When Janson Junk walked through the doors of the New York Yankees clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, for the first time in June, his thoughts went down memory lane.
Junk thought back to his senior year at Decatur High School, where the right-handed pitcher received little attention from Division I programs. The memories went on to the start of his collegiate baseball career at Seattle University, where his lack of size and baby-faced appearance made those around the program question his ability.
Junk didn’t listen to any of it. He put his head down and followed Redhawks pitching coach Elliott Cribby’s workout plan. After three years with Cribby, Junk raised his fastball velocity over 10 miles per hour, and, as a junior in 2017, Junk appeared in 21 games, started 12, won a team-high six games and compiled 61 strikeouts.
His success caught the attention of the New York Yankees organization, and they took Junk in the 22nd round with the 662nd pick on June 14 in the 2017 MLB Draft. Three days later, Junk landed in Tampa and reported for camp as a member of the Gulf Coast League Yankees East.
“The reality of where I am right now still hasn’t set in” Junk said. “Even though, at this point, I’m going six days a week, playing with these players, and meeting Major League players just walking through the clubhouse, it still hasn’t sunk in that I’m a professional.”
It hasn’t set in because Junk remembers how the doubt in his potential talent outweighed the faith.
Coming out of Decatur, Junk didn’t have programs coming to him, he was going to them. It came down to Seattle University and Washington State.
Cribby had his eye on Junk during his senior year.
Cribby had just been hired by Redhawks manager Donny Harrel as his pitching coach and recruiting coordinator.
His first assignment was to take a hard look at Junk.
“He’s one of those guys you never worried about,” Cribby said. “He just wanted to get better. Whatever we wanted him to do in practice, he was prepared to do, and that’s what attracted us.”
Cribby’s pitch to Junk was simple: If Junk wanted to grow, and if he wanted playing time, Seattle University was the place to go.
Junk enrolled at Seattle University but was forced to walk on to the baseball program.
Junk’s build and youthful appearance initially concerned Cribby. They were also qualities that intrigued the pitching coach.
“It was actually a blessing in disguise,” Cribby said. “Many of our guys develop what programs look for at 16, 17. With Janson, it’s like we got a blank canvas. We could mold him at 18, 19, 20, into the next-level player he should be.”
Seattle University baseball’s best-kept secret is Cribby’s explosive weightlifting program. It’s a safer, modified, CrossFit-like lifting program.
No one benefited from it like Junk did. He thrived in the program, but Junk knew he was the one pitcher on the staff in need of the most muscle-building work.
When Cribby’s sessions ended, Junk always stayed behind.
He didn’t continue the power lifting, though. He spent an hour or more just working on his triceps. The way Junk saw it, the more powerful his triceps, the more power he could produce on the back end of pitch delivery.
Junk also benefited from Cribby’s groundbreaking long-toss program. Cribby tracks the progress of each pitcher’s distance over time and sets daily goals for each pitcher.
“I think he really showed me what it meant to sacrifice for my craft,” Junk said. “I had to work really hard to get my best stuff out of me. He was the one who made the game plan.”
After his freshman season, Junk did more than enough to prove to Cribby that he belonged. Cribby presented Junk with a scholarship that kept his baseball dream alive for the next two years.
As Junk’s star rose within the pitching staff, he caught envious reactions from other pitchers on the staff.
Cribby was floored by the way Junk handled it.
“Janson just lived in the shadows and quietly worked his butt off,” Cribby said. “And with some long goals, here he is.”
Junk entered the program as a last-resort relief pitcher. His fastball capped out at 85 mph in 2015 as a freshman. By the end of the 2017 season, Junk threw 98 mph consistently for the Redhawks.
“It just goes to show that you don’t have to be, or may not be, the best,” Junk said. “My story shows that hard work and dedication pays off.”
All collegiate baseball players are automatically entered into MLB Draft pool at the end of their junior season or when they turn 21.
On July 14, the final day of this year’s draft, Junk was at home in his Seattle apartment.
He had been watching the MLB draft cast on his laptop for the previous three days. When the feelings of nerves and despair crept in, Junk called the one person who could ease them: his father, John Junk.
The two spent the afternoon talking about school and life. Jones knew the draft wasn’t going their way, but he was keeping track of it, too.
Junk said he was tired of watching each round pass without his name coming off the board, and he was heavily considering returning to Seattle University for his senior year as a plan B.
“We talked about everything, school, life, baseball.” Junk said. “I was telling him I was probably going back to school to finish my degree.”
The 662 pick of the 22nd round belonged to the New York Yankees. They used it to select Junk that afternoon.
There was just one problem: He missed the selection. He was still on the phone with Jones, pacing throughout his apartment when he was selected.
Moments after the pick, Junk’s phone buzzed. It was a familiar name on the other end. The caller was Yankees area scout Mike Thurman.
Junk didn’t think much of it. The two were familiar with one another and regularly kept in touch. Junk assumed he was calling to find out if he’d been drafted.
“He was like, ‘Are you watching the draft?’ ” Junk said. “I was like ‘no, I’m on the other line with my dad.’ He was like ‘well, we just drafted you.’
“I was filled with joy. I lost the ability to talk all the sudden. I couldn’t really get much out after that.”
Three days after the phone call, Junk was standing in the entry way of the Yankees clubhouse in Tampa.
The walls were lined with the 22 numbers the Yankees organization have retired, along with the names that wore them.
The clubhouse attendant working when Junk walked in could tell he was new. He promptly pointed to a locker in the distance.
“That one was Derek Jeter’s locker,” the attendant said to Junk.
It was in that moment, Junk realized just how far all the questions and work he put in brought him.
“It was a surreal moment,” Junk said. “When you realize you are standing in and around baseball greatness, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s not pressure. It’s excitement, like, if these people were here, now I’m here, so someday I’ll do that too.”
His first start was June 30 against the Gulf Coast League Braves. Junk pitched one inning, allowed no runs on one walk and a strikeout.
Prior to the start, Junk was extremely amped up, nervous. As the inning went along, it became easier for him to focus on positive energy and delivering one pitch at a time.
Through three appearances out of the bullpen this summer, Junk is 0-2. He’s allowed no earned runs on two hits, two walks and three strikeouts.
“The Yankees made it very clear from the beginning,” Junk said. “There is a lot of pride that goes into that logo I get to wear on my chest every day. You absolutely have to show them every single day that you’re Yankee material. And I’m doing my best to show them I belong here.”
A little over three years later after walking on as a freshman at Seattle University, Junk stepped inside the Yankees clubhouse as the newest signee and remembered all the doubt and just how hard the work was in order for him to get into that room.
He saved the best memory for last, though. The one from childhood where he dreamed of pitching on Yankee Stadium dirt someday.
Now, he is one step closer to the New York Yankees’ 40-man roster, one step closer to bringing the dream of touching Yankee Stadium dirt to life.
“I want to be at the top,” Junk said. “I want to be playing at Yankee Stadium against the Boston Red Sox under the lights, competing with the best. I think I can do it. As long as I keep saying and believing that, I think I’ll reach that point.”