North Johnson, the new president of the Northwest League, speaks at the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes Winter Banquet on Friday, Jan. 31 (KEIZERTIMES/ Lyndon A. Zaitz).
North Johnson has been involved with Minor League Baseball (MiLB) for more than 42 years and has been a general manager for multiple organizations over the course of his career.
But this year, Johnson will be tasking on a new challenge.
Back in December, Johnson, who is from Georgia, was named the new president of the Northwest League (NWL), taking over for Mike Ellis, who has been the league president since 2013.
Last year, Johnson was the chief operating officer for the Florida Fire Frogs and from 2010-18, he served as the general manager for the Gwinnett Stripers.
In his more than 30 years as a general manager, Johnson has been named the MiLB Executive of the Year three times (1988, 1995, 2000).
Even though he has never been a league president, he is excited for the challenge that awaits him.
“It’s better than I imagined. My excitement level and my energy level is up 100 percent. I feel like I’ve drawn the winning lottery ticket,” Johnson said.
One of the main challenges Johnson will face in his first year as league president is attempting to protect the respective futures of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes and the Tri-City Dust Devils of the NWL.
As a part of their plan to overhaul the current minor league system, Major League Baseball (MLB) has created a proposal to cut ties with approximately 25 percent of their lower level minor league teams, including the Volcanoes and the Dust Devils.
“It’s very frustrating for everyone involved with Minor League Baseball. It wasn’t handled how it should have been handled,” Johnson said.
Through this proposal, the goal of the MLB is to reorganize the current system to make the minor leagues more efficient and improve on conditions and facilities.
If there were any improvements that needed to be made at certain minor league parks, Johnson claims that minor league organizations weren’t notified prior to the MLB releasing their proposal in November.
“We were given this list of teams without notice. There hasn’t been any conversations or anything about facility conditions. They just all of a sudden dropped the hammer on us,” Johnson said. “If your wife was to come in and say ‘I want a divorce’ but you guys had just went out to dinner two nights earlier and were laughing and dancing and having fun, it would just hit you like a ton of bricks.”
Additionally, the MLB is looking to possibly reduce the MLB Draft to from 40 rounds to 20 and limiting each organization to 150 players under minor league contracts — leaving undrafted players to try and prove themselves in an independent league.
“There are analytics people trying to convince folks at the commissioners office that they are so good at what they were doing, that they don’t need (40) rounds of the draft, and if the players are good, they can prove themselves in the independent league,” Johnson said. “If you put anyone who had a chance of being drafted in some of these independent leagues, they’re going to shine. But they’re not going to be challenged. There’s a lot of fallacies about what they’re trying to tell the public about how it could work.”
Johnson used Don Mattingly and Mike Piazza as examples of why reducing the draft to 20 rounds would have a negative impact on the game — both players were late-round draft picks that went onto to have successful careers.
“There are guys littered throughout baseball that would have never would have been given an opportunity to play. Analytics are good, but you have to see if they can play,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, Volcanoes fans expecting an answer on the future of the organization will have to wait until at least the fall or winter at the earliest. However, Johnson believes that his experience and expertise will be beneficial for attempting to keep Minor League Baseball in Keizer moving forward.
“I have that perspective of working in small markets with small budgets and figuring out how to put your best foot forward with limited resources, and that’s where I think I could help the Salem-Keizer club and the Tri-City club addressing whatever those issues may be,” Johnson said. “It’s about making sure going into the 2020 season that everything is up to standard as possible.”
Johnson, the Volcanoes and the rest of the MiLB have multiple allies in Washington D.C. In November, U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) was one of 105 members of the U.S. House of Representatives that sent a letter asking MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to reconsider the proposal.
In January, the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force — which was created by four members of Congress and advocates for each community that stands to lose their minor league team — introduced a bi-partisan resolution expressing that they believe that the MLB should maintain the structure of their current minor league system.
“Minor League games are often the first time kids in rural areas get to experience America’s pastime. Teams like the (Salem) Keizer Volcanoes in my home state of Oregon enrich our communities in so many ways and that is why I stand in support of independently owned baseball franchises even as the MLB takes steps to squeeze them out,” Schrader said.
Mitche Graf, the president of business of operations for the Volcanoes, believes that the support from people locally and nationally might be the thing that makes a difference in whether this proposal is passed or not.
“Feeling all of the support locally has really been inspiring. To me, the issue is much bigger than baseball. But it’s really about community, and people in Salem-Keizer are very possessive of this team,” Graf said. “The groundswell of support from the country is going to put enough pressure on (MLB) to make a difference in the final outcome. I really believe that. I know we’re a smaller market, but the people of this community, they need this team. It’s part of their identity.”
Johnson added: “Minor League Baseball is really baseball at its purest form and Congress recognizes that. They are providing a phenomenal summer evening experience for their community.”