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Cardinals spring training

Rob Johnson poses for a portrait during St. Louis Cardinals spring training on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com)

He hasn’t caught an inning for them. He hasn’t been asked. He hasn’t taken a swing in the majors nor has he called for a curve. The Cardinals have the best record in baseball and he hasn’t once fastened the button on a Cardinals jersey for a regular-season game this summer.

And yet Rob Johnson has had his fingers all over their success.

“He’s kind of the shepherd,” ace Adam Wainwright said.

Johnson, the Cardinals’ catcher at Class AAA Memphis, has served this season as the seasoned receiver and mentor for the Cardinals’ young lion pitchers — a den leader for the pride of the organization. Of the nine rookies who have pitched in the majors this season, six threw to Johnson at Memphis before coming to the majors. Johnson helped Michael Wacha slow his racing thoughts, gave Tyler Lyons some final words of advice before leaving for the majors, deconstructed hitters for Seth Maness and urged Wainwright to adopt an elevated fastball.

While Johnson, 30, plays his way back to the majors, the Cardinals have asked him to help in another way: prepare others for the majors.

“I’ve tried to embrace this role that I’m in,” Johnson said in a phone interview last week. “Everybody plays to get to the big leagues and stay in the big leagues, and that’s my goal as well. That’s why I’m here. But while I’m (with Memphis), there are things I can do to help the organization in another way. Fifteen, 20 years from now we’re going to remember each other as teammates. We’re going to remember what we did as a team or what we did to help the major-league team. There is a commitment we’ve made to each other. That’s how I see it.”

the best policy

Johnson has 235 games in the majors behind the plate, earning turns with Seattle, San Diego and, last year, 17 games for the New York Mets. Within the first two weeks of free agency, the Cardinals pursued him aggressively.

Two calls came before the club brought in the closer, manager Mike Matheny. He had to convince Johnson that there was room for him in an organization that has the game’s best catcher, Yadier Molina, and his trusted young backup, Tony Cruz. It wasn’t an easy sell. It was necessary.

As the Cardinals entered the offseason, the front office and coaching staff agreed that they needed a veteran catcher at Class AAA to be there for the rising pitching talent. The Cardinals have Baseball America’s top-ranked organization, and the heft of their talent is in pitching. First-round pick Wacha and hotshot righty Carlos Martinez — two of the top pitching prospects in all the minors — and several budding prospects like Kevin Siegrist were all expected in Memphis at some point.

“Rob didn’t say, ‘I want to get a job where I can go and baby-sit kids at Triple-A,’” Matheny said. “What we had planned for him was a bigger job. He took it on.”

That third call clinched it.

Johnson signed a minor-league deal.

“The way Matheny is very upfront, very honest meant a lot,” Johnson said “I don’t feel like you always get that in baseball. I’m a man, I’m a husband, I’m a father with three kids, and this is my livelihood. All I can ask for is trust. I embraced what he said. I knew I could embrace this role.”

Born in Anaconda, Mont., Johnson was a multi-sport star for Butte (Mont.) Central High School Maroons, but not in baseball. Montana is one of three states that do not sanction high school baseball. From American Legion ball he went to Saddleback College, where he won the Orange Empire League’s MVP with a .496 average in conference, and later the University of Houston. Johnson was drafted in three consecutive years – 2002, 2003 and 2004 – before he eventually signed as a fourth-round pick with Seattle.

 

asking questions

In 2007, he made his big-league debut with Seattle and began developing a reputation for handling pitchers like high-watt righty Felix Hernandez.

It was how Hernandez used his fastball that Johnson mentioned to Wainwright during spring training. The veteran catcher was a clubhouse conversationalist. Matheny encourages his catchers to chat up the pitchers every day. Johnson had already started. He introduced himself to the young pitchers Matheny had mentioned to him as the rising talents. He spent time polling Molina and Matheny for suggestions on catching.

“He’s a question-asker by nature,” Wainwright said. “He loves picking brains about every topic. Sometimes he knows the answer and he’ll come up to and ask the question to see what you say. He’ll have a trick to it.”

The Cardinals have leaned heavily on youth this season. Of the Cardinals’ first 66 starts this season, 23 were made by rookies. The Cardinals brought a league-low 3.18 ERA into the series against Miami, and 34.7 percent of their 596 1/3 innings pitched this season have been thrown by rookies. The kids have an ERA of 2.87. In Memphis, the staff that Johnson catches has had 12 different pitchers make at least two starts this season, and still it leads the Pacific Coast League with a 3.75 ERA.

When reliever Mitchell Boggs returned from his first stint in the minors he told teammates about how Johnson’s positivity helped him deal with demotion. The young pitchers all have similar stories.

“The day before I was leaving for the majors I talked to him,” Lyons said. “The biggest thing he told me was not to change, not to do too much. That comes with a little bit of weight when the guy saying it has caught good big-league pitchers and he’s saying I can get people out.”

Said Wacha: “He sat me down after a start and said, ‘You’re working too fast. It looks like your mind is racing out there.’”

embracing a role

Memphis manager Pop Warner and pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd prepare the players for promotion and major-league readiness. Johnson is that added on-field layer — part coach, part confidant.

“It’s a rare thing to get to Triple-A and throw to a great catcher and them come up to the majors and throw to the greatest catcher,” Wainwright said. “Our pitchers are spoiled rotten.”

Johnson, a .201 hitter in the majors, has hit .234 this season in Memphis with seven homers and 27 RBIs in 43 games. There has been no need for another catcher in the majors and Johnson is not on the 40-man roster. He would have to be added for a September promotion, at the latest. There is an interest internally to acknowledge Johnson’s contribution to the team with a promotion when possible. General manager John Mozeliak said he hoped Johnson “can be rewarded.” It’s not his batting average or arm strength that would make that happen. It’s the catcher’s tool he heard often from Matheny in their talks.

The word selflessness is used a lot when the manager describes the position.

“I’m a huge believer that you can actually control three things in baseball — your work ethic, your preparation, and you can control your attitude,” Johnson said. “If I don’t get to the big leagues, then I understand that’s not something I control. That’s not the only way to be satisfied with a season. If I let that bitterness set in then I’m being a bad teammate, a bad person, a bad Christian.

“I’m here right now,” he concluded. “And if I can help somebody out while I’m here then, good, that will be how I can contribute.”

Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.