A count of two strikes and two balls. Pitching in Arlington, Texas against the hometown Rangers. The hitter is Mickey Tettleton, a former All-Star with four 30-home-run seasons to his name.
Mike Johnson’s Major League debut came on April 6, 1997, for the visiting Baltimore Orioles. Johnson was only the second Edmontonian to reach baseball’s pinnacle in over 50 years (Dave Shipanoff pitched 26 games in 1985). But the next pitch would not be anything out of a storybook.
“I tried to go in with a fastball. I left it up over the plate and he hit it into the second deck,” Johnson recalls.
But that dinger — to a man who claimed his power came from Froot Loops — would only be a footnote for Johnson’s career. He’d go on to pitch in a total of 81 Major League games for the Orioles and Montreal Expos. A 1993 draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays, Johnson would also pitch in Asia, two Summer Olympics for Canada and for the Edmonton Capitals, before retiring in 2010.
Currently, the Sherwood Park resident is the owner and operator of 5 Tool Field House and runs the 5 Tool Baseball Academy in Edmonton’s west end. Johnson works with kids to improve their fitness and baseball skills, but also makes sure that players sharpen their off-field tools.
Ryan Estey is a pitcher/outfielder/first baseman from Sherwood Park who’s committed to Garden City Community College in Kansas. He has worked with Johnson.
“It’s great — you have to take care of that tool of the game. If you’re a great ball player it doesn’t matter if you can’t do two plus two. The best part there is that he looks out for another aspect of the game.”
Johnson takes pride in being seen by families as a source who can steer athletes in the right directions for their futures.
“With what I’ve done in the game and where I’ve played and people I’ve played with and learned from, I feel there’s a little bit of respect that’s been garnered from that. That’s definitely helped me as far as parents entrusting me to work with their kids.”
In a baseball story, you wouldn’t think to hear about Randy Jespersen, the founder of Olive Skateboards and Snowboards, and winner of the 2019 Made in Alberta Awards. But his son, Cyrus, played for the Parkland Twins at both the U13 and U15 levels. His dad, having a creative mind, got into looking at making bats that could be used for local teams.
“The first few bats I built were actually used laminating maple veneers, from the skateboards into a block,” says Jespersen. “Right off the start, I was making some unique looking bats.”
Cyco Stix would soon be born; what it offers differs dramatically from any other bat makers on the market with radical designs. The bats are featured in multiple colours such as blue, green, red and pink. The flashier bats are not yet game-approved at higher levels, but they do get used in batting practices and by coaches.
“Right now we’re just in our first year and we’ve had phenomenal local support. Coaches bats were used by the Parkland County coaching staff. There’s a lot of coaches using our bats, teaching the kids and doing whatever with that.”
The bats retail between $85 and $220, but Jespersen is preparing for when the demand reaches outside of the Edmonton area.
“We weren’t really pushing for a lot of sales but we were getting really good traction in the Edmonton area for sure. We haven’t really pursued any provincial or national sales … we are starting to now, we just wanted to make sure we had the first year of our production and processing kinda seamless. So now that we’re ramping up for this spring, we’re ready for any kind of distribution of any kind of production we need to take on.”
With the baseball bat industry valued in 2018 at $350 million and projected to reach upwards of $450 million by the end of 2025, being able to take a small portion of that market is something that both father and son would love to do, as the brand grows moving forward.
“The baseball industry is huge. We currently are building products that are fun to use. This is an awesome opportunity for Cyrus and me to develop a brand and build it up to whatever level. If sales evolve to one per cent [of the market] we will gladly accept that and push further.”
In Costa Mesa, California, a city that’s about a half an hour drive south from Los Angeles, you’ll find a high-performance and general training sports facility known as Constant Performance. It is owned and operated by Edmonton native David Constant.
The clients that have called this facility their off-season home include Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly, former 40-home run man Mark Trumbo and current New York Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka. Access to every-day Major Leaguers didn’t happen overnight; a tremendous amount of hard work was put into making this all a reality.
The journey for Constant began with him attending both the University of Alberta and Langara College in Vancouver; he’d move onto an honours degree in Kinesiology from Toronto’s York University. In 1998, he would move to California in pursuit of a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
By 1999, his business plan would become Constant Performance, known as DC Fitness and Sports Performance at the time of its opening in Anaheim. The name changed in 2008.
Kelly has been known to hit 100-plus m.p.h. on the radar gun for the Dodgers; Trumbo has been in the MLB’s Home Run Derby multiple times. So what does Constant work on with a top athlete to help him get to the next level?
“It’s really a basic template to start with,” says Constant. “It all depends on the athlete and what their goals are, what their fitness level is, where their weaknesses and strengths lie. For the most part you focus on shoulders, core stability, but also making sure you don’t lose the mobility in those joints. You also want to enhance strength and power. Baseball is primarily a power sport, but it’s power and endurance for the pitchers.”
The trainer’s journey with Kelly began when the future Major Leaguer was only nine, when Constant and Kelly’s mother entered into a relationship. He then started training Kelly and it was clear to Constant how much talent the kid possessed.
“His arm was almost like a whip. He had a gift from as far back as I can remember. His throwing motion and his shoulder mobility, whether it was a football or baseball or whatever it was, he had the ability to throw very hard at a young age.”
Even with the talent Kelly had, he didn’t really take the game or personal training seriously when he was younger and had a bit of resistance to the idea of working with Constant.
“I didn’t really want to listen to his words of wisdom, for strength and conditioning,” says Kelly. “I thought I was just fine, I thought I was a good athlete. I didn’t know what kind of benefits it would give me with advantages over other players who don’t use personal trainers or don’t know baseball-specific movements.”
When Kelly was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009, Constant helped him get to the next level — from draft choice to an actual Major League prospect. Kelly saw how Constant bucked the trend that saw an emphasis on weight lifting for pitchers.
“Dave knew that it’s basic biomechanics: If you keep doing the same thing over and over one way and your muscles are weak going the other way, there’s a chance you’re going to get hurt more often. In Southern California where I was, he was one of the pioneers of baseball-specific workouts, where people might think that’s the wrong way to work out, but everyone now knows that’s the right way to work out.
“I got very lucky to not only have Dave as a father figure but also as a mentor in how to take care of my body and how to get strong. I don’t know if I’d have been successful or if I’d have made it to the Big Leagues.”