NELKE: Ex-Lake City, WSU standout Johnson, part of lawsuit seeking better pay for minor leaguers, moves on

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  • LOREN BENOIT/Press Kyle Johnson, right, gives Kallen Langley of the Coeur d’Alene Lumbermen some pointers during a game against the Missoula Mavericks on Thursday at Thorco Field in Coeur d’Alene. Johnson played ball for Lake City and Washington State and is helping coach the Lums this summer.

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    LOREN BENOIT/PressAssistant Lumberman coach Kyle Johnson watches one of his players track down a fly ball during a game against the Missoula Mavericks on July 13, 2017 at Thorco Field in Coeur d'Alene.

  • LOREN BENOIT/Press Kyle Johnson, right, gives Kallen Langley of the Coeur d’Alene Lumbermen some pointers during a game against the Missoula Mavericks on Thursday at Thorco Field in Coeur d’Alene. Johnson played ball for Lake City and Washington State and is helping coach the Lums this summer.

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    LOREN BENOIT/PressAssistant Lumberman coach Kyle Johnson watches one of his players track down a fly ball during a game against the Missoula Mavericks on July 13, 2017 at Thorco Field in Coeur d'Alene.

For the first time in some 15 years, Kyle Johnson is spending his summer at home.

It’s not necessarily of his own choosing, but in a way, it is.

Baseball has kept the former Lake City High star outfielder on the road during the summer for most of his 27 years — in the Northwest for travel ball and American Legion ball, then to places like Wenatchee and Newport, R.I., for wood-bat leagues during his college years at Washington State, and all over the country the past five years in the minor leagues, the first two years in the Los Angeles Angels organization, the past three as a New York Mets farmhand.

“Being home this time of year has been nice,” said Johnson, who has a wife and two young daughters, and just bought a house over the border, in Veradale, Wash. “I forgot how nice the weather is. I forgot how good the lake is. I forgot how much traffic there is in the summer, compared to the winter. It’s just been great to be home and with family in the summer.”

This spring, Kyle Johnson decided to take a stand — to fight for better pay for minor league baseball players. He’s part of a lawsuit brought on by players against Major League baseball. It’s unknown how many players are involved, because most don’t want their names publicly associated with the suit. Johnson is one of the few players to go public with the fight.

Minor leaguers, he said, start out making just over $1,000 a month — and that’s just for the length of the minor league season. The pay goes up a little bit as players progress through the farm system, but not a whole lot.

Nothing like the minimum salary for major leaguers, which this season is $535,000.

“It’s not even close,” Johnson said of the pay disparity between minor leaguers and major leaguers. “It’s something I’m fighting really hard. I’m a big part of that lawsuit against MLB, one of the main plaintiffs. I believe in it, just because it’s impossible for a minor leaguer to put as much time, effort, commitment, into an organization and just not get anything back. It’s tough. It’s really tough.”

IN EARLY March, Johnson, his wife Susan and their two girls flew to Florida for minor league spring training with the Mets in Port St. Lucie. They went to Universal Studios, and Disney World.

“I had a blast playing baseball, but we decided about halfway through that it was time to move on,” Johnson said.

Johnson went to the Mets’ front office and essentially asked for a raise.

“Without throwing out an exact number, I asked for more than I’ve been making,” he said. “My first year (in the minors) I made $1,100 a month, which after taxes was about $422 a paycheck, every two weeks. And it’s gone up as you climb higher, but not a lot. I started the business (bigleaguelocker.com, a site where teams and leagues purchase supplies, with a percentage kicked back to the leagues) about two years ago, and that was really starting to take off. And so for me to not put the full effort into the business, and to stay playing baseball and provide for my family the way I wanted to, I needed to be compensated differently, plain and simple.

“I told them what I wanted, and they were awesome about it,” he said. “The front office was great. They said ‘give us 24 hours, let’s see what we can do.’ They said, repectfully, they can’t.”

That’s because once you sign a minor-league contract, the team owns your rights for seven years. Johnson has two more seasons until he would become a free agent. Had the Mets given Johnson a raise, they would have been left open to other minor-leaguers seeking similar raises.

“After talking to my wife, we decided it was time to move on,” Johnson said.

He left the Mets’ minor-league camp, and the family flew back home. Johnson’s days now consist of his role as executive director of Premier Sports Center, a sports training facility in Post Falls, his work with bigleaguelocker.com, which he can do out of his office at Premier, along with training sessions, camps, clinics and helping out whenever he can with his old Legion baseball team, the Coeur d’Alene Lumbermen, working with the hitters and outfielders.

Technically, he was released by the Mets, and Johnson is a free agent. If another major league organization calls, he might be interested. After he left Florida, he said he heard from a few independent league clubs, mostly in the east and midwest, but wasn’t interested — the independent route is generally not a viable route to the majors. There was also some interest from “affiliated” teams, but nothing worth pursuing yet.

He watches baseball games on TV, and is excited for his former teammates when they get the call from the big club. But he’s not poring over the daily transactions, playing the “what if” game.

Besides, he’s kind of busy with work, etc. Recently he and Susan took the girls to Silverwood, and the proud father glowed as he recounted seeing the joy on their faces.

“I’ve played baseball since I was 5,” Johnson said. “So the thought of walking away from it was really hard. There were tears, there were a lot of feelings. My wife has been with me throughout the entire professional journey, and college, and she gets it, and has experienced it just like I have. So for both of us, it was really challenging.”

