News Article Details

Baseball 'is good medicine' for Rocco Johnson

East Peoria Times-Courier - 5/9/2018

Rocco Johnson has cerebral palsy.

But that's not who he is.

"We never want it to be a label for him," said Tori Johnson, 33, Rocco's mother.

"He has the heart of a warrior. He's fought it like a warrior. It's a rollercoaster of emotion and in the end, these children teach us more than we teach them." Rocco Johnson is 5. The kid from Peoria signed a one-day contract with the Peoria Chiefs on May 3 to serve as their bench coach and he quickly owned Dozer Park and the Midwest League team.

"I can't smile, I can't smile," he said when people implored him to smile during his signing ceremony.

"I'm chewing gum." And with that, he was off to other things. There was a pre-game meeting in the Chiefs dugout with the team, during which manager Chris Swauger held him while introducing him to the team.

There was a tour of the clubhouse and visits with the players. The visiting West Michigan Whitecaps presented him with an autographed team jersey.

Batting practice was weathered-out May 3, but the team planned to have Rocco back for BP on May 4.

About 30 minutes before the game, the kid, not content to stand around near the on-deck circle, took off running. He was soon joined by Chiefs third baseman Juan Yepez, who "jogged" with him down the left field line, on to the warning track, and over to center field.

They worked out a plea bargain there. Yepez picked up Rocco, put him on his shoulders, and gave him a piggy-back ride in from the outfield to the dugout.

It was awesome.

"Rocco suffered a brain hemorrhage during birth," said Tori Johnson, explaining the cerebral palsy cause.

"He has had to come such a long way. Now he can walk with a brace, although his left side is afflicted and he has trouble with balance and fatigue there.

"But he always says, 'No help, no help.' He wants to do it on his own. These children are capable, they have so much to offer. We want him to feel capable of doing anything." Doug Pinter, a representative with Front Nine Foundation, was the middle man who connected the Chiefs with the Johnson family. They turned out in force May 3, wearing green T-shirts emblazoned with "Rocco's Ninjas." Rocco goes through daily stretching and strengthening exercises and has had Botox therapy, serial casting and various medicines in his treatment plan.

The Chiefs will auction items online from current and former players to raise money for Front Nine. You can register for that auction at or by texting CHIEFS to 52182.

Rocco Johnson starts kindergarten in the fall at Monroe Grade School in Bartonville.

He has a sister, Reese, 11, and a brother, Boh, 10. The latter is autistic, and was at his brother's side throughout the day, and tossed out the ceremonial first pitch.

Rocco, by the way, is a big Cubs fan. But he had no issues donning a Chiefs ballcap and jersey May 3-with some help from Swauger - despite the fact it was the Cardinals organization that signed him.

"I feel like we made his day just giving him the gum," said Swauger, joking.

"He loves baseball," said Shaun Johnson, 33, Rocco's father. "He likes to play with his brother. And even if he isn't ever able play the game at the competitive level, just being here, being part of this helps.

"Baseball is good medicine for him."

CHIEFS BRIEFS: St. Louis Cardinals director of player development Gary LaRocque was in attendance, part of a large contingent on hand from the Chiefs parent club. That included director of baseball administration John Vuch, offensive strategist George Greer, minor league infielder coordinator Luis Aguayo and pitching analytics director Paul Davis. West Michigan started 6-foot-6 right-handed pitcher Matt Manning in the series finale against the Chiefs on May 3 at Dozer Park. He is the son of Rich Manning, a 6-11 center who played eight years in the NBA with the Grizzlies.

Peoria Rivermen wingers Connor Gorman, Ryan Siiro, Cody Dion, Mike Economos and Mike Gurtler and defenseman Ben Oskroba were all in attendance.

Dave Eminian covers the Chiefs for the Peoria Journal Star. Reach him at 686-3206 or Check out Chiefs videos on and news items on Twitter@icetimecleve.


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