It started at a nearly vacant Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., on a
hot July day. It started with a ground out. At the end of the day –
the end of his first game as a professional baseball player –
Clinton’s Christian Johnson had put a 1-for-3 in the box score for the
Gulf Coast League Rays, the Tampa Bay Rays’ rookie-level team.
He had taken a step forward on what he hopes is a long and fruitful
journey. It was a good feeling, he said: “It kinda hit me then because
I finally realized this is what I do for a living. Getting a hit in my
first game was nice.”

Like every other player on the field that day, Johnson has a clear
goal: a career in the big leagues. They face long odds, to be sure,
but that’s not in anyone’s mind at this stage of the game. It’s about
seizing the day, taking a step forward every day, making the most of
an opportunity many don’t get.

There isn’t a road map to the big leagues; the journey is different
for everyone. There isn’t a manual to follow. But kids from
Mississippi do get there. Sixteen state high school products have
appeared in major league games this year, including two who broke
through for the first time: Austin Riley from DeSoto Central and Bobby
Bradley from Harrison Central. Both, like Johnson, turned pro right
out of high school. It took Bradley six years to make it, Riley five

Johnson, 18, was a 19th-round draft pick out of Clinton High School in
June, one of six Mississippi high school players chosen over the 40
rounds. A 5-foot-11, 180-pound center fielder, he batted .412 in 22
games for the Arrows as a senior. After getting hits in his first four
games of pro ball, Johnson ultimately wound up with a .169 average
over 23 games. He had a double, four RBIs and two stolen bases.
He was not discouraged. Not even close.

“I made progress,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview. He was
back in Clinton for a few days in early September before heading off
to Instructional League at the Rays’ spring training complex in Port
Charlotte, Fla. “It’s definitely different than high school. Not being
used to failure is a big adjustment. But I’m not thinking about the
numbers right now. I’ve just got to focus on what I need to do to get

The Gulf Coast League, based at the spring training complexes of the
major league teams, is where most first-year pros get their start. But
the large (35-man) rosters can feature a mixed bag of talent,
experience and background. In his debut, Johnson played with a
24-year-old third baseman on a minor league rehab assignment, a
20-year-old juco product also drafted in June, a 19-year-old Dominican
shortstop in his third pro season and a 17-year-old rookie pitcher
from Cuba.

Determining whether a player fresh out of high school is ready for all
that he’ll encounter in pro ball is a significant part of the scouting

“We try to make sure the kid is ready to engage in pro ball before
we’d ever draft him,” said Rays scout Rick Drexler, who scouted and
signed Johnson. “Is he ready from a physical and emotional standpoint?
Does he have family support? If we think there’s a chance that the kid
might fail, we’ll tell him he’s best suited for college. …

“With Christian, there was no doubt he was ready. He had the physical
ability. He could run, and he could swing the bat. He’s a good kid,
and he comes from a great family. His high school coach did a good job
with him.”

The Clinton High coach, Trave Hopkins, said Johnson’s speed,
especially in center field, is what first caught the attention of the
pro scouts. “He can fly, but he can hit, too,” Hopkins said. “He’s not
just a runner. He hit .400 or better every year here. He knows how to
play the game.”

Hopkins played for several years in independent leagues and went to a
spring camp with the St. Louis Cardinals, so he knew a little about
what awaited Johnson as a fulltime pro. “Nobody’s really ready,”
Hopkins said just after the draft, before adding that Johnson had the
talent and work ethic to handle it.

Johnson said he told a teacher when he was in third grade that he
wanted to be a big league player. He played football along the way,
too, but gave that up after his junior season to focus on baseball. He
signed to play at Alabama-Birmingham but, eager to take that first
step toward the majors, elected to sign with the Rays.

“I am prepared for this,” he said just after the draft.

Johnson said he was accustomed to long days from his high school
season, when the team lifted weights before school, then played or
practiced that afternoon. The GCL was just more consuming: He caught a
team van ride from his apartment to the complex at 6:45 a.m., ate
breakfast at 7:30, practiced on the field for an hour, hit in the
cages for a spell and then played a game. Three nights a week, he
lifted weights.

“It’s a lot of baseball, but I was ready for that,” he said. “The
toughest part to me was the Florida heat. That would tire you out.”
The pitching in the GCL was good, Johnson said, much better than what
he saw at the Class 6A level of high school ball in Mississippi or
with his travel team in the summers.

“I’d see 90 (miles per hour) once in a blue moon in high school,” he
said. “I think the slowest I saw this summer was 93. That takes some
getting used to. I started catching up to more balls at the end of the
season, learning to recognize pitches a little bit. Guys were good at
locating their stuff, too.

“Playing the outfield is pretty much the same game as high school.
Just getting the bat to the ball is the most important thing for me.”
“It’s a process,” Drexler said. “Most high school kids don’t come out
and hit .300 right away. There’s an acclimation process. … What
Christian did was definitely encouraging. He showed speed and
athleticism. His defense was good. We were encouraged by the way he
swung the bat, and just the way he competed every day, that was great
to see.”

Johnson praised the way the Rays’ coaching staff, which included
former major league infielder Jim Morrison, handled the GCL roster:
“They were great. They just wanted the best for all of us, not just
the best players. I thought it might be like college, where the best
players play all the time. But they treated us all the same. They want
you to develop.”

In the three-week Instructional League, which is an invitation-only
camp, Johnson will receive a lot more one-on-one attention from Rays
coaches. “They’ll give me insights into specific things I need to work
on,” he said.

After Instructional League, Johnson will have some time off – to work
out on his own in the Rays’ off-season program – before spring
training begins in Florida in late February. He could move up a level
next season, but he may well start out back in the GCL. In the Tampa
Bay system, there are six levels between the GCL and the major league
team. That might seem daunting, but Johnson vows to stay in the
moment. Every day is another opportunity.

“It’s a game of failure,” he said. “Hall of Famers only get three hits
every 10 at-bats. You can’t beat yourself up over a bad day. I’ll take
the good when it happens and work on the bad to make it better.”