MALONE — Jody Johnston sat in a booth in the far corner of Hosler’s Family Restaurant.
The baby-blue New York Mets polo he wore underneath his black North Face jacket was fitting. It filled the void. Kept him connected to the game.
The red-hot Glazier Michigan, sloshed with sauce and dazzled with onions, sitting next to a pile of onion rings, looked delicious. But still, the real enjoyment was missing.
Johnston’s fourth year coaching the Brushton-Moira baseball team was cut short after just one week once COVID-19 ended the spring high school sports season.
The coronavirus took an entire season of suiting up in the uniform, being a kid again.
Baseball, that portal to relive the glory days of pitching for the Huskies, the dream of the majors, the entire ride through life the game was gone.
In that booth sat a man without baseball. A man without his comfort food.
The north country was a cultural landscape for baseball in the late 1970s.
Young kids had the foundation laid out, they were taught the fundamentals and blowouts were rare. If players weren’t at a game or practice, they were attending other games. Baseball was more than their livelihood — it was their very lives.
“Any team could beat anybody at any time. There was no gimmes,” Johnston said. “There were no games that you knew you were going to win. Everything was very competitive.”
Johnston, like many players at the time, maintained an edge that he carried every time he stepped on the field. An undefeated junior varsity season was just the beginning of Johnston’s rise.
“Even at that level, you could just tell, Jody was a premier pitcher,” Former Malone Huskies second baseman Kevin Walbridge said. “He had a very live arm, excellent fastball.”
From a Little League team that placed third out of 20 in a state tournament packed with northern New York All-Stars, to their graduation in 1980, Walbridge witnessed something special develop over the years in Johnston’s play.
“When he threw a baseball, he had some zip to it that no one else in the league had. He threw so hard, it was so dominant,” Walbridge said. “Coming up through, you knew he had a chance to be something special.”
Between Johnston and other future MLB talents — Tom Browning in Malone and Jim Deshaies from Massena — scouts often scurried across the north country.
During the last class of the day, Johnston would look out the window. His eyes would meet cars pouring into the lot and he took note of the out-of-state plates.
“I knew who they were,” Johnston said.
The scouts couldn’t be seen in the stands, but their presence was heavy. Intermingled with parents a half-dozen scouts watched, taking notes.
“It kind of changes the way everything works. It becomes a little bit more of an event,” Johnston said.
Stepping onto the mound and lighting up batter after batter carried a new feeling. A new dream of advancing his game, reaching the majors. A two-time first-team All-Northern who batted .576, with 165 strikeouts in 67 innings and posted a 0.56 ERA, the All-American was well on his way.
To help keep in shape, Johnston played quarterback with some punting and defensive back duties for the Malone football team. He also ran cross country, adding to the leg work that was often a focus.
It wasn’t a struggle, but he put in the work, running, biking. The 6-foot-1-inch, 175-pound tri-sport athlete was at the height of his potential, the world was his — if he could avoid injury.
Johnston mulled over whether to risk playing football, knowing that baseball dream was well within his grasp. But he played on. And for what it’s worth, he achieved his goal of not getting injured before the draft.
The Mets selected Johnston in the third round of the 1980 June amateur baseball draft, 53rd overall, and the prospect was ready to get after it in the minors.
But the road to the dream featured a roadblock.
When Johnston regained consciousness, his two beagles — Plato and Mindy — were licking his face.
They always accompanied him during hunting season, which was just around the corner. But on this Friday, Sept. 12, 1980, he was just getting prepared with some target practice, aiming at a can of water. It was the perfect mark for a .22 caliber pistol, the very one Johnston held in his hand as he woke up.
As blood streamed from the right side of his head, he gathered himself from the earth and staggered his way back to the house.
“I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was doing – the biggest mistake you can make when dealing with any type of weapon,” Johnston said.
He had tripped over a tree root while preparing to shoot, and as he stumbled, the gun misfired and the bullet grazed his right temple.
“I remember going to the bathroom and washing the blood off,” Johnston said.
He felt the wound with his finger before passing out on the floor.
Waking briefly on the ambulance ride to Plattsburgh, and spending multiple days in the intensive care unit, his memories are as blurry as his consciousness back then, ebbing in and out.
He was to fly out from Montreal to St. Petersburg, Fla., that Monday to work out with the other prospects in Florida.
Instead, he spent four hours on the operating table having 18 bone chips and bullet fragments removed from his brain.
“That eliminated my opportunity to go down to the Instructional League, but I went down to spring training the following March,” Johnston said. “It didn’t stop the dream. It was still there; it was still happening.”
Upon further surgery in January, doctors fused an acrylic plate onto Johnston’s skull to cover the hole. He then received full medical clearance to play baseball — no restrictions.
Johnston spent that year playing in Little Falls, and most of the 1981 season with the Shelby, N.C., team in the South Atlantic League.
“I didn’t want to be treated any differently than any of the other players. I got to spring training, they wanted me to wear a helmet all the time and stuff like that, and I said, ‘I don’t have to, I have clearance from my doctor,’” Johnston said. “The acrylic plate in my head is actually stronger than my skull is, so it’s not going to be a problem.
“It’ll be more of a problem if I get hit somewhere else just like any other person.”
But there were residual effects of the injury, both physical and mental.
If one were to put a tack and a quarter in the palm of Johnston’s left hand, he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference without looking at them. He had limited sensation in the hand, unable even to detect pain if he caught a line drive back to him on the mound.
