Alex Johnson believes everything happens for a reason, that life proceeds according to God’s plan. But at times, he’s amazed to have come this far, a kid from Buffalo working in Florida, trying to make his way in the world of professional baseball.

Three years ago, Johnson became the first player from a city public school to be drafted by a Major League baseball team in 47 years. The Cincinnati Reds, seeing promise in a raw 6-6, 220-pound righty, selected him in the 36th round of the draft.

The path to baseball success is a long and difficult one in the best of times. But for Johnson, who has the nickname “Gator,” it’s been especially so. He suffered minor injuries, then lost a year to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was nearly two years before Johnson actually pitched in a competitive game. This year, he’s playing for the Reds’ Low A affiliate, the Daytona Tortugas of the Florida State League. He’s learning to be a professional pitcher, and it is serious business, like being part of some baseball laboratory experiment.

“It’s kind of insane with all the numbers and statistics that we have, and how we get the information to know what works in the big leagues,” Johnson said recently by phone. “Every week, we have classes. Every Friday, they teach us what the profiles are for the pitches.

“I’m a big vertical guy,” he explained. “I get 20 to 24 inches of vertical movement. My fastball will play more up in the zone. They explain to where you understand what you want to aim for and plans for your personal self.”

Johnson, who played at McKinley, is a bright 21-year-old, a sponge for information. He’s learning about pitching mechanics, how the arm recovers, good sleep habits. He has a mental skills coach to help with ADHD and emotions. The coaches give him spreadsheets that detail all of his work in practice and games over a one-week period.

There’s enough nuance to make your head spin more than a Gerrit Cole slider.

“I do struggle with it,” he said. “I have guys helping me, coaches helping me understand the fast-paced game. It’s definitely quicker. Now we have time clocks.”

Johnson’s physical gifts are evident. The Reds saw his build and made him the first Buffalo draft pick since 1972. He only threw 88-90 mph in high school. They looked at his powerful, lanky frame and figured he could throw a lot faster. They were right.

Last July, Johnson made his competitive debut in an offical game. Pitching for Cincinnati’s team in the Arizona Complex League in Goodyear, he entered a game in the ninth inning and struck all three men he faced.

He was clocked at 96-98 mph.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I said no way. When I saw the stats, I was just speechless. To think of a high schooler who got drafted throwing 88-91, then in a year and a half of work, you’re throwing 98. I think I was blessed by God.”

Of course, there are lot of pitchers throwing hard nowadays. The challenge is becoming a real pitcher, knowing how to change speeds, throw curveballs and sliders for strikes, discovering the sort of control required to move up the pro baseball ladder.

Things haven’t gone smoothly for Johnson this season. He started well at Daytona, but he’s had trouble throwing strikes lately. After seven games, he had a 7.64 earned-run average with 16 walks and 20 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings.

“The road is not going to be straight,” he said. “Nobody promises a straight path. You’re going to have bumps and curves. Things are going to happen.”

A few weeks ago, Johnson was riding his bike and went over the handlebars to avoid a car that swerved in front of him. Luckily, he suffered only a minor cut to his foot. A few days later, a solid outing ended when he was hit by a comebacker.

He’s always had a wisdom beyond his years. When he was drafted at 18, Johnson said the key to confronting new challenges is to “understand what you went through as a way of understanding where you want to get to.”

I reminded him of that quote.

“Yeah, it’s all about the journey,” Johnson said. “Of course, I think about the destination, getting to the top. But sometimes I catch myself to where I have to sit back and realize how far I’ve made it — from high school to professional baseball.”

Johnson is striking out more than one batter per inning this season in the Florida State League. (Courtesy Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Tortugas)

Baseball wasn’t even an option when he was younger. Like many Black kids in the city, he preferred basketball and football. Baseball was too slow.

But one day, his older brother, Cameron Mack, was walking through Shoshone Park on the way to football practice and stopped to admire some baseball gear. John Seitz, a Buffalo policeman and long-time youth baseball coach, convinced Cameron to give baseball a try. Alex followed his brother into the sport at Shoshone.

“Gator” was a natural talent, a kid who threw a lot and taxed his young arm. When he was 14 or 15, his mother, Veronica Foster, brought him to Full Circuit Athletics, a baseball development facility in Orchard Park.

Full Circuit, which is now located in Hamburg, is owned by Charlie Karstedt, who played baseball for the University at Buffalo and created a training and instructional option for local baseball and softball players.

