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Chico and I, at a Paul McCartney concert. I was in my jersey because we had just come from a Crosstown game.
Jacki Krestel/South Side Sox

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Life and Baseball, according to Chico Johnson

A love letter to my dad, who taught me to love baseball

Chico at a backyard barbeque at my house.
Jacki Krestel/South Side Sox

This is my dad.

His name was Charles Johnson, but nobody called him Charles.

He sometimes went by Chuck. I’m pretty sure his mom called him that.

But most people, including me, called him Chico. It was a nickname given to him by a coach he had while playing ball in the Markham Boys League. My dad was a shortstop, and this coach likened his play to that of former White Sox shortstop and four-time All-Star Chico Carrasquel.

I love that story. What a cool way to get a nickname.

Chico had a Griffey follow-through before Griffey had a Griffey follow-through.
Jacki Krestel/South Side Sox

I have often said that my two sisters and I love baseball because Chico loved baseball.

I also think he probably didn’t know what on earth to do with three little girls. He wasn’t a tea-party-and-play-dress-up kind of dude. I have to imagine that at some point early on, he decided it was best to just stick with what he knew.

When I was growing up and playing softball, he was the best coach I ever had.

He was dedicated. When I told him I wanted to learn how to pitch, he didn’t have a clue on how to do that. So, he found and borrowed a book, Xeroxed the hell out of it, and taught himself the mechanics so that he could teach them to me.

He was inventive. So that I could learn to defend my position and stay safe, he created a drill where I would have to get on one knee and throw a rubber softball against the brick wall of our house as hard as I could — from less than 10 feet away. I don’t know if my defense was Gold Glove-caliber, but then again, I never lost any teeth because my glove wasn’t fast enough to stop a line drive that was headed for my face.

He was innovative. He made me a weighted softball to warm up with so that come first pitch, my fastball would have a little extra pop. You can buy those at Dick’s Sporting Goods now. I think they’re weighted with actual weights these days, but back then, mine was weighted by a couple dozen drywall nails he had hammered into the ball.

Chico with my nephew — his only grandson. Looks like he’s teaching him about defensive shifts.
Jacki Krestel/South Side Sox

Chico died on January 4. He was buried with three baseballs — the ones we had given him as a Father’s Day gift years ago. One ball for each of his three grandchildren, with their tiny baby handprints inked onto them.

Everything I know about the game, I learned from him. And just about every life lesson he gave was taught through the lens of baseball. Therefore, in memory and deep honor of my father, I present to you “Life and Baseball according to Chico Johnson.”

Lesson One: If you practice a little, you’ll get a little better. If you practice a lot, you’ll get a lot better.
He pushed me — hard — to practice as often as I could. He used to keep one of those black-and-white marbled composition books where he’d track how many pitches I would throw in a day. His goal was always between 100 and 200 pitches, but there was one fall day when I threw over 800. (Don’t worry, my arm didn’t fall off. Softball pitchers aren’t out there having to get Tommy John surgeries — our delivery is a natural motion of the arm.) I remember we took a break about halfway, and he made me my favorite lunch. Which, as a 10-year-old, was Chef Boyardee ravioli. (Don’t judge me.)

He talked about that day for a long time.

He’d also log days I didn’t practice when he thought I should have. Those days have big ol’ zeros next to them.

Luckily, his pushing me to practice never felt oppressive. I loved playing too much — it never felt like work.

Lesson Two: Don’t spend your time complaining. Spend your time improving.
Chico hated it when I’d make excuses. If I walked a bunch of batters because it was raining and I couldn’t get a good grip on the ball, he’d quickly remind me that the opposing pitcher had to pitch in the rain, too, and it didn’t seem to bother her too much. “If you don’t like losing,” he’d say, “then get better.”

Lesson Three: Respect your opponents.
This was Chico’s version of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He hated softball cheers that would disparage the other team in any way. (I remember there being one cheer about pushing the other team into a river that he forbade us to sing.)

Just because he wanted us to be overwhelmingly and undeniably better than they were didn’t mean that we got to make them feel bad about it. He wanted our talent to speak for itself.

As he once told me, “Trash talk only makes you look trashy.”

Lesson Four: If you’re going to do something, you may as well try to be the best at it.
Under my dad’s tutelage, I got pretty damn good at softball. I quickly outgrew the in-house league where I started and transitioned to travel ball when I was about 12 years old. I excelled through high school and eventually received a scholarship to play ball in college.

Even so, Chico would never let my success go to my head. When I graduated, he made a scrapbook full of photos and newspaper clippings from my years of playing. Page 1 of that scrapbook was a local newspaper’s recap of a game that I had pitched — and lost — to a divisional rival. He told me he wanted that to be the first thing in the book because “no matter how good you are, there’s always someone who’s better than you. You should always be trying to catch her.”

He always wanted me to try more. To work harder. To lead by example. And to never quit.

I loved my dad. I’ll probably walk around with a Chico-shaped hole in my heart for the rest of my life. Thank you for letting me tell you about him. I hope his lessons help you like they helped me.

Oh, and remember that scrapbook I told you about? Do you know what was also in there? A torn-out page from the composition book where he logged my practices.

It was the page from my 818-pitch day.

Jacki Krestel/South Side Sox

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