, knowing that I had a hard asset to where I built the house,” Johnson said. “And if in fact I couldn’t make it go, I could always sell the house and be back where I was before.”
From the moment he opened the doors to his home and facility Johnson has known nothing but success. When Johnson is doing baseball analysis for Comcast SportsNet during the summer he only offers six week-long baseball camps. But during the MLB offseason, he offers individual lessons.
During that time, Johnson has 45 to 50 students a week. The academy has become so popular he has brought on two other instructors, Cal Ripken Jr.’s minor league roommate Tim Norris and Oriole bullpen catcher Sam Snider.
Most of Johnson’s pupils start out between nine and 12 years old, though some start older or stay with Johnson for many years. He instructs each student for a half-hour once a week on all facets of the game, focusing primarily on pitching and hitting.
The first and most important lesson Johnson teaches a student, regardless of his age, is how to grip a baseball. He estimated that most kids, including 50 percent of high school players, don’t know proper technique and said it affects their game more than they realize.
“You’ll see inconsistencies in their game and they’ll think, ‘Why did that ball sink and run when the last one I threw went straight as an arrow, right where I wanted it to?’” Johnson said.
He also said that learning the right technique will help kids make the jump to the next level as they get older and the baseball diamond gets bigger.
After basic technique is mastered, a typical lesson will include warm-ups, a check for appropriate grip, ground ball practice, pitching and hitting. A student will throw anywhere from 25 to 40 pitches from a mound that Johnson can move to the appropriate distance from home plate, depending on a player’s age. When it’s time to hit, Johnson throws live batting practice in the 75-foot batting cage facility.
Once a student’s physical skills reach a certain point, Johnson moves on to the mental aspects of the game. Knowing how to properly throw and locate the ball is great, but if a kid doesn’t know how to choose the correct pitch or the right spot, he will only have limited success, Johnson said.
However, despite his background as a pitcher, Johnson said he prefers to teach hitting.
“A lot of people will say you didn’t hit, or you were a bad hitter in little league, how can you teach hitting?” Johnson said. “Well to be honest with you, I’d rather teach hitting than pitching, because there’s just not a bigger thrill around than being able to hit a baseball.”
Normally a student’s parents sit outside of the cage and watch the lesson transpire. Johnson said parents hear the terminology he uses and are then able to reinforce his lessons with practice at home. Johnson asks that they also inform their son’s coaches that he is receiving outside instruction so that they do not teach the student approaches that conflict with Johnson’s.
“Being in this business I hear and see so many crazy techniques out there that coaches will teach,” Johnson said. “I use the analogy, I didn’t hit my head on the bed post last night and dream up an idea of how to do things. These are things I’ve learned and been taught over the past 20 years and I can promise you this stuff is good stuff. It works, it’s basic stuff, it’ll work at this level and it’ll also work at the highest levels.”
If Johnson needs proof that his lessons work, he need only point to his oldest son, Steve, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 12th round of this year’s MLB draft. Steve Johnson is now with the Ogden Raptors and was named Pioneer League Pitcher of the Week in early July. Though Johnson’s academy did not exist when his son was learning to play baseball, he taught him the same techniques he now uses with his students.
“I think that lends some credibility to maybe I know how to teach,” Johnson said. “I mean, you’re not born with baseball skills. Someone had to teach these kids how to play.”
Steve Johnson credited his father with teaching him everything he knows about playing baseball.
He also said his father’s greatest strengths as an instructor are his ability to communicate ideas in a way that’s easy to understand and makes his lessons fun. His father’s Major League experience also gives him a lot of credibility, he said.
“When he was pitching in the majors he hurt his arm doing a slide-step, so he teaches kids now to not do a slide-step,” said the younger Johnson. “He tells people why and he tells the parents why and they understand because he was there and this is what actually happened to him.”
Johnson agreed that his professional experience is an attraction to parents and students.
“I think it’s huge,” he said. “There are a lot of places around where you can get instruction, but not a lot of places where you can get major league instruction.”
Despite that instruction, Johnson knows very few of his students will go on to play professional baseball. Still, he said the most rewarding part is seeing kids who came to him at 10 or 11 with no chance to play at higher levels go on to play high school ball.
“To see them have that determination, and their work ethic, what they’ve done to make themselves better, and for them to go on and play high school baseball and be a part of that fraternity and have success, that’s really neat,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s students will learn things while in elementary or middle school that he did not learn until he was 25 or 30, putting them way ahead of the game and on the path to success, he said.
“The way to get somewhere is to find out how the person who’s been there, how they did it,” Johnson said. “And then learn from them and hopefully be able to retrace their footsteps or maybe even do it better.”
Issue 1.17: August 17, 2006