It will happen more than 2,300 miles away from home in an unfamiliar place, but by week’s end, Hobbs Johnson’s lifelong goal will be his reality. He’ll be a professional baseball player.
Johnson, a 2010 graduate of Rocky Mount High, agreed to a contract with the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, just more than two weeks after the club drafted the University of North Carolina junior in the 14th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft.
On June 30, Johnson will report to the Helena Brewers, a Milwaukee rookie-league affiliate in Helena, Mont.
“Once I got back home (from the College World Series), it wasn’t really a hard decision because I didn’t really have any plans to go back to school,” Johnson said. “They made me a good offer. It was a pretty easy move.”
Teams possess the rights to a newly drafted rookie for up to six years, though the club can end the contract by releasing the player or denying him arbitration.
There is no set bonus for players drafted after the 10th round, and any bonus lower than $100,000 does not count against the team’s overall budget.
Johnson said the Brewers offered him “close to the maximum for my slot.”
The left-handed starting pitcher had a 2.37 earned run average in 87.1 innings pitched for the Tar Heels, who won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament championships and qualified for the College World Series. Johnson went 5-1 in 17 starts and held opponents to a .196 batting average, the lowest on the team among pitchers with nine or more starts.
Johnson pitched arguably the best game of his college career Thursday, tossing 8 1/3 shutout innings in a 7-0 North Carolina win in a CWS elimination game against N.C. State.
It wasn’t much of a surprise to those who had seen him play before.
“He was a real competitor, an awesome two-way guy,” Rocky Mount coach Kent Cox said. “I remember once we were in the Easter Tournament down in Smithfield, he was playing outfield and he hit a grad slam to send it to extra innings. He’s an awesome all-around ball player, not just an awesome pitcher.”
The pro baseball dream looked like a possibility after a breakout summer with his travel baseball team, the Dirtbags, in 2008. In a 192-team national tournament in Marietta, Ga., Johnson threw two complete game shutouts – one of which came on three days’ rest against the No. 1 team – and was named most valuable pitcher of the tournament.
“Those guys at that tournament were the guys he was going to see in college and at the next level, and he was able to have that kind of success,” Hobbs’ father, Jeff Johnson, said. “We had an idea of what he could do right there.”
Cox said he’s seen significant improvement in Johnson, even in the three years Johnson has been in college.
“He was throwing 85 to 88 (mph) with us, and now he’s throwing 92 pretty consistently,” Cox said. “That’s a testament to his work ethic.”
The Brewers plan to make Johnson a starter in Helena, though he could be moved to the bullpen at higher levels depending on how he fares.
After his sophomore year at North Carolina, Johnson told teams, despite good offers, that he wanted to go back to school and be one year away from a degree at any time.
He made his move while still having another year of eligibility, a valuable piece of contract leverage.
“I know I can go back to school at any time,” Johnson said. “The way I did it, I only have one year left, and that will be there no matter how baseball goes.”
Johnson will round out the season with Helena, then report to spring training next February.
It all happened so quickly, but those close to Johnson believe it was no accident.
“He’s always been competitive, even back to his tee-ball days,” Jeff Johnson said. “He’ll always give you everything he’s got. He’s earned what he has.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com