“I was probably lucky I wasn’t a left-handed pitcher,” Johnston said.
All the while there were numerous hours of physical therapy as he practiced closing his hand and picking up pens and forks, reclaiming the motion and dexterity that he lost to the errant gun shot.
While meeting his neurologist, Johnston was in deep thought, mulling over the events of his life that led him to that point.
“I had some dark moments, you know? I realized I’m 17 years old, I had the world by the balls,” Johnston said. “I was going to be potentially a major league pitcher someday.”
The bullet, if it had traveled a quarter of an inch in a different direction, would have created drastically different circumstances.
“You sit there and start thinking about your mortality,” Johnston said.
Johnston confided in his neurosurgeon, pouring out his thoughts. The doctor steered him right.
“You can live your life like that,” the surgeon said. “But a quarter of an inch the other way, it wouldn’t have touched you. That’s the way you need to live your life.”
Now 40 years after that accident, Johnston is still living that way.
“I was 17 years old. I had a whole lot of potential. A whole lot of things that could happen to me in the future, but it made me understand how fleeting life can be and how serious things can happen to you,” Johnston said.
“You appreciate life so much more. You appreciate the little things so much more and understand that things could’ve been so different 40 years ago.”
Johnston never made it out of spring training in the majors, even though he excelled in the minors.
He played for the Mets organization in Little Falls, Shelby and Lynchburg from 1980-83. Johnston was named the June 1982 Carolina League Player of the Month. He was also the first 1982 Doubleday Mets Player of the Year in the Carolina League.
Johnston was then traded to the Dodgers, where he played in San Antonio and Vero Beach from 1983-85. Whether he was starting every fifth day, or the designated relief pitcher five nights in a row, Ibuprofen, heating pads and ice baths became his friend circle.
This was the daily grind, the six-year cycle of putting it all out there with the hopes of advancement. That star pitcher that lit up the north country found harder competition, and worked his body day in and day out.
“You go out and do it all over again for the love of the game,” Johnston said.
The Dodgers releasing Johnston in 1985 marked the end of his pro ball career. He arrived back home in the north country, and yet, baseball still called out to him.
The Mets invited him to another spring training, but after six seasons in pro ball and never rising above Double A, Johnston declined.
“If you don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, or not progressing where you think you should be, it’s time to say goodbye and work on a career in getting a normal life,” Johnston said.
He began a career as a corrections officer, becoming a captain. He joined the Malone Town Board and became involved in the community. His baseball life was over.
Then the game came beckoning again, summoning him to the diamond.
A men’s league with teams from surrounding areas — Massena, Ogdensburg, Malone — men and college kids played doubleheaders on Sunday afternoons. It was called the Northern Valley League.
He received a call to come play. He had the chance to return to the game.
“I’m going to do this under one condition — I’m not pitching,” Johnston said.
So he played the outfield for the league’s Brushton team. He didn’t have to be that young, competitive star pitcher for the Huskies. Johnston wanted to go back to that place where he was younger, but for more enjoyment than the grind allowed.
After a while, it came out. He’d take note of the pitcher — he would’ve thrown a curveball there. So, he asked his coach if he could take the mound for an inning or two.
“I just want to get on the mound, I want to do this again,” Johnston said.
Before long, he was starting. The man that once left the game was a kid again.
The game called Johnston once more in the form of a coaching position for the SUNY Canton baseball team in 2009. When he heard the offer over the phone, Johnston’s response came instantly: “yes”.
Baseball was taking Johnston to uncharted territory.
“I never got to have the college experience. Now I can live vicariously through the college athletes,” Johnston said.
The game always kept calling him. Johnston never went looking for those opportunities. It’s as if there’s a force in the air that pulls him to the diamond. Now heading the Brushton-Moira baseball program, Johnston has the chance to help other athletes get drafted, and chase that dream he once chased.
From youth camps and Little League, to varsity and the college level, Johnston never strayed far from baseball. The majors were the dream for a long time, but baseball, in whatever form, was always the comfort food.
And the journey is still going.
“I truly hope it never ends. It’s one of those things we can all fall back on that make us very comfortable,” Johnston said.
It’s a shelter. A sanctuary.
“For me, comfort is baseball. That’s why it was hard for me this year (when the pandemic halted games) to not sit every night and watch a baseball game on TV,” he said.
One takes that comfort for granted — until it’s gone.
“With what’s going on now, it changes everything. But still getting the opportunity I have to get on the field — I do, I still have to, because like I said, baseball is my comfort food.”
Baseball is the escape. He realizes that uniform makes him young again.
“It’s magic, it truly is,” he said. “It takes you back into time where you’re putting the uniform on for the first time.”
Johnston sees young kids just beginning their own baseball journeys. It takes him back to his own journey traveled from the pitcher’s mound.
“It’s ingrained,” Johnston said. “It’s a part of my life, it’ll never not be a part of my life.”
A loss at Plattsburgh closed the door on his high school career, yet he continues to work in and enjoy the high school game.
“I don’t ever see myself being completely out of it. I can’t. It’s an addiction, it truly is and it gives you an opportunity to be a kid again no matter how old you are.”
COVID-19 took that comfort food away. A bullet to Johnston’s head almost took it away permanently. But the game wasn’t, and still isn’t, ready to let him go.
When the spring rolls around, Johnston might have another opportunity to put that uniform back on — to be a kid with his comfort food again.
Ready to take a large bite.