CLEAR OF THE HAZE JOHNSON WEATHERS EARLY SNUB BY CHAMINADE MATES.
Entering high school, Erik Johnson thought he was Superman. Two years later, he felt devastated by the kryptonite that was his Chaminade High teammates' treatment of him.
Johnson went on to a successful career at Chaminade of West Hills, culminating in his selection to the 25th annual Bernie Milligan Daily News All-Star Game, to be played Saturday at Lancaster Municipal Stadium. Yet his freshman and sophomore seasons taught him about humanity, compassion and fairness.
``I thought I was going to succeed,'' he said. ``I hadn't experienced adversity before. I hadn't experienced failure.''
Failure was not an option for Johnson. He was so good in the Moorpark Little League, he played with the 11- and 12-year-olds when he was 9.
The older players, especially the coach's son, didn't like having this smaller guy around who could outplay them. They tried to push him around and pick fights with him at practice, but Johnson nonetheless played, contributed and quieted his teammates.
He got even better at age 10, hitting 12 home runs and batting .600. By the end of his Little League days, he had hit 26 home runs and had earned the nickname ``Baby Ruth.''
Not even the pressure of the Little League World Series derailed Johnson. After leading Moorpark to Williamsport, Pa., in 1996, he hit a home run off a light tower that earned him vast media attention, which only increased after he hit two home runs in the next game.
``It's a trip. It's fun,'' Johnson said of the horde of tape recorders, cameras and notepads thrust in his face. ``You feel all the attention's on you. It's a natural high.''
Johnson felt the same high as he started high school. Making the varsity team as a freshman was expected. But his Chaminade teammates, saw a cocky kid who thought he was hot stuff and who thought the world was his to dominate.
Suddenly, Johnson was shut out. Alone. With no friends.
``He comes from being a star on his teams and all the accolades,'' said Johnson's father, Walt, ``and he runs into a buzz saw of kids four years older than him.''
His teammates didn't let him forget, either. They gave him all sorts of tasks, tasks Johnson thought went beyond the usual hazing endured by freshmen. Johnson always had to set up the batting cages and collect the baseballs. But the players handed him extra work such as dragging the infield (Johnson's an outfielder) and putting away the rakes.
Johnson objected, but his complaints fell on deaf ears. On top of this, he wasn't playing for the first time.
``I felt if I could play and succeed, A) they'd be forced to shut up; or B) they could still pick on me, but I'm contributing.''
Instead, Johnson suffered through option C. Once when he was late to practice, the team convened a kangaroo court, found him guilty (Johnson didn't appreciate that no one testified on his behalf) and sentenced him to wearing a three-cornered hat around campus.
This upset Johnson because hats violate a school rule, so he appealed to Chaminade coach Scott Drootin. Drootin overturned the conviction and ordered the team captains to apologize, which they did.
``The older kids didn't accept him,'' Drootin said. ``They were jealous of his skills.''
Johnson hoped that was that. Instead, the same harsh treatment continued.
When he didn't play for much of his sophomore season, either, Johnson thought seriously for the first time about quitting. He decided against it because ``it would feel too strange. I couldn't imagine not playing baseball. What was I going to do with myself?''
He excelled his junior year, earning a spot in the Area Code Games. But his American Legion team was playing in the state playoffs in Yountville. Johnson decided to forsake the Area Code Games until Drootin insisted he play in them.
``He gained a lot of respect from his peers,'' Drootin said.
After all of this, a batting slump this season hardly bothered him. Once Drootin assured him he would not come out of the lineup, Johnson relaxed and went on a tear, finishing at .378 and leading his team to the Mission League title.
Next up after Saturday is a scholarship to UC Irvine. Once again, Johnson expects to enter the school confident. Only this time, he's wiser.
25TH ANNUAL BERNIE MILLIGAN ALL-STAR GAME
Time: 2 p.m.
Place: Lancaster Municipal Stadium
After battling a slump, Erik Johnson went on to hit .378 and lead Chaminade to the Mission League title.
Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer
Box: 25TH ANNUAL BERNIE MILLIGAN ALL-STAR GAME (see text)