Pitcher Reece Johnson, 22, remembered as ‘kind and fun-loving’ after sudden death

By Andy Rennecke

St. Cloud Live

This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Live and is reprinted with permission.Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

ST. CLOUD — It was always clear that Reece Johnson had a passion for baseball.

The St. Cloud Apollo and Sartell Stone Poneys right-hander was always trying to improve as a pitcher and developed into a more than reliable option for both teams.

Stone Poneys manager Jeff Amann first got to know Johnson during the summer of 2020. Johnson had lost his senior year of baseball at Apollo due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was itching to pitch again.

“Reece fit in right from the start with us,” Amann said. “He had just graduated high school and we let him pitch and it was love at first sight for me. Over the three years I knew him, he was the best teammate you could ask for. He was such a great guy.

“He was goofy and had a great sense of humor.”

Johnson, 22, died by suicide on Sunday, Oct. 22. He had been attending St. Cloud Technical and Community College and had a full-time job Automotive Parts Headquarters in St. Cloud.

Johnson’s mom, Kim Johnson, called her son “a kind person who loved his family and his teammates.” She said spoke to her son’s closest friends and Stone Poney teammates in the three-plus weeks since and admitted there were no visible warning signs that Johnson was struggling with his mental health.

“None of us had any idea. He lived with his dad (Rob) and me and now, when you look back, you recognize that this or that could have been a warning,” she said.

“Part of us is missing now. Rob and I saw him every day and it’s hard to explain or put into words. Our hearts hurt.”

At Johnson’s funeral on Tuesday, Oct. 31, and after his passing, Kim has gotten to know more about the positive effect that Johnson had on the people around him. Johnson is also survived by older siblings, sister Elsie and brother Riley.

“His third-grade teacher reached out and told us the positive impact he had on her. Usually it’s the other way around where a teacher has that impact on a student. She talked about how kind and helpful he was to everyone. That was Reece. He was very quiet, but had a quick wit,” Kim said. “When we could get him smiling, that was the absolute best for us.

“We spent a lot of time together as a family and he spent of lot of time with his Stone Poneys family. I miss his smile. I miss his voice. I miss Reece.”

A love for pitching

Former Apollo head baseball coach Adam Savolainen and pitching coach David Deminsky got to know Reece Johnson well during his junior year for the Eagles. Savolainen recalled two games in particular where Johnson shined in wins over Owatonna and Sartell.

On May 4, 2019, Johnson threw a complete game as the Eagles beat Owatonna 11-4 as part of the John Deyak Memorial Tournament. Johnson gave up three earned runs on eight hits while striking out seven and walking three in that win.

The 9-1 win over Sartell in the section playoffs on June 3, 2019, was even bigger. Johnson gave up one earned run on five hits, struck out eight and walked three in a complete-game win.

“Reece was a really good pitcher and super effective his junior year. I always feel bad for the kids who graduated in 2020 and didn’t get a chance to play their senior year, like Reece,” Savolainen said. “He absolutely shoved in that Owatonna game and went the distance for us. Owatonna is my hometown, so it made that win extra special for me.

“I saw the game ball from that game at Reece’s funeral and it shook me up. You just never know how important something like that is to a kid.”

Savolainen said Deminsky and assistant coach Chris Koenig advocated for Johnson to throw in the Sartell playoff game. Savolainen is glad they did.

“Reece was so quiet, but super coachable. Deminsky and CK told me ‘Reece is the guy,” Savolainen said. “We won 9-1 and, boy, was he the right guy. Sartell is always tough and he dominated them. That game ball was out on display, too. As a coach, it really makes you look at how you view your players and how much this matters to them.

“Reece would have been a key player for us during his senior year. It’s one of those things that hurts to look back on and what that year might have meant to him.”

‘Calm and cool’

Savolainen and Deminsky both talked about how much Johnson’s pitches moved and how much time he spent on his craft. He developed a slider, a change-up and a sinkerball that made him tough on hitters.

Deminsky, who pitched for St. Cloud State , the St. Cloud River Bats and professionally for two seasons with the Minnesota Twins, remembered Johnson’s calm and cool presence on the mound the most.

“He was never one to let the game’s ups or downs rattle him,” Deminsky said. “Whether it was a good or bad outcome, he always kept his composure. He was a very effective ground-ball pitcher because of how his ball moved. He didn’t overpower guys, but his movement out of that 3/4 arm slot was so effective.”

Deminsky got to know Johnson on the team’s road trips and discovered a high school kid who loved to talk about “Star Wars” and had a real affinity for snacks and candy.

“He was always willing to let guys bum candy off him because he always had it,” Deminsky said with a laugh. “We both had a shared passion for ‘Star Wars’ and video games, too. We always had good conversations on those topics.”

Amann, who has been managing the Stone Poneys since 2015, always knew he could count on Johnson to bring “random gas station food” to the ballpark when the team played.

“His personality was so awesome. He was a goofy guy and that humor rubbed off on everyone around him,” Amann said. “He became a relief pitcher for us the past two years and would show up 15 minutes for the game wearing his Stone Poneys bucket hat and would have a bag of food from Kwik Trip.

“He was this tall, skinny guy and ate candy all the time. You wondered where all that food was going. He always came around during the game if somebody needed a pick me up. But when he was called upon, he always did his job and did it well. “

The Stone Poney family

The Johnson family attended a lot of Stone Poneys games the last three years. They could tell how much the team meant to Reece.

“When you’re at a Stone Poneys game, it’s such a family atmosphere. The camaraderie the team has, Reece just loved it,” Kim said. “He loved pitching, ever since he was 7 years old when he started. The confidence he had on the mound, it was just unlike anyone else. He would dangle his arm and then get ready to pitch.

“He was so focused. Nothing rattled him out there. I loved that aspect for him, but as a mom I was always nervous.”

On Oct. 31, the Stone Poneys honored Johnson’s memory by lighting up St. Cloud Orthopedics Field in Sartell. Other teams around Central Minnesota did the same, including the Farming Flames, Freeport Black Sox, Avon Lakers, Cold Spring Springers, Cold Spring Rockies and Watertown Red Devils. The St. Cloud Rox also lit up Joe Faber Field that night to honor Johnson.

Kim and the rest of the Johnson family joined Stone Poneys players and their families that night to share memories of Johnson. Amann put all twos on the scoreboard to honor Johnson’s No. 22. They also cleared off the pitcher’s mound and put “RJ” wooden initials and 22 candles surrounding it.

“It was amazing,” Kim said. “We drove up and the scoreboard was lit up with the number two. They had his name on the scoreboard. We started a fire and sat around telling stories. They really honored him and we felt the love that night. We knew they were all hurting, too.”

Amann was in Arizona when he found out the news of Johnson’s death. He’s taking what happened hard — understandably so — and wishes he could have done something different to help Johnson.

“That’s all I’ve been doing the past three weeks is thinking ‘did I miss something?’ It’s still fresh because I saw him four weeks ago at our season-end party and he was running around with the players’ kids, being a goofball and having a good time,” Amann said.

“There’s going to be a hole in our team moving forward. We loved Reece. He’s gone, but we’ll never forget him.”

Check out additional content below