Like a lot of kids who grew up in South Carolina, Michael Kohn dreamed of playing for the Atlanta Braves. Unlike most, Kohn will realize his dream when he reports to spring training with the major league club in February.
Kohn, a right-handed pitcher who spent his first seven seasons in professional baseball with the Los Angeles Angels organization, signed as a free agent last week with the Braves. It culminates a journey that began as a youth baseball player in Camden, where he first committed the idea of playing for Atlanta in writing.
“I grew up as a Braves fan my whole life,” Kohn said. “My parents still have a contract that I wrote when I was 11 years old saying that I play for the Atlanta Braves. It also said I played shortstop and batted third so it’s a little different. To now sign with the Braves is an unbelievable feeling.”
His family still has that contract, but Kohn relishes the latest one a little more. He had good conversations with Braves assistant general manager John Coppolella and pitching coach Roger McDowell about his role as a late-inning reliever before deciding to choose Atlanta over other options.
“Things worked out the way they did. Atlanta kept coming on strong,” Kohn said.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Kohn played at Camden High before playing two seasons each at USC Upstate and the College of Charleston. He also played one summer with the Columbia Blowfish – primarily as a slugging first baseman and outfielder and not as a pitcher.
But he showcased a hard-throwing arm off the mound in short stints during his senior season with the Cougars and in workouts leading up to the 2008 MLB draft, when the Angels took him as a pitcher in the 13th round.
He zoomed through the minor leagues to reach Anaheim for the first time during the 2010 season. Despite missing the 2012 season because of Tommy John elbow surgery, Kohn became a reliable arm in the Angels bullpen. Over parts of four seasons, he appeared in 126 games and posted a 5-6 record with two saves and a 3.67 ERA. Opposing teams batted .209 against him as he piled up 107 strikeouts in 1101/3 innings.
“After a year or so in the big leagues, you realize how everything slows down for you a little bit, and it’s a matter of playing the same game,” he said. “After the first year, I dealt with that, and the last couple of years I’ve felt more at home and more like a big leaguer.”
Kohn, 28, is a tough-minded power pitcher with a fastball that sits between 94 to 98 miles per hour. He also sports a slider and changeup that he hopes can be more consistent. Although he posted a 3.04 ERA in 25 games last season, his 20 walks in 231/3 innings led to an extended stint in Triple-A and frustration.
“I still had some good numbers, but obviously, anybody can see the walks were a little high,” he said. “I went through some transition phases and tried to change my delivery multiple times. I couldn’t get in a groove until the last month and a half of the season.”
He’s confident a fresh start with his new team will help him as he seeks a spot on the Braves’ roster.
“I’ll go in there and fight for a spot as a reliever,” he said. “Craig Kimbrel, obviously, will hold down the ninth (inning). Jim Johnson and David Carpenter will probably be the eighth-inning guys. I’ll try to fit in that role as a seventh- or eighth-inning arm with those guys. McDowell seems to think if I throw the way I can, that’s where I’ll be.”
Camden High baseball coach Denny Beckley remembers his strong-armed, hard-hitting shortstop who was seldom-used on the mound for the Bulldogs.
“We always knew he had a strong arm and a quick release, but I figured he would be more of a position guy because he was a pretty darn good player,” Beckley said. “But I also thought he could become more of a relief guy later in college if it didn’t work out with the other stuff. It’s funny how it did work out.”
Beckley chatted with Kohn after last week’s deal with the Braves was complete, and the coach is thrilled about the prospect of a summer road trip to Atlanta to see his former player as a Brave.
“The thing that’s so exciting to me is that he’s getting an opportunity to do something that he has loved for so long, and he’s matured so much as a person,” Beckley said. “Every time I talk to him, I feel so blessed to see his growth. To be a little part of that is such an honor.”
Kohn also is excited to be on the East Coast, where he’ll be closer to his friends and family. His mother Rebecca lives in Charleston, his off-season home, and his father Thomas lives in Jacksonville, Fla.
Kohn took up baseball instead of following members of his mother’s side of the family into politics. She was born a Sheheen, and some of his relatives include his grandfather’s brother, Bob Sheheen, former S.C. Speaker of the House of Representatives, and his second cousin, Vincent Sheheen, a state senator and two-time candidate for governor.
“I leave politics to those guys. I’m just sports,” Kohn said with a laugh.
As long as he’s wearing that Braves uniform, he’ll be happy, even if he isn’t playing shortstop and batting third as he envisioned in his youth contract.
“It’s so much closer to home for me. It’s unreal,” he said. “My family can come see me play. I’m definitely going to be leaving a lot more tickets than I have in the last four or five years.”