First in a series

Houston Astro prospect Ryan Johnson goes to bat for his faith

From Babe Ruth’s support of Catholic orphanages to Roberto Clemente’s tragic death during a Catholic relief mission to Nicaragua, Major League Baseball’s Catholic roots run deep.

Continuing that tradition, three recent alumni from Seton Catholic Preparatory High School in Chandler, credit their Catholic faith in helping them get drafted in Major League Baseball’s annual amateur draft, held this year July 9-11.

Ryan Johnson, a second baseman from Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., signed with the Houston Astros. Luke Bell, a pitcher from Xavier University in Cincinnati, committed to the Chicago White Sox. And Josh Hansell, a pitcher from Arizona State University in Tempe, joined the Kansas City Royals. Johnson and Bell graduated from Seton in 2019, and Hansell graduated in 2020.

“They’re going to get an opportunity to do something they’ve always wanted to do. They all were great students,” said Seton’s Head Baseball Coach Brian Stephenson. “They were great teammates, always going above and beyond to help their teammates. With their work ethic and the type of kids they are, I believe in them, and I’m looking forward to one day watching those guys.”

Johnson, who will be playing for a minor league team in the Astros’ farm system, has been playing baseball since he played club as a kid with his dad, James, serving as coach. He attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish and School in Tempe before enrolling at Seton in 2015.

“The academics got me ready for college — I went from a really good high school and then to a good college. College is still hard but if I wouldn’t have had Seton, I would have been drowning in the school work,” said Johnson in an interview from his room near the Astros’ training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. “Seton’s also a great place with great people, and it’s awesome to have those role models of teachers and coaches.”

At Seton, Johnson started as a courtesy runner, eventually hit .442 with a .553 on base percentage, 76 hits, 79 RBIs and 13 home runs.

“He came in as a freshman, his work ethic was unmatched,” recalled Stephenson. “He’s continued to get better every year.”

As talented as Johnson is, Stephenson said, his biggest influence is his character as a human being, noting that he regularly returns to Seton over the summer to help the team’s current players.

“He’s getting himself prepped for the draft, and he took time out of his busy schedule to come to our summer camp and help with a lot of our current players,” said Stephenson. “That’s just who he is. He’s represented our school while he was here, and he continues to do so in a first-class way. You want all your players to act like this guy.”

For Johnson, giving back to the community is a natural outlet from his Catholic upbringing.

“I’m hopefully able to help these guys get better but it also helps me. It takes you back to where you came from and it’s awesome to reflect on those times,” said Johnson. “That’s the values Seton gave me — to give back, to want to help others and to make their lives better.”

Ryan’s dad recalls his son’s freshman year at Pepperdine University, when he moved home along with a few teammates during the COVID pandemic.

“Whether he’s 0-4 with four strikeouts or 4-4 with home runs, he’s just the same person — level, focused and does the right thing,” recalled James, himself a Seton alumnus from 1987 who currently also serves as the school’s head girls’ volleyball coach. “That’s a huge part why he’s so successful, and he knows the task at hand is to be a better person.”

Throughout his time away from home, Johnson has maintained his faith life. While at Pepperdine, he discovered a Catholic parish near campus that he would attend regularly, even occasionally bringing his roommates along even though they weren’t Catholic.

“I went every Sunday, so they wanted to see what it was like. I loved that they would come with me,” he said.

During his interview, just before his first Sunday in Florida, Johnson said he’d already looked up two parishes within a mile that he could attend the next day. Every day he prays, ending his prayer with “God’s will be done.”

“That’s how my whole career has gone so far. I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can, and I pray that I’ll be able to make it one day. But if not, I know there’s a greater plan for me, and that’s just helped me to keep going,” he said.

On his former teammates and close friends also being drafted, Johnson is excited about the prospect of a future match-up between them.

“I’ve always thought about that — even in college, because there’s always that chance that you might play each other,” he said, adding that if he ever goes up to bat against his classmate Bell, the pitcher, “I hope I’ll be better. But if he gets me, I’ll tip my cap, and I’ll be happy for him, too.”

“I couldn’t have asked for better people to play with in high school and just to learn with and to grow with,” Johnson added. “I hang out with all my buddies from high school when I’m at home. It’s so exciting, and I can’t wait to see what they do in their careers, as well.”