“I had never heard of the kid, never seen him.” Karstedt said. “They came in on a random night. A bunch of our players were training. His mother came in and said, ‘I’m looking for Charlie.’ Someone had recommended he come see me because he was having some arm issues.”

Baseball folks had told Foster that Karstedt could help get Alex stronger and take care of his right arm. They sat and talked, and Charlie told Alex to come and train with his team. If he did the work and liked it, he could play on the travel team.

“He did. He came to everything,” Karstedt said. “He and I hit it off. He had a little frustration with me at first. For the first year of our travel team, 16U, I said you’re going to be with us all summer, but you’re not going to pitch at all.

“He kind of laughed. He’s like, ‘What? I’m a pitcher.’”

Karstedt told Johnson he needed time to redevelop, to take care of his arm and body. He said he could pitch an inning or two a weekend in the games. He said Alex was miserable. The other players, seeing how hard Johnson could throw, told Charlie to let him pitch more. But Karstedt was adamant.

He told Alex he needed to buy into the long process. ‘It’s not an overnight fix,’ he told him. If he threw all the time, his arm would be shot when he was 17.

“Luckily, he bought in and trusted me,” Karstedt said. “I give him a lot of credit. He didn’t know me from anybody at the time.”

Johnson kept progressing. The next year, he pitched more for Full Circuit, though not as often as he would have liked. Karstedt kept emphasizing the long term, preserving the wondrous gift attached to his right shoulder.

“I don’t think he had a clue where he could possibly go with it,” Karstedt said.

Johnson had a fine career at McKinley and caught the eye of the scouts, who tend to dismiss city baseball. But working with Karstedt, who has done regional scouting for MLB teams, helped opened some eyes.

“Full Circuit got me right, got me seen,” Johnson said. “It basically opened the doors to where I could see what the possibilities are. The further you go out, the more baseball is actual baseball. It’s all-year round, so it opens your eyes.

“I was used to only playing in the summer. You go down south, everybody’s playing. This is what they breathe and eat.”

He’d glad he listened to Karstedt. Alex says the lack of wear and tear during his formative years left him with more mileage on his arm today. The ability to throw 98 mph was inside him, just waiting to be unleashed.

“That really sparked him,” Karstedt said. “It started when he saw his velocity go up and see where he could possibly be. This offseason was tremendous for him. He spent the whole offseason with me, with Connor Gray, who’s in Triple-A with the Mets. Connor was one of the best influences he could have asked for.

“He finally bought into an offseason of really taking this seriously. Take it like a job, like full-time now, and he’s seeing rewards now.”

Todd Naskedov, the pitching coach for the Daytona Tortugas, sees the promise in Johnson, though he concedes that he is “a little raw.”

“He’s awesome,” Naskedov said. “He wants to learn, he asks questions. He’s coachable, a real pleasure to work with. He’s a Grade A human being, too. I just met him in spring training because I’m newer to the Reds. But my experience with him so far has been nothing but positive and enjoyable.”

Johnson says being a baseball professional is a much greater physical and mental grind than he ever imagined. But he’s having the time of his life.

“Oh, my god! It’s amazing,” he said. “The fields we visit leave me speechless. We went to the Clover Park, for the Mets (in Port St. Lucie). It’s beautiful, the most beautiful stadium I’ve ever been to.”

He takes nothing for granted, knowing how rare it is for a Black kid from Buffalo to make it even to Low A ball. A lot of kids lack the resources to play at the higher youth level. He’s grateful for all the adults who helped along the way.

“Baseball is not cheap,” he said. “Showcases for kids, they pay $200 a person just to be seen for an hour. I think that’s a big reason why African-Americans and other families can’t play baseball. There’s so much money that goes into it.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for everybody that helped in my life. Sometimes, I lose sight of the fact that I’m not the average cat here. My mom raised me. She put me in the best situations she could. I’m always grateful for that. My father passed away when I was 9. I did have a stepdad who was a consistent role model.”

Johnson knows there are a lot of people rooting for him to make it, from the coaches at Shoshone to the people at McKinley to Karstedt and Full Circuit and to all those city players who never had a chance.

“It’s mind-boggling that no one thought, ‘This shouldn’t happen,'” Johnson said. “I’ve known guys growing up who were way better than me, but they couldn’t keep going because baseball gets too expensive. They had the God-given ability; they just didn’t have the resources.

“When I make it to the league, I’m definitely creating a facility in Buffalo.”

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Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.