By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
There’s a warehouse off California Avenue in Absecon, fairly nondescript. You wouldn’t even know anything is happening there save for the “220” sign on the side of the road. But if you take a closer look, a lot is happening there — and it’s a sign of where the future of baseball training is headed.
The number “220” refers to Second 2 None, a baseball training facility launched last summer by former Major League Baseball player Johnny Monell, a New York City native who grew up visiting the Jersey Shore. Second 2 None is the latest in a crop of baseball training facilities that have popped up all over South Jersey, as the area began to attract professional scouts with the meteoric rise of Mike Trout, a 2009 Millville High School graduate who is now considered the best player in the MLB. Second 2 None follows in the footsteps of Baseball Performance Center in Pleasantville, which started several years ago under the guidance of former local standouts Mike Adams of Holy Spirit and Ed Charlton of St. Augustine Prep, both of whom played professionally before returning home to turn their passion into a business.
The two businesses don’t consider themselves competition or rivals, as each has its own unique niche. BPC focuses mainly on developing pitchers and hitters, while 220 trains a lot of catchers, hitters and infielders. The goal of both facilities is to help get high school players — and even middle schoolers — advance their skills to the point where they can take their game to the next level, whether that means college baseball or professional.
Monell points to Mainland Regional junior pitcher Chase Petty as an example of the kind of talent that is being unearthed in South Jersey. Petty has rocketed onto the scene in the past year or so as his fastball has reached 95 miles-per-hour, and he certainly is on the radar of every MLB team. Monell said he wants to help develop the rest of the talent that is bubbling up in the area, using the knowledge he gained through his more than 10 years of minor league and Major League experience.
“You see what Chase Petty at Mainland is doing and he’s in a good position to be in the (MLB) draft (in 2021). You see what he’s doing and the noise he’s bringing to get a buzz going in this area, which is great. You see that and you’re like, ‘why is it that we only have one Chase Petty for every 20 to 25 kids? Let’s get 10 of those guys and get it going,’” Monell said. “That’s development and that’s the process that we seek here. I’ve been a part of it my entire career, seeing the focus, dedication and sacrifice it takes to get better. That’s the best word, sacrifice, understanding that you have to put in three or four days a week and then going home and taking care of your studies. Being able to create some value for yourself can go a long way.”
Monell, a catcher by trade who also played some first base in the minor leagues, attended Christopher Columbus High in New York City and was drafted twice — in 2005 by the San Francisco Giants and 2006 by the New York Mets — before being drafted again by the Giants in 2007 and ultimately signing with them. He made his MLB debut in 2013 with the Giants, playing in eight games, and also played the 2015 season with the Mets. He remembers fondly when he got called up to the big leagues late in the 2013 season, when the Giants were on the road facing the San Diego Padres.
“The first day in the Major Leagues was with San Francisco and my (minor league) manager at the time played a nice little trick on me. We had a day game to finish up the minor league season — September call-ups had already happened, but they were still going to call players up after the minor league season — I was with the Fresno Grizzlies and they called all of the 40-man roster players into the office. I wasn’t on the 40-man roster, so I was packing my stuff. I was pissed. I had more than 20 homers that year and was hitting about .290, I had been lights out the whole season,” Monell said. “That year, I had a really good spring training and didn’t make the Giants. I did what I did (in the minors) and still didn’t get called up. You feel like, what more can I do? I knew I was going to be a free agent at the end of the season, so my best bet was I could get onto a new team, who knows? The hitting coach comes up and says, ‘Mo, (the manager) wants to see you.’ So he says, ‘what were you doing at first base?’ I said, ‘this is the last game of the season, I’m going home. Why are you ragging me about how I was holding a runner on?’ He says, ‘because you can’t do that in San Francisco.’ I was like, ‘what did you say?’ I got emotional, called my family to let them know, and then we went to San Diego.
