Former O’s prospect returns home to Washington to play football
by Matthew Taylor
Roar from 34 has moved into its new nest and established a reliable Internet connection. This Bird is ready to chirp again.
College football’s return this week provides a useful theme in these initial days back on the blogging beat. If the O’s can focus on football (Exhibit A: Saturday’s “Ravens Rally”), Roar from 34 can do the same.
One immediate Orange-and-Black connection to the college football world comes in the form of minor-leaguer-turned-University-of-Washington-defensive-back Nelson Alexander Johnson, III, better known as “Tripper.”
His non-intuitive nickname may have grown out of “triple” rather than “round tripper,” but Tripper Johnson blew off the stop sign this summer and continued on home to Washington after giving it a go in the Birds’ minor league system.
A 2000 first-round draft pick of the O’s, Johnson spent eight years in the minors before pulling a Rodney Dangerfield and heading “Back to School.” He recorded three tackles on the gridiron over the weekend in a 44-10 Huskies loss to Oregon.
His amateur-turned-pro-turned-amateur story begins on June 6, 2000 when the three-sport high school star, who can be seen in this YouTube highlight reel, decided to forgo his college baseball eligibility and a scholarship spot at UW for the chance to play with the Birds.
Newport High’s senior sneak day took on a whole new meaning yesterday as the school’s star baseball player, Tripper Johnson, snuck away as the highest Washington state pick in the major league draft.
Johnson, a power-hitting third baseman chosen by the Orioles, was the second player drafted in the supplemental first round, the 32nd pick overall. That left him with a tough choice, since Johnson had committed to play baseball for the University of Washington next year.
Yesterday, he said he plans to sneak away to Sarasota, Fla., after he graduates June 20, and will join the Orioles’ rookie team there to begin his pro career, foregoing his college baseball eligibility.
By 2004, Johnson was listed along with the likes of Nick Markakis, Hayden Penn, John Maine, and Chris Ray as one of the O’s Top Ten prospects. It happened to be Johnson’s best year in the minors, as he batted .269 with 21 home runs, 74 RBIs, 19 doubles, and 14 stolen bases for the Frederick Keys.
Nevertheless, Birds in the Belfry wasn’t buying the hype. In a 2004 review of the 2000 draft, the Belfry noted the following:
If an analysis of the 1999 Orioles draft could be summed up as “ambivalent,” no comparable adjective will likely ever be used to assess the 2000 experience. At this point, roughly four and-a-half years later, it looks a whole lot more like an utter disaster. To date, not one player selected by the Orioles in 2000 has reached the big leagues and while it is highly likely that at least a few players will, it’s relatively likely that no one drafted and signed by the club that year will ever be a player of significance at the big league level.
Johnson continued to be mentioned in the same breath as the O’s top young players, as seen in MLB.com’s 2005 look-back at the Arizona Fall League, “O’s prospects have strong campaigns.”
3B Tripper Johnson III — The 23-year-old corner infielder went 3-for-15 this week as his batting average slid to .333. On Nov. 7 against Grand Canyon, Johnson was 2-for-4 with two RBIs. He ended the campaign with two homers and 13 RBIs in 18 games.
However, after hitting .305 with five home runs in 2007 for the Keys, and appearing on the 2008 Bowie Baysox roster as late as August, Johnson hung up his baseball spikes and returned to his native Washington for a chance at gridiron glory. Now, his story is making the rounds of the Evergreen State.
He’s a little different from your typical walk-on wannabe in the Washington football program. Instead of scraping by on mac and cheese, for instance, he’s got his own financial adviser, wisely investing the first million dollars he earned in 2000. Rather than worrying about how he’s going to pay for school while hoping to eventually play his way into a scholarship, he’s got the Baltimore Orioles taking care of his tuition and books as part of the guaranteed baseball contract he signed coming out of Bellevue’s Newport High School.
One newcomer, though eight years older than many of his cohorts, is safety Tripper Johnson. Johnson, from Bellevue’s Newport High, originally signed a letter of intent to play baseball with the Huskies out of high school, but opted to sign with the Baltimore Orioles after being selected in the first round of the 2000 draft. Johnson spent eight seasons in the Orioles organization, but last spring, hung up the bat and glove in favor of a helmet and shoulder pads when he decided to enroll at the UW and walk on the football team.
Recently, Johnson sat down with GoHuskies.com. Here’s what he had to say:
After eight years of minor league baseball, you’re back playing football. How’s it going?
“It’s going pretty well. This is my first go-around at camp, and it’s going well. You know, it’s tough – a lot of work, a lot of hours watching film, and then we have to go practice on top of it. So yeah, it’s very tough but I’m enjoying it so far.”
Can you shed some light on how playing baseball all those years has affected your go at football? Do you think baseball helped in the long run?
“Yeah I think it’s helped out. Baseball taught me how to plan, to get in a routine. You can’t just show up and play. You have to have a plan. You have to treat your body right, you have to eat healthy, and you have to stay consistent in the weight room. Playing baseball for all those years, at the professional level, has definitely helped me mentally and maturity-wise.”
A year ago this week, Tripper Johnson was taking bus rides to Potomac, Md., and Salem, Va., putting the finishing touches on his eighth season of minor-league baseball. Unknown to him, it turned out to be his last.
“At the time I didn’t think it was going to be,” said Johnson, who was a member of the Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats.
But in the unforeseen directions life sometimes takes, Johnson finds himself this week preparing for his first college football season, one that begins Saturday in Eugene against the Oregon Ducks.
Tripper Johnson’s baseball career was stuck in neutral when he thought again about giving football a try. He was no longer a hot prospect out of Bellevue’s Newport High School when he finally decided to give up on one dream and pursue another. Johnson was only in his mid-20s, but in Class A ball, and even AA, 25 can start to feel old after spending eight years in the minors. But if Johnson felt age catching up with him in baseball, he must feel downright ancient playing football at Washington.
“They call me Uncle Trip, Old man,” said Johnson, who at 26 is a walk-on safety for the Huskies. “I enjoy it, I think it’s pretty funny.”
How Johnson found his way to Montlake and wearing the purple and gold of the Huskies is a tale of big baseball bucks, few peaks and many valleys in baseball’s minor leagues, and a lingering football itch that never could be scratched even with a career in professional baseball.
During his senior year at Newport in 2000, Johnson was considered one of the top athletes in the state – earning all-KingCo honors in football, basketball and baseball. But baseball was his best sport.
After accepting a baseball scholarship to the UW with hopes of walking on in football, Johnson instead passed on both and signed with the Baltimore Orioles for a reported $1.5 million signing bonus after being selected with the 32nd pick of the 2000 draft.
“It was something I couldn’t pass up,” said Johnson, who played third base. Even with a million dollars in the bank and a first season in which he hit .307, Johnson still couldn’t keep thoughts of football out of his mind.
These days, Johnson has an asterisk by his name, but the mark has nothing to do with a performance-enhanced baseball accomplishment; however, it does still relate to his life on the diamond.
Johnson’s bio on the Huskies’ football site notes, “Experience: HS*.”
[Image source: Bowie Baysox. Click image for original photo.]