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McKinley pitcher Alexander Johnson goes to Reds, ending BPS' MLB draft drought

It’s about 15 minutes before the estimated conclusion of the Major League Baseball draft.

McKinley senior Alexander Johnson had not seen his name among the many listed as being selected by a big league club to that point. So, he started to resign himself to the possibility that he was going to have to continue hitting the weights and prove himself via the junior college route that he and his low 90s fastball were worthy of being drafted.

That’s when Johnson’s phone rang. He thought it was a family member returning his call. Instead it was his travel team coach Charlie Karstedt, informing Johnson that he had indeed been selected – a half-hour earlier – by the Cincinnati Reds. At first Johnson thought he was joking. Quickly, he realized Karstedt wasn't kidding.

And so disappointment morphed into disbelief and then joy in a matter of seconds as his dream of being selected by an MLB team came true.

The 6-foot-6-inch, 220-pound Johnson became the first Buffalo Public Schools league (Cornell Cup) player to be taken in the Major League Baseball amateur draft in 47 years on Wednesday when he was picked by the Reds in the 36th round, No. 1074 overall. He’s believed to be the first player since McKinley’s Doug Zavodny in 1972 to be selected out of a Buffalo public school.

“This is just amazing," Johnson said. "I wanted to get drafted higher but I’m OK with this. It’s just an honor. Even being picked is just amazing.”

"He was shocked at first," said Karstedt. "But I couldn't be more proud of the kid."

Johnson is the eighth scholastic-aged player in the past seven years to be selected from a Western New York high school. He joins a list that includes current pro prospects Charlie Mack (Williamsville East), Leugim Castillo (Lancaster) and Dan Dallas (Canisius).

Zavodny, who was taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1972, is a longtime high school umpire in Western New York. In 1968 catcher Marty Cott of Hutch Tech was selected third overall by the Houston Astros. The next two drafted were catcher Thurman Munson of the Yankees and Bobby Valentine of the Los Angeles
Dodgers.

"I think it’s great for the school," said Zavodny, who called balls and strikes during one of Johnson's starts during the spring. "It’s great for the program. I hope the kid does well.”

“I think it’s incredible," McKinley coach Dominic Massaro said. "City kid who has worked hard. He’s worked at this since he was 12 years old. Started playing baseball in North Buffalo, ended up getting picked today. He’s got a lot of work to do and he knows, it but it’s just a great story and he’s a good kid.”

[Related: McKinley pitcher could be first BPS player drafted by MLB in 46 years]

Johnson understand his role in history. He hopes it motivates others, helping them realize that if you have the talent, the scouts will find you.

“It’s very memorable," Johnson said of his historic selection.

"I think other guys from public schools with me getting noticed and the exposure it will push them to want to do it because I was able to do it. It’s taken a lot of work ... but I don’t think I’m going to be the only guy. I don’t like how the gap is so big. Hopefully other guys follow in the footsteps (much sooner).”

Johnson came out of nowhere to become a prospect. He hit 91 mph on the gun for the first time during a travel-league game in Cleveland last summer.

He's consistently thrown high 80s to low 90s in his appearances this spring, which were limited due to wet weather and pitch count to watch the arm. He hit 92 mph in front of an Oakland Athletics scout during a game at Sahlen Field in the spring. In his penultimate appearance for the Macks, the Athletics' scout was joined by representatives from the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals and the Reds. Johnson went two innings and struck out five. In his last game, he went two innings, recording six strikeouts.

“He’s exciting because he’s tall,” said one National League scout during one of Johnson's games. “He’s got long arms. He’s relatively young pitching wise. He doesn’t have a lot of breaking balls on his arm. He’s young with potential. He’s hitting 91 (mph on the radar gun).”

He is a bit raw still, as he has to work on his breaking ball, according to Zavodny.

“I think if he gets to the right team he has the potential to be pretty good," Zavodny said. "His hands are huge and he throws hard. He needs some coaching. A pitching coach will help him tremendously."

The Reds have until July 15 to sign Johnson. He does have a couple junior college offers that are close to being a full ride should he want to go the college route instead of jumping into professional rookie ball.

Johnson was looking over college applications with his mother Wednesday afternoon. Of course, that was before his day got rather exciting in a hurry.

“It’s amazing having the choice to choose," Johnson said. "I’m just trying to figure out what path will help further my career.”

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