OXFORD | Cooper Johnson knew emotion and dollar signs could signal a less-than-ideal decision during the summer of 2016.
So when arguably the MLB Draft’s best defensive catcher — regardless of class — was an option for Major League teams, Johnson told his advisor to leave him alone unless the seven-figure signing bonus was 100 percent met.
It made for a few moments of second-guessing during the past 1,000-plus days, but as another opportunity for professional baseball appears this week, Johnson is thankful for that plan years ago and much more ready for the next level.
"The thing about the Draft is if you’re good enough to play in the Big Leagues then you’ll get there,” Johnson said. “The Draft is one day with a lot of variables and not even worth your time to stress over it or think about it. It’s much more worth your time to get lost in the team and get lost in the playing and being on the field for the last time and playing for guys around you.
“I know there was good money in a high round but it didn’t meet the criteria. I’m so thankful and blessed to have made that decision. I’m sure there were times I looked back and thought ‘What the heck was I thinking,’ but I’m reaping the benefits now of my coaches and teammates and it’s been such a blessing.”
Johnson has taken great strides in multiple areas as a junior, claiming All-SEC honors and helping Ole Miss to a super regional matchup with Arkansas this weekend in Fayetteville. A member of that No. 1 signing class nationally, the first for Ole Miss I’m any sport, Johnson was on the field for the Rebels’ first regional victory since 2014.
Tuesday is likely to be the day his name is called this week for his professional destination, and then he’ll work to complete his college career with a College World Series berth days later in Northwest Arkansas.
Johnson, a Mundelin, Illinois, native, has thrown out 18 of 40 base stealers in 2019 and upped his offensive production considerably in his third year at Ole Miss with 19 extra base hits and an .806 OPS.
“He can catch at the highest level, and he has shown he won’t be a true liability at the plate,” one National League scout told RebelGrove.com. “The defensive catch-and-throw skills can put him in the Major Leagues for a decade, and he will be an ambush hitter who gets hot and has a few good weeks in a row.”
While the signing bonus likely won’t be quite what was offered three years ago, Johnson is much better suited for the day-to-day responsibilities of professional baseball. He arrived in Oxford as a great interview and an outwardly mature teenager, but he admits now he had growing up to do. Between early struggles with the Rebels and in the Cape League, Johnson had to make some changes.
There was the conscious decision to improve his mindset and be better to those around him — gaining some internal improvements in the process.
“I’ve matured quite a bit,” Johnson said. “If you’d asked guys around the team or coaches they’d say similar things. When I came in I had a lot to learn as an 18-year-old kid. Coming to a different part of country, and I thought I was mature and sometimes it’s mistaken if someone is well spoken or the way they act around people, but behind closed doors I had learning to do and had selfish qualities I didn’t realize.
“I made a promise to myself that I would get rid of those selfish qualities and be the best teammate I could be. That’s helped so much not only playing and being better on the field but also off the field and with my relationships with people.”
The Rebels ran through the Oxford Regional, winning three straight games by a combined score of 41-7, and Ole Miss has beaten Arkansas three of five times in 2019 leading into this weekend.
Ole Miss seemed headed for a less-ceremonial result in early May after a sweep at the hands of Mississippi State , a midweek defeat toAtkansas State and two straight losses to Tennessee.
But after a win over the Vols to end the regular season and a run to the SEC Tournament final in Hoover, the Rebels are playing their best baseball of the season. Johnson’s leadership, handling of the pitching staff and overall demeanor have been some of the reasons for the surge.
Johnson had a moment of self-pity after the final loss to State, knowing his games at Swayze Field could be over. Instead of that bad weekend being the career climax, there was a mass of positive emotion around the mound and a celebration in his final home game on Sunday.
“There’s no time for emotions or sadness,” Johnson said. “We have to take care of business. There are years and years to look back and be emotional. We have a week to go take care of business. Being emotional just takes away from what we do on the field.”
Conscious decisions over a three-year period have led to this week, when his baseball dreams will have two different but notable realizations. The Draft will include his name, and he’ll play deep into the NCAA Tournament.
“Winning baseball isn’t just on the field,” Johnson said. “It’s something you prepare for on the drive to Swayze and putting your keys up in the cabinet and how you walk on the field. It’s about more than yourself. I realized that and try to do it every day. It’s that process that has me ready for what’s next.”