They first met as Tee Ball players in Japan more than 15 years ago. Spokane Indians relief pitcher Johnny Gunter and Tri-City Dust Devils infielder Joe Sanders have been linked together through baseball ever since.
They meet – for the second time this season – when the second-place Indians (9-15) host Northwest League-leading Tri-City (16-8) tonight in the first of three games at Avista Stadium. It is the latest meeting in their long-standing relationship.
“It’s crazy,” said Gunter. “We played in Japan together, we ended up in Alabama and played against each other and now we play for organizations in the Northwest League and play each other.”
Gunter, a promising catcher who was converted to pitcher in college, became an 11th-round draft choice of Texas out of Chattahoochee Valley Community College. Sanders was selected in the fifth round by Colorado after an illustrious career at Auburn.
The 145 miles separating the two Northwest League cities is not much more than the distance between them growing up in Alabama where, after Japan, the first-year professionals played against and with one another for most of their youth.
Gunter’s family settled in Phenix City, Ala., after his father Larry began to lose his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa and was discharged after the diagnosis while stationed at Yokota Air Force Base outside Tokyo.
Legally blind, Larry coached his son until he was 12, and they even managed to play catch, Johnny throwing into a net beside him. But Larry hasn’t been able to see his son when he played for the last several years.
“That’s OK,” Larry said. “I think that’s what’s made Johnny a fine young man and hungry. It hasn’t always been an easy path.”
Sanders dad, Jack, was ultimately assigned to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Ala., and settled in nearby Millbrook.
Larry was coaching a tee-ball team in Japan when the two first met. Larry recalled via phone interview that Jack told him the boys should get together and play catch.
“I said, ‘that’ll be fine.’ ” Larry said. “I told Johnny ‘I met a guy today who has a little boy and is going to bring him over to throw. Don’t throw hard, you might hurt him.’ Jack’s telling Joseph the same thing, that Johnny might not be able to catch him.”
When they got together, the two began rifling the ball at each other and it turned out they were pretty much the only two on the team who could throw and catch.
“You could tell at the time they were both special,” Larry said.
The youngsters switched off playing shortstop and first base, a harbinger of their professional careers, and became best friends. Johnny said they hung out together all the time watching movies and playing video games.
Back in Alabama, the two flourished in a hotbed of baseball talent that has included numerous draft picks the past few years, including St. Louis starting centerfielder Colby Rasmus.
Gunter emulated his older brother in becoming the catcher and played on two Little League state titlists. He teamed with Sanders on a Dixie youth state champion and they were teammates on all-star games after opposing each other in high school.
“We beat them every time,” Johnny said. “I think so. I’m pretty sure we did.”
At Auburn, Sanders played three seasons and had a career .335 batting average in 508 at-bats with 47 doubles, 28 home runs and 140 RBIs. He’s currently hitting .265 for the Dust Devils.
Gunter, who hadn’t pitched after youth baseball, came unexpectedly to the position while a freshman at Troy University.
“It really just came about one day when we were long-tossing,” he said. “I was throwing it pretty good and coaches wanted to see what I could do.”
He was clocked in the low- to mid-90s and “that was pretty much it for catching.”
Perhaps it was destiny. At age 17 he had a fastball deflect off his bat and fracture the orbital bones around an eye, resulting in surgery.
“After I started pitching I didn’t want to catch any more,” Johnny said. “It felt natural to me to throw strikes with the velocity I had. I felt I could probably pursue this professionally.”
Gunter returned home, enrolled at Chattahoochee and this year was 11-3 with a 1.81 earned run average and recorded 128 strikeouts.
He had workouts with several teams, but was surprised to get the call from Texas. He had just told his dad San Diego called to say they would choose him in the 12th round when Larry heard the Rangers had made him their own. He was sent to Spokane, where another Phenix City pitcher, Kasey Kiker, got his start as their top draft pick in 2006.
Gunter said he’s probably projected as a late-inning reliever. So far he’s gone 0-1 with a 7.36 ERA in 11 innings, but has allowed only one earned run over his last four innings.
“He’s a power guy,” said manager Tim Hulett. “We call him ‘Big Country.’ He just rears back and lets it fly.”
Big Country is an apt nickname. But for Johnny Gunter and Joe Sanders it’s truly been a small world.