Credit: Justin Felisko | ESPNBoston.com
HOLDEN, Mass. — Legendary Leominster baseball coach Emile Johnson did not have long to take in the moment of winning his 700th career game Friday before senior captain Brice Erickson, with a huge cheek-to-cheek grin on his face, came running over to his 75-year-old manager with a pan full of whip cream following the Blue Devils 2-1 victory over Wachusett.
In a matter of seconds, Erickson, who had the game-winning RBI in the fifth inning, slammed home the pan full of sweet cream into his skipper’s face in celebration.
Full of smiles and emotions, Johnson could only jokingly ask for a towel as he wiped away the cream and a few tears after reaching another career milestone during his illustrious 42-year coaching career.
“You become a little emotional really,” Johnson said about winning his 700th career game. “It’s a long, long road. You don’t think about it. All you try to think about is the next game or trying to win. I’m a very competitive person, probably too competitive.”
Ironically, along with earning his 700th career win, Friday was also Johnson’s first ever post-game pie in the face.
“I got the water treatment when we won a couple of state championships but that was the first time I ever got whipped creamed in the face,” laughed Johnson. “It was tasty.”
Beyond the jovial, Johnson lays his love for competition. A drive that has propelled Johnson, a 1994 inductee into the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, to three Division 1 state championships with the Blue Devils in 1986, 1988 and 1996.
He also has never had a losing season at Leominster.
“I grew up in Leominster and have always wanted to be a baseball coach, even when I was in high school,” said the 1956 graduate of Leominster high. “[Coaching] is just secondary to me. I love to compete.”
Johnson has coached numerous players during his career. Some have gone on to succeed at both the collegiate and professional level such as Concord-Carlisle coach John Kelly. Kelly played 17 years of professional baseball, making it to as high as Triple-A, after being drafted by the New York Mets in the 11th round of the 1994 draft.
Career win No. 700 certainly did not come easy for Johnson, who also coached Leominster soccer for 36 years.
The Blue Devils (5-4) took an early 1-0 lead in the third inning when starting pitcher Kevin O’Connor laid down an RBI bunt to score his brother Neil. Yet Wachusett tied the game in the fourth inning when Joe Oliva laced an RBI single to right field, scoring Owen Gibbons.
Johnson’s competitive fire came to light as he kicked the dugout dirt to the side with his infield dust covered Boston Red Sox sneakers and hollered at the Blue Devils to pick up their feet in the outfield.
Leominster, which has now won four in a row, has relied on its seniors all year and Friday was no different when Kevin O’Connor led off the fifth with a walk against Wachusett starter Greg Tzikas.
C.J. Doskocil then took over on the mound to face Erickson. After a passed ball advanced O’Connor to second, the catcher ripped an RBI single to right field to score O’Connor and break the 1-1 tie. Brandon Dube then pitched the final three innings to pick up the save.
“Early on the season I was swinging at everything and was really anxious,” Erickson said. “Teammate Jake Flemming pulled me aside one game and said sit fastball and then drive the fastball. That’s what I did. [Doskocil] threw me two balls and then one right down the middle and I smashed it.”
Erickson planned earlier in the year to pie his coach in the face once he reached the milestone and could not be happier for his skipper.
“It feels good,” Erickson said. “We have a great bond and always have. To do that for him and have this connection is fun.”
Throughout the game Johnson, who also taught in Leominster for 38 years, would edge on his catcher to call the game a certain way or come up with the clutch hit. Erickson (3-for-3) has come to love the tough-nosed approach of his coach.
“He’s a funny guy, but is hard to play for,” Erickson said. “I love it though. He is a great coach.”
Tzikas was credited with the loss after allowing two earned runs on five hits and five walks in four-plus innings while striking out three.
O’Connor earned the victory for the Blue Devils despite pitching in relief two days earlier. The captain finished with eight strikeouts in four innings while holding the Mountaineers to one run on six hits and two walks.
“It was just really exciting playing for it,” said O’Connor who asked Johnson to start this game. “People are always going to remember coach Johnson as the Leominster coach. To be able to pitch and play during his 700th win is just really great.”
O’Connor said that following the team’s last victory the team had a meeting and discussed how important it was to get this next win under their belts for their coach because it was obviously on his mind and theirs.
“We knew he was really excited for it and it was one of the main reasons he kept coming back,” O’Connor said. “Even though he might not talk about how important it, is you can tell it is.”
Assistant coach Rich Barnaby played under Johnson from 1992-96, and has learned plenty from him on and off the field.
“He’s real tough and taught us how to deal with adversity,” Barnaby said. “When things get tough out there he teaches you to stand your ground and to be able to deal with the pressure and succeed. That has helped me as an adult.”
“It’s just an amazing accomplishment,” he added. “700 wins is something I can’t wrap my mind around. If you go undefeated for 30 straight years that’s only 600 wins so it shows the continued excellence.”
Johnson was quick to credit the support he has had throughout the Leominster community in helping him reach this milestone whether it was superintendents, principals, players, assistant coaches, etc.
“I have been blessed with a bunch of great kids,” Johnson said. “This was not a one man operation. I have had some great assistants.”
2012 was supposed to be Johnson’s final season at Leominster before the Blue Devils discovered that Doyle Field would be unavailable for them due to renovations. Therefore, Johnson decided to come back for one more year in 2013.
“I was going to retire after this year but I want one nice facility for one year and then I have great assistants who can take over,” Johnson said.