SAN FRANCISCO – Johnny Monell Sr. traveled across the country from Atlantic City to the shores of McCovey Cove to watch his son make his major league debut Thursday night.
It was not a direct flight.
Monell Sr.’s own major league dream involved unscheduled stops in places like New Taipei City and Nettuno, Italy. It involved side trips to Little Falls, N.Y., Lynchburg, Tenn., Midland, Texas and Tulsa, Okla. while traveling from farm to farm for three organizations in seven seasons.
It involved not one stint in the Mexican League but four, in places like San Luis Potosi, Torreon and Quintana Roo. And it involved independent ball, too – a blistering summer in Lubbock and, at the end, four seasons in a ballpark dubbed the Sandcastle in Atlantic City.
That is where almost two decades of professional baseball ended for Johnny Monell Sr. A dozen years later, that is where he packed a bag and hopped a flight to see his son realize a dream that was bigger than both of them.
“I got here early, I waited for him by the tarp and when he came out of the dugout … it was just very emotional – a super high,” said Monell Sr., 47, with sunglasses perched on his bald head as he watched the Giants from the field level at AT&T Park. It’s surreal. It still hasn’t sunk in. Maybe after his first at-bat, it will.”
You’d think the burden would be heavy, trying to reach the major leagues not just to fulfill your own ambition but your father’s as well. Except that’s not how Johnny Monell, major league reserve catcher for the San Francisco Giants, was brought up.
He was a clubhouse rugrat, like so many players’ sons. He went to Puerto Rico with his dad for winter ball and Carlos Delgado flipped him soft-toss batting practice. Jim Thome gave him a bear hug. Ruben Sierra joked with him. Bernard Gilkey, in a prank the Monells still talk about, once shoved him in a laundry bag, hung him from a hook and turned out the lights.
“Oh, you heard that one already, huh?” Johnny Sr. said. “Well, did you hear how he became a catcher?”
[BOX SCORE: D'Backs 4, Giants 2]
Here goes: One of Johnny Sr.’s best friends, onetime Chicago Cubs catcher Hector Villanueva, saw little Johnny shagging in the outfield one day at Atlantic City. So in a “Mean” Joe Green moment, he threw his equipment bag at him, asked if he’d like to try on the gear. Then Villanueva went to catch a bullpen.
Johnny waddled over, swimming in gear, and asked to catch the next pitcher. They let him.
“No kidding, 10 years old and he’s catching a ‘pen,” Johnny Sr. said. “I told Hector, ‘You’ll kill him!’ But he did it.”
That’s when little Johnny told his father, with a light in his eyes, that he knew for sure he wanted to be a catcher. His father’s reaction:
“You sure?” Johnny Sr. said. “You gotta love this position. You can’t just like it. You have to understand everything about it.”
Monell Sr. understood. He signed as a catcher with the New York Mets in 1985 but he could run a little, so they quickly made him an outfielder. He made it as far as Triple-A Tidewater before moving on to stops in the Angels and Rangers systems.
When he saw the Giants asking his son to take grounders at first base and third base, he felt a surge of déjà vu.
But the Giants kept the younger Monell behind the plate, and that meant opportunity.
In spring training, catchers are like doorknobs. They don’t occupy much of your thought or attention. But try getting anywhere without them.
So many major league careers came about because a club needed a couple extra catchers to receive all the pitchers in big league camp. When you’re in front of major league coaches, no matter your pedigree or draft round, you have a chance to get noticed.
Monell, a 30th-round pick in 2007, did that this spring in Scottsdale. He hit .476 in 15 games – a solid follow-up after he led the Puerto Rican League in home runs (seven) and OPS (.934) for Caguas over the winter.
He went on to tie for fourth in the Pacific Coast League with 20 home runs for Triple-A Fresno this season, 16 of them coming after May 18.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy noted on more than one occasion that catchers with left-handed power are rare birds. And teams always need a third doorknob when rosters expand in September.
The hints were out there. And the wait was on last week. For everyone.
“That whole last week, we were taking about the possibilities, if they’d do it or not, trying to get my mind right for whatever happened,” the younger Monell said.
And when he got word that the Giants would purchase his contract when Fresno’s season ended Monday?
“I called home,” said Monell, who spoke to his mother, Vivian, first.
Then she passed the phone.
“He was just … filled with emotion, and so happy,” Johnny said. “Our whole life, he’s been an example to me and my brother and sister. Just stick with something and work hard for it.”
They both worked for this. When Johnny, now 27, received his first big league camp invitation with the Giants in 2010, his father sat him down and said three words:
“Let’s get dirty”
They stayed late every day that winter at 220, short for Second to None, Johnny Sr.’s baseball academy in Margate, N.J. They flipped the pitching machine on and set it to nasty. Ball blocking drills, tee work, barrel accuracy – it was a baseball boot camp.
“And I had some things to tell him,” said Johnny Sr., who works as a substitute P.E. teacher and school district security supervisor when he’s not at his academy. “Just because I didn’t get to the big leagues doesn’t mean I didn’t listen.”
As his son readied for his first big league at-bat, the father kept imparting those lessons.
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“Don’t stop the hands from going,” Johnny Sr. told him. “Let them go. The ball doesn’t have feelings. You can’t hurt it. It won’t yell ouch.
“It’s a chess game, but don’t lose your aggressiveness. If you mess up, you’ll mess up giving 100 percent.”
It takes a 100 percent commitment to stay in professional baseball for 17 years when the next job is on another continent.
“I have no regrets,” Johnny Sr. said. “Baseball took me to places I never thought I’d go.”
He played a season in Italy, for Nettuno. They were the Indians, he thinks.
“Our uniforms looked just like the Indians, anyway,” he said.
It is a long way from Stadio Steno Borghese to Sinjhuang Baseball Stadium in Taiwan. Johnny Sr. played there, too, wearing neon yellow for a team called Brother Elephants.
“You know, like the fax machines,” he said.
What kept him from running out of ribbon?
“The game, man,” he said. “The game.”
“Taiwan, when I got there, I thought I’d leave in two days. But 1 p.m. came around and it was game time and everything went away. When I got on that field, I just wanted to play baseball.”
Now time has gone by and there are three Giants coaches – roving infield coach Jose Alguacil, roving infield coach Henry Cotto and big league hitting coach Hensley Meulens – that either played with or against Johnny Sr. ("I'm telling you, he had that boom-boom swing," Alguacil said.)
He’s been a Cotton Picker and a Cricket, a Driller and a Surf.
Now he’s a proud father. With no jet lag.
“I’m already on California time,” Monell Sr. said. “I stay up at night to watch all his games.”
The moment came with two outs in the ninth inning. Bochy sent up Monell to pinch-hit for pitcher Sandy Rosario. Sidewinding right-hander Brad Ziegler threw one pitch. One aggressive swing, one pop-up.
The baseball didn’t yell ouch, and the Giants lost. But Johnny Monell Sr.’s oldest son was, officially and forevermore, a big leaguer.
The father gazed out at the greenery and the bricks and the sellout crowd at Third and King.
“Man,” he said. “Isn’t this place beautiful?”
In line Images provided by The Associated Press, Fresno Bee and Johnny Monell Jr's Twitter page