Illinois Valley coach Bob Johnson, right, goes over technique with pitchers Andrew McLaughlin, left, Josh Free and Fred Hultz. - Photo courtesy of Timothy Bullard / Grants Pass Da

Big-league influence

CAVE JUNCTION — Bob Johnson is standing on the Illinois Valley High baseball field during a perfect May afternoon, chuckling to himself as his team runs self-imposed sprints.

The Cougars' speedy center fielder, Fred Hults, has just missed a fly ball he probably should have caught, and so the entire team, almost in unison, has dropped their gloves and is running toward the large pole in the outfield.

This will happen multiple times during practice. A player will miss a ground ball or make a bad throw then promptly drop his glove and go for a run.

"When I first got here," Johnson said, "some of them used to mope and complain when they had to run. Now they just drop their gloves and go."

As any coach can attest, whipping high school boys into the type of shape where they'll impose sprints on themselves is no ordinary task.

But then again, Bob Johnson is no ordinary coach.

In another lifetime, Johnson was the Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher in Game 2 of the 1971 World Series.

He was a teammate of Roberto Clemente, an antagonist of Billy Martin and the victor of a famous duel against Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal at Three Rivers Stadium during Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.

In a career that lasted from 1969 to 1977, the right-hander played for five different teams and put together a 28-34 record that included a 3.48 ERA.

Johnson has been to the top, has played under the brightest lights America's pastime has to offer.

Yet here he is, 69 years old now, coaching a small Class 3A program known best for losing lots of baseball games.

Illinois Valley was 12-72 during the four years before Johnson arrived. He took over the program, mainly, because no one else wanted the job.

"I've had a good life through baseball, and I didn't always treat it as well as I should have during my playing days," said Johnson, who struggled with alcohol but is 26 years sober. "This is one way to give back to the game, to keep it going in places like Cave Junction."

After his playing days ended, Johnson worked in the construction and real estate sectors in California but moved to the Rogue Valley to raise his family in 1991. He was an assistant coach at South Medford for a time, then gravitated toward the Illinois Valley because he loved the hunting, the peace and quiet, and the size of the town and high school reminded him of his hometown of Aurora, Ill.

Eventually people in Cave Junction discovered that Johnson had played pro baseball, and with a little prodding, he started working with the pitchers and took over the team for good in 2010.

The players took note. He came with a legitimacy that can't be taught or emulated.

"He's not like one of those guys that says, 'Oh, I was good enough to play in the major leagues but something happened,'" Illinois Valley pitcher Josh Free said. "Coach Johnson has actually been there. He knows what it's like. It makes me take what he says very seriously."

Johnson doesn't use his personal history to puff himself up, but rather to teach lessons. He tells his team about how great players carried themselves, about how Hall of Famer Willie Stargell could get four hits in a game but still be inconsolable if the Pirates lost.

Even so, Rome wasn't built in a day, and the Cougars had plenty of growing pains as Johnson sought to establish more discipline and cohesion. The team went 2-19 that first year and finished last in the Skyline Conference.

But Johnson stuck around. At a school where coaches sometimes change year-to-year, he stayed with the team. And after a few years, a funny thing started to happen: The Cougars began winning games.

This year has been the best so far.

Illinois Valley is 15-7 overall and finished second in the Southern Cascade League. Today, the Cougars do something they haven't in some time — play a state playoff game. They visit Pleasant Hill in the Class 3A first round.

"Him sticking with us has been huge," Illinois Valley pitcher and shortstop Andrew McLaughlin said. "He's gotten to know us real well, he understands our strengths and weaknesses and knows where to play everyone.

"I've always been a pitcher, but I was never really good until I got him as a coach. He taught me simple things that you don't even think about but which make you so much better. Not even the biggest schools in the state have a coach (who's been to the major leagues), and that's big for us ... the fact that he believes in us."

There is an even more encouraging trend beyond just wins and losses. This season, two of the school's best athletes, Hults and Tyler Robbins, came out for baseball for the first time. Why? Because everyone wants to play on a winning team.

"I don't know how many more years I'll be able to do this," Johnson said. "But I think we have a very good group for the future. We might be better next year than we are now."

In some ways, the story is Hollywood material. Former major leaguer takes a woebegone program under his wing, gives the players tough love and teaches them about life and baseball.

Except this isn't a movie. The players who drop their gloves and run self-imposed sprints are real. And now they're in the playoffs.

"Bob has been something new for the kids," Illinois Valley assistant coach Javier Aranzubia said. "They haven't been used to someone who's trying to bring out the best in them.

"I think he loves to teach baseball, loves this small community and loves to give back. I think he knows that kids are always a good investment. And that's why he's put in the time. That's what he's doing here."

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