Going

from the outfield to the pitcher's mound doesn't quite compare with

going from Thatcher, Ariz., to Siberia. But for Leon Johnson, both

constitute major life journeys.

The former Brigham Young University outfielder is just hoping his

current venture proves as beneficial as the one that took him from

playing baseball in the Arizona desert to unsuccessfully attempting to

toss a ball in the frigid climate of the Russia Novosibirsk mission.

"Trying to play catch on ice doesn't really work that well," said

Johnson of his brief baseball experience while serving a mission for

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 2005-06. "That was

about the extent of my baseball."

But just last week, throwing became Johnson's primary focus when the

former 10th-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs was converted from

outfielder to left-handed pitcher. Johnson left the Peoria Chiefs, the

Cubs' Single-A affiliate, on June 7 and reported to extended spring

training to begin the transition.

The move is surprising on two different levels, the first being that

Johnson was a high draft pick in 2007 due to the speed and defensive

ability he displayed during his sophomore season at BYU. And second,

Johnson is not left-handed.

Growing up in a baseball-playing family (his older brother Elliot

made his major league debut earlier this season with Tampa Bay),

Johnson, a natural right-hander, was encouraged by his father to play

the game left-handed — a move that just might just pay off. Left-handed

pitchers are always a valued commodity in professional baseball, and

while Johnson thinks he can patrol center field with the best of them,

he struggled at the plate in his first year of professional baseball.

"I just could never figure out the hitting," said Johnson, who batted .220 with Peoria this year.

The combination of those factors compelled him to consider a position

change. When Johnson approached his coaches about a switch, the

organization complied.

There's also the fact that Johnson has always aspired to pitch, to

the point where he used to throw curveballs to teammates in the

outfield during warm-ups.

"I've actually always wanted to be a pitcher but I never had the arm until after my mission," he said.

While his baseball experience in Siberia was limited to that one game

of catch on the ice, Johnson feels that missionary service helped

prepare him for this undertaking — both physically and mentally.

During his pre-mission playing career, which included a stop at

Eastern Arizona College upon graduation from Thatcher High School,

Johnson said his pitching mechanics were flawed — his arm lacking what

he called "whip." He said he threw like an Iron Mike pitching machine.

Two years away from the game, however, helped Johnson remold himself as an athlete.

"You're able to reteach yourself," he said. "My body wasn't used to

throwing a certain way, so I was able to teach myself correctly off my

mission. So it was a really big blessing."

Serving a full-time mission also affected his mind-set and influenced

his motivation. Johnson, who was drafted out of high school and after

his first season at Eastern Arizona by the Tampa Bay Rays, said the

decision to give up baseball for two years was "tough," but he was

rewarded with perspective. Missionary service allowed him to think less

about himself and more about others, an approach he has carried over to

his baseball career. While he did once think about the potential money

and fame that could come his way, Johnson has adopted more of an

outward focus.

"Now, I think about, if I'm a successful baseball player, I think

about the way I can bless other people's lives," he said. "I think more

about other people . . . It gives you a lot more drive, because you're

not just doing it for yourself.

"The mission is just the greatest thing you could possibly do. It will bless your life in numerous ways you can't understand."

While he's now close to home working on the transition, away from

competitive baseball, Johnson speaks highly of his first year in the

minor leagues. Church members in the Midwest were always gracious, he

said, often inviting him to dinner after games. Johnson was able to

participate in a nondenominational team Bible class every Sunday, and

when teammates were informed of the fact that he served a mission, they

came to respect his values and even look out for him.

"It's all what you make of it," he said of the experience.