A day with Jeff Johnson is dizzying and best expressed by the number of elevator rides he takes during the pregame hours.
The Mid-Missouri Mavericks’ broadcaster rides up the elevator to distribute stats and set up for his broadcast. Down the elevator to chat with the guys who work the front gates. Up the elevator to crack jokes with Mark Edwards, the Mavs’ public address announcer. Down the elevator to ask players how they are feeling. Up the elevator to talk with Ann Wilhelm, the Mavs’ director of community relations.
Down the elevator to wander through the clubhouse to hunt down players for coming public relations events, find out the day’s lineups and do his pregame interviews.
Everywhere Johnson goes, people stop to talk to him. One of the players stops him because he needs chewing tobacco. One of the many guys in yellow shirts who work the gates wants to talk about the night’s Budweiser girls who are doing a promo. A Mavericks’ booster wants to know what inning Johnson will interview him.
“Glue is probably the best word to describe what he has meant to the organization this year,” Mavericks pitcher Justin Stine says.
Before coming to the Mavs, Johnson worked as a morning disc jockey in Grinnell, Iowa. He always dreamed of working in baseball, and when the Mavericks’ broadcast position opened, he jumped at the opportunity.
“Jeff is one of the best, if not the best broadcaster I’ve ever worked with in the business,” General Manager Pat Daly says. “He sounds great on the radio and does a fantastic job.
“Most broadcasters in this business, all they want to do is broadcast. They don’t care about anything else. Jeff will pitch in and do anything you ask him, anything you need, and I think that it shows the way he works with the team and pitches batting practice.”
Johnson says his throws maxed out in the high 70s when he was throwing in high school.
“Now I’d be lucky if I could hit the speed limit,” he says.
He can throw strikes all day, though.
“One of his biggest contributions has been throwing batting practice every day,” center fielder Jake Whitesides says. “Without him, we wouldn’t get it as often. Our offense wouldn’t be as good as it is.”
Johnson once called a road game in Hamilton, Ohio, from a lawn chair on top of the press box because there was no room for him to stand. He also stayed up until 3 in the morning once doing the team’s laundry so it could make its morning bus.
Not only is he the team’s broadcast man and traveling secretary, but he also makes all of the organization’s commercials. He handles the per diem on road trips. He books reservations. He shares the lineup changes with the managers. He sets up player interviews. He broadcasts from pregame to postgame, and, of course, he throws batting practice almost every day. Still, Johnson tends to play down his role in the organization.
“My title is broadcast and media relations, but in minor league baseball, I don’t think there is any one person that has a title that does just that title,” Johnson says.
Johnson’s love for baseball begins with his father, who was his coach through T-ball and Little League.
“When I was born, my dad brought me home in a Cardinals shirt,” Johnson says. “So I was a Cardinals fan from day one.”
He pitched in high school, and though he also played basketball and golf, baseball was the sport he loved.
“Baseball was really the one I fell in love with,” he says.
Now as a broadcaster, the connection of baseball with his father endures.
“Something we can always talk about to this day is baseball, baseball, baseball,” Johnson says.
As the father of sons Peyton, 4, and Parker, 1, Johnson finds himself, like his father, in the role of connecting to his children through baseball. Ironically, baseball also pulls him away from his family. The road trips and the long hours have been an adjustment. Johnson’s wife, Deanna, an elementary school teacher, has taken care of the boys full time while he has been on the road.
During home stretches, the family visits the ballpark about three times a week. Often, Peyton and Parker will sit in the broadcast booth as their dad calls games.
“Those two boys have probably seen more than any 4-year-old and 1-year-old in professional baseball,” Johnson says. “I bring them into the clubhouse, and I’ve had them on the bus. The whole 9 yards.”
Deanna Johnson doesn’t see her husband’s job as disruptive to their family.
“It’s not a job for him, it’s an obsession,” she says. “We have two boys who couldn’t be happier. I mean look at him, he’s working right now.”
Johnson and the scoreboard crew burst into laughter.
If Johnson is a pitchman before the game by throwing batting practice to the team, he’s a pitchman in his broadcasts as well. Johnson’s broadcasts sell the game. His voice comes across naturally, as though he was discussing each nuance with the audience. He moves between action and advertisements smoothly.
In some respects, the Frontier League is a ghost yard for professional baseball players who are riding out dreams deferred. Nonaffiliated, the Frontier League is a crossroads of older players who once played in affiliated leagues and are hoping to return and younger players who have been overlooked by major league scouts and are hoping to be noticed.
Johnson, like the players, dreams of being in the major leagues, only he now dreams of calling games.
“Every kid swings in the back yard and dreams that they are in the World Series with two outs in the ninth, and they crack the winning home run,” Johnson says.
“I think everybody at one point would like to be a player, but then you realize the talent isn’t there and you’ve gotta go do something else. I always wanted to be a Cardinal at some point. I have dreams and goals that hopefully someday I will be in the major leagues calling a major league game. The players want to get there as a player, and I want to get there as a broadcaster.”