Baseball: Johnsons at home on the Minnewaska diamond
Minnewaska brothers Torii, Hunter and PJ Johnson are on the Lakers' starting nine.
GLENWOOD — One glance at a Minnewaska baseball roster shows how much the sport means to the Johnson family.
There are the senior twin brothers: Torii at shortstop and Hunter in left field. If the names ring a bell, that’s not a coincidence. They are named after former Minnesota Twins all-star center fielder Torii Hunter.
Behind the plate at catcher is their younger brother Paul Jr., or PJ. A junior, PJ has already made his mark calling pitches and being a vocal leader.
All three are in the starting lineup for the Lakers, who are off to a strong start this season at 7-2.
“When we were younger, we all thought about this,” PJ said about being in the lineup together with his older brothers.
“Just to be doing it now, it’s a great experience. Just like the good ol’ days in the backyard.”
And this trio is in the leadoff spot for Paul and Paula Johnson’s 12 kids.
“We go from 18 (years old) to 11 months,” Torii said.
There’s Torii, Hunter, PJ, Levi, Ben, Harley, Xavier, Christian, Elizabeth, Isabella, Lucas and Dominic. That’s 10 boys and two girls, more than enough to field their own Johnson family lineup.
“(Torii and I) started getting into baseball when we were toddlers, then it really became a thing when we were in kindergarten,” Hunter said. “When the younger kids were three, they started playing with us in the yard, too.”
PJ added, “I just hope we can teach them valuable things so when they grow up, they’ll be twice as good as we were and hopefully continue the legacy we leave here.”
Paul Johnson admits to being a big Torii Hunter fan. Torii Hunter was also a customer of MaxBat Inc., based in Brooten, where Paul now serves as president.
So when he and Paula found out they would be parents to twins, the names came easy to him.
“I talked to my wife and said, ‘Hey, if it’s boys, can we name them Torii and Hunter,” Paul said. “And she said yes, that would be fine.”
It didn’t take long for Paul to turn his love of baseball onto his kids.
“I started throwing pitches to them when they were 2 years old, with a foam ball and the big plastic bat,” Paul said. “By the time they were 4, they fully understood they were named after Torii Hunter. And they took a passion to the game. They absorbed a lot.
“When they first started playing, they already knew a lot of little things, baseball IQ things just from watching.”
PJ was quick to pick up on the game, too.
“PJ’s very baseball wise,” said Minnewaska first-year head coach Joe Alexander. “He’s got the baseball mind of an adult. All three do, but PJ vocalizes a little more.”
While it’s been a while since the famed Twin met the Twins, Torii Hunter knows about Torii and Hunter.
“They met him when they were just over a year old, down by the clubhouse at the Metrodome,” Paul said. "They haven’t seen him in a long while. Hopefully, that’ll happen again. It was a good experience. The guy’s as genuine as they come.”
Torii was succinct in describing life with 12 siblings.
“It’s interesting,” he said with a smirk. “Lots of babysitting.”
Putting together family games has helped in organizing some of that familiar chaos. All it takes is throwing out some bases in the yard.
“We’d play four-on-four and lob it in there,” PJ said. “Or, we’d do Wiffle Ball with the other siblings, too.”
That homegrown camaraderie has paid off on the varsity playing field. There’s a chemistry between the three brothers, especially on days where PJ moves to third base instead of playing catcher.
“If I can’t get to a ball, I know (Torii) is going to be in the hole at shortstop,” PJ said. “All three of us play on the same side so if there’s a pop-up, (Torii and I) communicate who’s going to catch it, and (Hunter’s) behind us in left. It helps a lot, honestly.”
Their leadership, especially in a season marred by bad weather and a cramped schedule, has been beneficial for Alexander. PJ stands as the vocal leader while the twins lead by example.
“PJ takes charge and knows what to do on each assignment,” Alexander. “Torii and Hunter are the senior leaders you dream of. They’re not so vocal, but through actions, they’re always the ones taking extra ground balls or doing the extra conditioning.
“We try to make it a point to our younger kids as often as possible to watch those guys, emulate them and you’ll have the same success as them someday.”
Their passion for baseball also led to a little home redecorating. This fall, Hunter decided to build a batting cage at their grandparents’ hay loft.
“We just wanted to play baseball and it was so cold and there was still snow on the ground,” Hunter said. “So I was like, yeah, why not?”
PJ added, “We had the idea since we were younger but we never had the materials or the brains yet to start that stuff.”
So, Hunter made frequent trips to Alexandria to pick up supplies. They also got some turf donated from Starbuck after the batting cage there was redone.
“(Hunter) started it, and then we all chipped in,” PJ said.
“That’s been a lot of fun” to build, Hunter said.
The benefits of the Johnsons’ batting cage goes beyond family use.
“All the kids spend a lot of time there. It’s a great bonding process,” Alexander said. “Even some of the college kids come home and enjoy time there.”
Watching from the bleachers, Paul relishes seeing his three sons play together. And with Levi playing on the JV as a freshman, a hot streak could put four Johnson brothers on the bench.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Paul said of watching his sons suit up for the Lakers. “I have to pinch myself once in a while. You don’t see three brothers on a starting roster too often.”