Pressure Of Minor Leagues Throws Young Pros A Curve

Luther Johnson was just a teenager when his father saw him off on his first tour.

``The guys he started with three years ago, I don't think there's more than a couple left,'' Ted Johnson said. ``The attrition rate is incredible. Every week they lop off another guy.''

Luther has been hurt twice and lopped off once, but so far has survived all the battles minor league baseball has pitched him.

``There certainly have been a lot of ups and downs - more downs than ups,'' Luther said. ``But I try to put that in the past.''

Luther Johnson, 21, is an outfielder for the Class A Asheville (N.C.) Tourists in the Houston Astros' organization.

And on the way to Asheville, the Mount Rainier High School graduate has twice fallen farther than the Houston economy.

The first time was the spring after the Philadelphia Phillies signed him as an undrafted free-agent. While finger-wrestling with pitcher Julio Machado, Johnson suffered a badly broken finger.

``It's a Dominican game,'' he said. ``You interlock your fingers and twist.''

Upon doing so, he took the next 10 weeks off. Unable to swing a bat during that time, he returned to the Phillies' system out of sync. He reported to Class A Martinsville (Va.) as cold as the two steel screws that remain in his finger today.

Then came the second fall. He finished the season and the Phillies released him. Making things worse, he was still playing for the Phils in the Instructional League in California when his dad received the release notice in the mail. He hadn't been told.

``Talk about trauma,'' Ted said.

When he found out, ``It was like hitting the wall as far as baseball was concerned,'' Luther said. ``I was beginning to doubt my baseball future, to say the least. I kind of gave up on it.''

After about a month off that spring last year, he called some teams, got a tryout, and signed with Houston.

``It's tough, it really is,'' Luther said. ``It's a job, you know. You're getting paid for it.''

This comes from a man barely two weeks past his 21st birthday.

The pressure he talks of goes with that territory barely visible from the outskirts of the big leagues.

``Boy, are those guys under pressure,'' Ted Johnson said. ``Really intense pressure. Having your career on the line every day.''

The pressure is intensified by the long bus rides, the hard schedules - often fewer than a half-dozen days off in a five-month season.

There's pressure on many of the younger players who are away from home - far away - for the first time.

Playing against extremely high levels of competition for the first time. Using wood bats for the first time. Failing for the first time.

And scared to death of being cut.

``It wasn't what I expected,'' said outfielder Joe Urbon, the Kentridge-product drafted by the Phillies last year out of Washington State.

``I was used to the college atmosphere, the winning, the team, Bobo (Brayton, WSU coach), and the players - it was just easy to play.

``Last year I just didn't love playing like I did at WSU.''

Part of that was the homesickness, he said.

``I really had a hard time adjusting to being away, being on the other side of the country,'' Urbon said. ``It affected me on the field a lot. I was calling home a lot.''

West Seattle High's Mark Small, a right-handed pitcher playing with Johnson in Asheville, knows the feeling.

``After only three months, I was saying, `Oh, my God, when am I going to get back home,'' Small said.

Once the homesickness subsides, other pressures increase.

``I'll be the first one to admit I was frustrated because I thought I was talented enough to play well right away,'' said Urbon, who was promoted last week from Spartanburg (S.C.) to the Clearwater (Fla.) Phillies, a higher Class A team.

``You can't do it in a short season. It took me a whole season to realize you're not going to be a superstar after 70 games.''

Small, drafted last year out of WSU, felt pressure from a different source.

``I thought I had to do it for not just myself but for my family and friends,'' he said. ``If I ever got released, what would my friends think? I think I'm pretty much over that right now.''

As if he needed anything more to worry about, Small had a bone chip removed from his pitching elbow at the end of last season. And he has just begun pitching again after a second spell on the bench.

This was caused by soreness in the arm, which doctors told him to expect after the surgery.

In his first appearance since then, last Sunday, he earned a save - retiring all three batters he faced.

``The big thing is with me just to stay in shape,'' said Small, whose older brother Jeff plays for the Chicago Cubs' affiliate in Iowa.

``If I stay in shape and keep my arm strong, nothing can stop me from getting to the big leagues.''

That confidence is perhaps the key to surviving, Urbon said.

``As soon as you give up confidence in yourself, you're finished,'' Urbon said. ``There are 150 to 200 players in the organization, and two or three are going to make it to the show. And you've got to know you're one of those two or three.''

``Every day is just a mental roller coaster,'' said Urbon's dad, Joe Jr.

And the ups and downs of that ride can rise and fall in quick succession.

Joe knows. When his roommate, Dana Brown, was promoted from Spartanburg, Joe called his dad.

``It wasn't the fact that he got promoted and Joe didn't. He just kind of missed him,'' Joe Jr. said. ``They got to be real good friends.''

And they got to be reunited when Joe joined Brown in Clearwater. They're roommates again.

``That's an up and down,'' Joe Jr. said. And a big lift.

But sometimes even when everything's going right, the difference between moving up or shipping out is luck.

The senior Urbon caught a glimpse of that on a recent trip to Spartanburg to his son play.

``He had an eight-game hitting streak. In the ninth game, he hit two line drives right at the center fielder. They were shots, but they were outs,'' Joe Jr. said. ``A couple of days earlier, he hit one on top of the plate and it bounced high and went for a hit.''

Said Joe: ``You can't let it get to you. Baseball is just a game of adjustments, each game, each pitch. If you can adjust, you've got it made.''

Luther Johnson, who hasn't come close to having it made since high school, has certainly learned the art of adjustment.

``I've learned a lot about trying to keep on an even keel as far as my emotions,'' he said. ``If you start fluctuating too high on a good day or too low on a bad day, you're going to drive yourself nuts.''

``Sometimes you're not treated with the utmost respect at this level, but I'm having a good time - I can honestly say that.''