To get to the hills, he would hoist his skis over a shoulder, walk to the highway, stick out his thumb and hitch a ride. “Where you going?” the driver would ask.
“Wherever you’re going,” a young Allen Johnson would say. Sunshine, Norquay, Lake Louise … it didn’t matter, as long as he could get somewhere to ski. After the day on the slopes, the same driver might bring him and a buddy back home to his neighbourhood of Parkdale along the Bow River, walking distance to downtown Calgary.
Josh Johnson, who was to make his debut for the Toronto Blue Jays against the Boston Red Sox on Friday, hasn’t been told that story about his dad’s upbringing.
“Hitchhiking probably wasn’t too safe a thing to do, something they didn’t need to know,” Allen Johnson says over lunch in Toronto, with his wife, Bonnie. Later, they were in the Rogers Centre stands to watch their son pitch.
In front of a roaring, rowdy crowd of 45,328, who booed former Blue Jays manager John Farrell each time he stepped from the dugout, Josh Johnson allowed nine hits and four runs (three earned) in six innings, striking out six. He wasn’t involved in the decision, as the Jays fell 6-4.
In Calgary, the oil and gas business permeated Allen Johnson’s life. An uncle ran a pipeline supply company in Fort St. John, B.C. His grandfather worked as a pipeline mechanic. Cousins worked on rigs in the North Sea and South China Sea. His father worked in the business before migrating into administration at Foothills Hospital, University of Calgary.
Life was good. Allen played AA bantam hockey, lacrosse and baseball, as a catcher. He recalls acquiring technical knowledge from a summer baseball camp in Penticton, B.C., staffed by former pros.
Later deciding to pursue postgraduate education in hospital administration at the University of Minnesota, his father moved the family to Minneapolis. They would remain in the U.S.
Allen met Bonnie in high school; they’ve been married 37 years. She gave birth to five boys eight years and one day apart from oldest to youngest – Ryan, Aaron, Micah, Tyler and Josh bringing up the rear.
Spend a couple of hours with Josh’s parents, and you get to understand how the youngest of the five goes about his business quietly and determinedly in the major leagues. Josh’s dad has always worked hard, his dad before him, and his dad before him. Maybe it’s in the Alberta blood.
Allen Johnson respects baseball metaphorically “as an object lesson in life – it’s all about the work you put in. It’s not about where you are today. It’s about how hard you’re working to get to where you want to be.”
The boys played street hockey in Minneapolis, although Josh may be where he is today – seven seasons of major-league service at 29, entering his free-agent year – due to the foreboding cost of organized hockey. If one would be allowed to play, they would all be allowed to play, so Allen said: “Boys, the only sport you can’t play is hockey.”
After receiving a job offer from The Williams Companies, a Tulsa-based concern with a history of doing business in Alberta, today operating in the oil sands processing gas byproduct to reduce emissions, Allen moved his family to Oklahoma.
In Tulsa, basketball and baseball became Josh’s sports. Josh and the next-oldest, Tyler, played with their older brothers from the time they could walk.
“I remember Tyler coming in with Josh crying one day, saying his older brothers were throwing a fastball [so hard] they couldn’t hit it,” Bonnie Johnson says.
“I yelled out the window to let them hit it. But they said, if they can’t hit it, they shouldn’t be out here playing with us. So I said [to Tyler and Josh], you boys go out and hit it, and you’ll go to the majors some day.”
At 4, Josh was standing at second base, dad pitching batting practice, when one of his older brothers smashed a one-hopper off his chest, knocking him over.
“I thought it’d killed him,” Allen says. He told Josh to move over to shortstop, safe from the left-handed hitter’s shots. “He said: ‘But he’s hitting everything here. I want to play here.’”
By 10, Josh was playing 120 games a year, and between the five boys, the games totalled 280.
At 12, Josh was 6 foot 2; he now stands 6 foot 7. Curiously, he has never been to Calgary.
“We were always playing baseball and basketball in the summers,” the Blue Jays pitcher says. “I hear it’s beautiful.”
In high school, Tyler and Josh played together in the outfield on the Jenks Trojan 6A state championship team in 2000, Josh as the only starting sophomore in 2000.
Coming out of his junior year in high school, Josh told the basketball coach to forget about him for the following season. It would be baseball-only in the senior year.
Tyler played for the University of Oklahoma on scholarship, but Josh ignored the daily calls from recruiters. He would be going pro.
“He wanted to send a message to baseball scouts that he was committed and would be ready to sign,” Allen Johnson says.
By then, he was throwing his fastball 90 miles an hour.
The Marlins drafted him in the fourth round and he made the majors by 21. The Blue Jays got him from Miami in the 12-player deal last November. He’s made a home in Las Vegas with his wife, a Californian, and two young sons.
Come 2017, Josh would will be eligible to play for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, because his father is a born-and-bred Albertan.