High expectations meet Tech baseball to start these 2017 season, thanks in large to the play of junior outfielder Kel Johnson. The Palmetto, Ga. native has received more than his fair share of All-ACC and All-American preseason buzz, and his play will likely determine how far the Jackets go in conference and national play.
Johnson talked to the Technique about his introduction to the sport, what goes through his mind in key moments and the dynamics of the locker room during the season.
Technique: When did you start playing baseball and what drew you to it?
Johnson: I started playing when I was four years old. It was my mom originally who wanted to get me in a sport, and her father had always been a baseball player. She had been a softball player, and I guess it came to her mind right off the bat. She signed me up and I started playing and she said when I first started playing, she thought she was going to have to have to sign me up for a different sport because I was sitting in the outfield, picking clover and watching airplanes. But things progressed and I stuck with it, and I built up a love for the game. It became where I didn’t want to play any other sports, I just wanted to put all my focus towards baseball, and over the years, that’s how it’s been.
Technique: Do you have any baseball role models, players you try to pattern your game after when you’re on the field?
Johnson: Well, I would certainly say that I look up to a lot of the Major League Baseball players, guys that’ve come through Georgia Tech before me, like Mark Teixeira, Matt Wieters and many of the other greats. [Former player] Mike Nickes actually helps out coaching us, and he was a great — and Coach Brian Prince —who were both guys who went on to have great professional careers. And just, you know, those guys and being able to work with them, being able to watch the way they go about things.
And Coach Hall’s from — just the way he knows baseball, the knowledge of the game, and everything he does for our team is just something that really rubs off on the rest of the team. It really goes around.
Technique: What’s your favorite part of every baseball game?
Johnson: Well goodness, that’s a tough one. Every game’s different. You have your big moments, the high-pressure situations, and those are the ones you have to live for. That adrenaline rush, that excitement, that has to be the best part of any game, when you come up in those times.
It can’t be something that you’re scared to be presented with, it can’t be something that you shy away from, you have to want those opportunities, you have to be excited that it came down to you, whether it’s the final out or whatever it may be. I’d say those are the times, those are the days when — say you’re put in a situation like that and it goes in your favor … those are the days that I believe you live for.
Technique: So have you had any moments like that, any moments that stick out in your mind as, “I’ll probably remember this when I’m 80?”
Johnson: That’s a difficult question. During my career here, there’s been so many great wins, so many great games.
One specific [game] I remember was the Friday night game this past year, against North Carolina, at North Carolina. At the time, they were ranked Number Four in the country, and we played just unbelievable baseball. … When I walked off the field and just looked at the atmosphere and thought about that night, that one stands out in my mind.
Technique: What goes on in your mind when you’re in a really high-pressure situation?
Johnson: Just have to slow things down. Everything can start going really fast; that’s baseball in general. You just have to slow it down, trust your talent, not try to be somebody you’re not, try not to do too much, just trust your talent, relax, breathe. Play against the baseball, don’t worry about who’s on the mound, don’t worry about who’s in the stands, just go out there and play the game like you know how to play it — like we’ve been doing all our lives.
Technique: Do you have any pre-game or post-game rituals?
Johnson: I’ve been asked if I’m superstitious like that, and I wouldn’t say I’m a superstitious person. I wouldn’t say I’m ritualistic. I would just say that I have a routine. I am a big believer in routine, and I do the same thing every game — pregame, same preparation, same warm-up, and then on deck circle … I have the same steps that I go through to get myself physically and mentally ready for an at bat, and I wouldn’t think of it so much as superstition, but I do know that if I don’t go through that process, it can affect my success.
Technique: Tell us a little about that process.
Johnson: It starts in the dugout. You gotta start getting ready mentally for an at bat before you’re actually on deck, because the way I see it, you get three or four at bats in a game, but your team could get 40 or 50.
If you’re in tune in the dugout throughout the game … you’re thinking with the pitcher, you’re thinking about pitchers, you’re watching his release point, you’re doing all these things, then it can really tune you up. By the time you get an at bat, you’ve already walked through a bunch of at bats and you’re ready to go.
And then on deck, it’s just getting loose, getting your muscles ready to fire, and actually physically going through the timing and all that with the pitcher to really be ready to have a competitive advantage when you get in
Technique: What kind of relationship do you and your teammates have with each other?
Johnson: [In] baseball, we have a lot of great guys. We have a lot of spirit in the locker room and in the dugout. It’s a very fun group here at Georgia Tech. There were times last year, I recall, where the camera would pan over to the dugout, and you would just never know what the guys would be doing. They’d either be clapping in unison, staring into the lens or doing something hilarious, and we’d go back and watch the tape and just crack up.
So there’s a lot of things, a lot of chants, a lot of little pranks particularly geared towards the freshmen, just cutting up with them and giving them a hard time, we’ve all been through it.
Technique: What’s the best prank you’ve pulled?
Johnson: Oh, well, goodness. That’s a tough one. There was one I particularly remember. A guy stepped on a piece of tape, a freshman last year, he stepped on a piece of tape in the dugout and his spike went through the piece of tape and it was hanging off the back of his shoe, about five or six inches. So somebody found a lighter and went and lit the piece of tape. So we’re all sitting there and he has no idea — he’s got his arms up on the rail watching the game. The flame starts billowing, about eight inches, ten inches and then about a foot tall.
We’re just sitting there and we’re like, at what point do we need to tell this guy, because it’s about to burn his shoe and his pants. Finally, we go up and he looks down and just panics and starts running everywhere and stomping it and it was hilarious. Just little stuff like that, any time there’s an opportunity, we don’t let it slip.
Technique: How do you balance being an athlete with Tech’s intensive coursework?
Johnson: It does take time management and balancing for sure. You can’t be wasting time, whether it be nights or weekends or whenever it might be. You have to stay focused, you have to be serious about your work and your ball and workouts. Those have to be your top three priorities, and everything just kind of has to fall to the wayside. That’s really it; you’ve just got to be determined and decide how badly you want to do it. Because if not, you’re going to end up really struggling in one of the key areas that you’re trying
Technique: What are your personal and team goals for the upcoming season?
Johnson: We have high expectations. Being Tech, we think very highly of the program here, and I think it’s going to be a great season. It’s a very fun team, we’ve got great chemistry, we’ve got a good freshman class, I think there’s going to be contributors from every class this year. We’ve had a great lineup in recent years and I don’t see that changing this year.