THE LAST three seasons in the minors, Johnson spent most of his time at the Triple-A and Double-A levels.

“On paper, I was right there. I’m one step away from the big leagues, one step away from the dream every little kid has,” he said. “On paper.”

The reality is, a player has to be on the major league club’s 40-man roster to get called up. And as close as he seemingly was to the bigs, despite his 1,318 minor league at-bats, Johnson never was placed on the Mets’ 40-man roster.

Still, he thinks in time he would have made it to the majors, though it could have taken a few more years. And, with age 28 approaching in November, he didn’t think it was feasible to invest another 3-4 years in the process, just for that “hope.”

“The big thing is to get on the 40-man roster,” Johnson said. “Once you get on the 40-man roster, then you start making money.”

When minor leaguers get called up to the bigs, they make the major league minimum, prorated based on how long they’re in the bigs. If they’re sent back down to the minors, they make however much they negotiate — and that could be as much as $100,000 a season.

A wee bit more than $1,100 a month minor-leaguers make when they first start out.

“On paper, I’m one step away. But I’m not on the 40-man,” he said.

Johnson would like to see minor leaguers make roughly $35,000 a season. He’d also like to see minor leaguers get paid in spring training, something that doesn’t happen now.

The lawsuit is in limbo, Johnson said, with some back-and-forth between the lawyers and Major League Baseball. He said one of the biggest concerns about the lawsuit is players are worried they will get blackballed.

“That wasn’t the case with me,” Johnson said. “We made the choice ourselves (to leave minor league camp). The Mets and I have a great relationship. No hard feelings. Just a personal choice.”

“The whole process is going to take a long time,” he said. “Ultimately, I’m hoping the pressure from the lawsuit just gets Major League Baseball to reconsider how they’re treating minor league players, and they just switch it on their own. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to the court saying ‘you have to do this.’ I’m hoping MLB steps up and says, ‘this is what we should do.’ And they just implement it.”

Several months later, Johnson says he’s still glad he’s a part of the lawsuit.

“Absolutely. I believe in it wholeheartedly,” he said. “It needs to be addressed, it needs to be changed. The conditions that minor leaguers live and work under, it needs to be addressed. And there’s no reason Major League Baseball can’t address it.

“I was one of the very few active players that put my name in front of it. So I’m one of the main plaintiffs, and at the time I was the only active player that was willing to do that. And it’s because of ... the fear of being blackballed.”

Outfielder Curt Flood challenged MLB’s reserve clause in 1969, claiming teams shouldn’t automatically retain rights to players after they fulfilled their contracts. He sued the commissioner and lost, and was ultimately blackballed. But his actions triggered change, and ultimately helped lead to free agency in the mid 1970s.

“I didn’t know his name, but if I could be one of the forefront pioneers, in changing that, that would be awesome,” Johnson said. “Not that anybody remembers my name — they remember his name. But maybe they’ll remember — this is why it is.”

JOHNSON’s WIFE works as a teen outreach coordinator for Safe Passage in Coeur d’Alene, counseling victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, etc. She also runs a photography business.

Kyle uses words like “incredible” and “remarkable” to describe his wife, and refers to decisions that affect him as made by “we” rather than “I” Theirs is truly a team.

“She’s the one that made it possible for us to continue to play baseball as long as we did,” Kyle said. “Without my wife and her income and her support, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

Over the past three years, Johnson played in a handful of major league spring training games — enough to convince him he was good enough to play in the bigs.

If this is it for his pro baseball career, he has plenty of memories — winning an Eastern League championship with the Mets’ Double-A team, being an All-Star.

HE CAN even laugh as he describes his most embarrasing moment.

It was in Orlando, the first year he played in a major league spring training game. He came in in the late innings to play center field. His wife and in-laws were in the crowd, and Mets manager Terry Collins was in the dugout.

“There was a ball hit to center field — crushed,” Johnson recalled. “I see it off the bat and I put my head down and run to the fence, and all I’m playing in my head while I’m running is, ‘I’m going to climb the wall, I’m going to catch it, I’m going to bring it back, I’m going to be on SportsCenter Top 10 plays.’ This is all running through my head. So I’m getting back to the wall, and I look back for the ball and it had gotten caught up in the wind, and was dying, and was going to land behind me. So I put on my brakes, I’m on the warning track, my cleats slide out from underneath me, and the ball’s still coming down. I try to Army crawl, on the ground, to get to it. I reach out my glove and it falls maybe 4 inches in front of my glove.”

His wife and in-laws had no idea what to say to him after the game. A handful of his buddies from high school and college — as buddies will do — sent him video of that play.

That’s what friends are for.

“But that’s the thing about professional sports,” he said. “You put yourself out there every single day. You’re on the biggest stage. If you fail, everybody knows about it. But that’s also the rewarding thing about it. I can look back on that, and in the moment, it sucked. But it was such a cool moment.

“So then I was on ESPN for the opposite reason.”

AS A 25th-round draft pick by the Angels in 2012, Kyle Johnson received a small signing bonus — enough to purchase an engagement ring.

So he’ll always have that memory of baseball, regardless of what happens with the lawsuit. Either way, he’s happy to be giving back to the game that has given so much to him for most of his life.

“We have absolutely no regrets,” he said. “I’ve been to every state in the United States. I’ve played on really cool fields, I’ve played on real crummy fields ... I’ve made some lifelong friendships. I’ve experienced more in those five years of professional baseball than most people will get to do in their entire life. I’m so grateful, and that’s why I want to give back to baseball.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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