Must-Click Link: Chris Johnson on Jose Fernandez: “He changed me”

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One of the more memorable chapters of Jose Fernandez’s all-too-brief life and career came when he hit his first major league home run, back in 2013 against the Atlanta Braves. At the time he watched his home run for a lot longer than a young player is supposed to. If, at least, the young player cares about baseball’s so-called “unwritten rules.”

The Braves cared an awful lot about those unwritten rules and it led to a fracas involving Fernandez, Braves catcher Brian McCann and Braves third baseman Chris Johnson. It was one of the more notable incidents in the ongoing battle between players who talk about “playing the game the right way” and a younger generation of primarily Latino players who carry themselves differently. With more celebratory joy and more bat-flipping flair.

In the latest Sports Illustrated the great S.L. Price has a profile on Fernandez and, for part of it, he talked with Chris Johnson. Johnson joined the Marlins in 2016 and came to know Fernandez. They patched things up over the 2013 incident. But they didn’t just bury the hatchet. Johnson says that Fernandez fundamentally changed the way he viewed the game:

“I couldn’t have been more wrong,” Johnson said . . . “He changed me,” Johnson said. “I smile. Before, I was always intense and took the game as a job and had to make it, and had to stay in the big leagues, had to get the contract, had to be the guy. No: You don’t have to do anything. You made it, you got to the big leagues, you’re in the United States of America, got a beautiful family. The game is fun. He played the game how I played the game in Little League. That’s how everybody should be in the big leagues.”

Asked if he ever told Fernandez that, Johnson shook his head. “No,” he said, so softly that he had to repeat it. “But I’ll tell him one day.”

There is so much more to Price’s story and it’s well worth your time. But this, touching on a matter we have discussed here over and over again, sticks out for me. It was sad for me to think a couple of weeks ago that it took Jose Fernandez’s death to really appreciate the joyful way he approached the game. But now I know it didn’t take that. Johnson realized after meeting Fernandez. He realized he didn’t have to be that head-down, business-first player so many players and fans believe one has to be to be a true major leaguer.

If the tragedy of Jose Fernandez’s death does anything for baseball in the public sphere, I hope it causes people to realize that one can play it with joy and one can appreciate it being played with flair. That we do no have to pretend there is some code of conduct that players must adhere to, even if so many do by virtue of tradition and conformity.

Phillies select active duty Navy aviator in MLB Rule 5 draft

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SAN DIEGO — The Philadelphia Phillies took U.S. Navy aviator Noah Song in the Rule 5 draft Wednesday, hoping the former top pitching prospect can still be effective once he completes his military service.

There is no definitive date on when the 25-year-old Song might be able to join the Phillies.

Song was picked from the Boston Red Sox system in the draft for unprotected minor league players. Philadelphia put him on the military list while he continues his active duty and he won’t count on the 40-man roster, the pool from which major league teams can select players for the 26-man active roster.

Song impressed in his only pro season, making seven starts for Boston’s Class A Lowell affiliate in 2019, with a 1.06 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 17 innings. With a fastball clocked in the upper 90s mph, the right-hander dominated that year as a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy, going 11-1 with a 1.44 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 94 innings.

The Red Sox drafted Song in the fourth round – he likely would’ve gone much higher, but his impending military service caused teams to back off.

In November 2019, Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed a memo clearing the way for athletes at the nation’s military academies to delay their service commitments and play pro sports after graduation. Song’s request to have those new rules retroactively applied to his case was denied.

Song began school as a flight officer in the summer of 2020 and finished that phase last April. He started additional aviation training in May.

Song was among the 15 players, including three Boston pitchers, taken in the big league phase of the Rule 5 draft, which wasn’t held last year because of the MLB lockout.

Washington took righty Thad Ward from Boston’s Triple-A roster with the first pick. Baltimore took Red Sox minor league pitcher Andrew Politi with the ninth choice and the Phillies chose Song with the 11th selection.

Teams pay $100,000 to take players in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft. The players must stay on the big league roster next season or go on waivers and, if unclaimed, be offered back to their original organization for $50,000.