“Once I signed the paperwork and got to the hotel and got my Major League ID card, it was surreal,” he added. “All that hard work, six years in the minor leagues, I had some good seasons and put my name on the map. At first, I was wondering what number I would get. Would I get No. 97 or something, or would I get a real number? I got to my locker, my name was above it, and it said ‘Monell, 12.’ I immediately took a picture to send to my family. It was an awesome moment. To be a fan of the game for so long and to see my dad go through the grind for 17 years and me live it, it was something really special. Especially all the work he has put in for me. It was awesome. You’re wide-eyed and smiling. You don’t feel like you just played 100 games (in the minors). I was beat up, but I didn’t feel a thing (when I stepped onto the field in San Diego). I was ready to roll. You see some of the best in the world.”
Although his time with the Giants was short, Monell credits the organization with turning him into the businessman he is today. From his first at-bat until he signed as a free agent with the Mets in 2014, the Giants organization, he said, taught him how to go about his business in a professional manner.
“I got a nice good fastball out over the plate … and I popped it up to left,” Monell recalls about his first time at the plate in a Major League uniform. “I had to wait four or five days before I got another at-bat, against the Dodgers, and I got my first hit in Dodger Stadium. Vin Scully was on the radio breaking down my at-bat and where I was from. Jon Miller was broadcasting for the Giants. Hearing those voices that I heard growing up, and seeing them in the clubhouse. Willy Mays was in our clubhouse every day, Willy McCovey. Being with the Giants organization really gave me a sense of how to go about my business as a professional, and it was really impactful for my career.”
Monell, whose father, also named Johnny, played professionally and finished his career with the now-defunct Atlantic City Surf, is taking that same professional approach to 220.
“Seeing this area and the need for a facility like ours, with being able to get ground ball drills, velocity work, throwing programs. When we get the high school group in here it’s nuts, we’ll have 30 guys in here. Now that we’re getting ready for the high school season we’re in a really strong phase. I believe in what I’ve been doing throughout my career and how much it has helped me, and I’m just trying to pass that along to guys in a good facility. Being able to have the technology and the knowledge that my dad and I have — we’re just trying to put everything together so guys have a good chance. We want to give them an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really test themselves and see something grow,” Monell said. “We have about 85 kids from the Sand Sharks, about 30 kids in our high school program now, we have a college program that is starting to fill up. We’re slowly getting into what we want to do, and that’s to develop and create an opportunity for these kids to get better. We want to have a strong summer program, a strong winter program, and even an in-season program for these guys to take part in so they can understand how to stay strong throughout the season and avoid injury.”
Monell, 33, said he has no regrets about his MLB career coming to an end, he knew it would at some point, and catchers typically don’t last as long as guys who play other positions.
“When you catch for 14 years and get beat up, how much can you take? How much can you stay away from your family? Hopefully I’ll have my own family one day as well. I just want to be able to give back, and I’m enjoying it. I’m happy where I’m at. I’ve played at every level, and did I want to go back and forth and go through the drama of being up and down (between the majors and minors)? I had a job offer to be a skills coach with the Dodgers, but I was involved in getting this up and running, and here we are now,” he said. “I was playing well, hitting about .275 with some homers, but the grind of getting beat up — I got hit in the head a lot (in 2018) and had a thumb injury. I was year-to-year, I wasn’t a big-time prospect and I had to grind my way through the minor leagues to get to the majors. To stay in that up-and-down status is intense, and then to go and play winter ball every year just to maintain that job status, it was just tiring. I was beat up. I said, ‘you know what, I have to start thinking about taking care of my body so I can walk when I’m 45 years old.’ I knew I couldn’t play forever, but there are still ways I can give back and be an impact in this game.”
One of those ways is sharing his knowledge with young players who are eager to prove themselves, and hopefully get some scholarship money along the way.
“I’m not a big fan of talking about myself, that’s just who I am. I’m humble and I understand the dedication it takes, and the things I lost out on to get to where I did. If that’s an impact for these players, that’s a plus,” Monell said. “I know what I can bring to the table every day for these guys and I want to give them my best. I really don’t look at it like a job. I feel like I’m back with the guys in the clubhouse. Other than the day-to-day operations and making sure QuickBooks and the scheduling are good — being able to use the skills I learned in college and getting my associates in business management — it’s good that I was prepared before and now it’s just about taking care of business. I’m done playing and now I’m in this business, but I really feel like I’m a part of this team.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays