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The Game I’ll Never Forget: Micah Johnson

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A surprise promotion to the bigs, first major league hit ... what could go wrong?

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals
High Low: Johnson, here connecting for his first major league hit, on April 6, 2015, got a rude awakening at first base.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Admittedly, Micah Johnson had a brief career on the South Side. After tearing up the Cactus League in 2015, Johnson forced the White Sox to bring him north. But he struggled with his fast promotion, slashing .270/.333/.297 before being sent back down to Triple-A Charlotte on May 12. Once there, Johnson tore up minor league pitching, stealing 28 bases and going .316/.376/.466 before a September call-up.

That Charlotte showing was enough for the Los Angeles Dodgers to get Johnson included in a trade with Chicago, acquiring him with Trayce Thompson and Frankie Montas as part of a three-team deal that netted the White Sox Todd Frazier.

Johnson saw little playing time with the Dodgers and struggled in the minors. He was swapped to the Atlanta Braves after the 2016 season, where a familiar pattern returned: Falling just short of the big club, tearing up (.295/.386/.396) Triple-A ball.

Then began one of the stranger player odysseys in major league history. Atlanta waived Johnson on October 26, 2017, and he was claimed by the Cincinnati Reds; Cincy cut Johnson four days later, with the San Francisco Giants claiming him; and on November 27 San Francisco cut him, so the Tampa Bay Rays swooped in.

This spring in Florida, Johnson has impressed again, starting out 7-for-18 (.389) with a .500 on-base and 1.111 OPS. Our friends at DRays Bay have just published a profile of Tampa’s second-base candidates that gives Johnson, with his speed and positional flexibility, a formidable shot to break camp with the big club.

Off the field, Johnson is an emerging artist, and a terrific Twitter follow (@Micah_Johnson3).

In his own words, here are Micah Johnson’s memories of the White Sox, including a Double-A title and his very first major league game.

By Micah Johnson, as told to Brett Ballantini

Man, it’s hard to think of a single moment in my career that stands out. But one that jumps to mind is winning the Southern League Championship in 2013 with the Birmingham Barons. It was my first full season, I got called up for the playoffs, and we won the whole thing.

Birmingham was a really good team. A lot of boys who would eventually make it up to Chicago were there: Marcus Semien, Erik Johnson, Trayce Thompson, Tyler Saladino, Daniel Webb. When rosters were expanded that September, Semien got called up to the White Sox, and I took his place.

When I got to Birmingham, Barons hitting coach Gary Ward gave me No. 5, which had been Semien’s number. It’s funny, because Ward was like, “Hey, you’ll never be Semien.” And I’ll never forget that. When I saw Marcus at his wedding last year, we were laughing about it. Marcus was Gary Ward’s pride and joy!

I knew I had a good year in Single-A and high Single-A ball that year, but when I got called up, I was nervous. I played in the last five games of the regular season with Double-A Birmingham, and I sucked.

But the playoffs came around, and they kept me in the lineup. I stole five bases in the first round, we won, and ended up playing for the title against the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Double-A team, the Mobile BayBears, with Archie Bradley and Ender Inciarte.

The series was tied 2-2, and I led off Game 5 with a home run out to dead center on the second pitch I saw. It reminded me a little of high school. When I was a senior at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis, I had missed almost the whole season after left shoulder surgery to repair my labrum. In the playoffs, I couldn’t get on the field, but I had been taking swings off a tee. I got sent in to pinch-hit in a sectional game against Heritage Christian and sent a homer out, over the right-field wall.

In our clincher in Birmingham, I went 2-for-4, with the leadoff homer, and the go-ahead RBI later in the game. I finished the playoffs 9-for-20 with seven steals, and was the playoff MVP. That was a pretty cool way to cap off my first full season in the minors.

Sneaky MVP: Johnson [lower left corner], a late addition to Birmingham’s roster in 2013, had a playoff run for the ages.
Birmingham Barons

I was drafted out of college injured. I only played about half of my junior season at Indiana University because of my right elbow. They had to basically take out my triceps muscle to reposition a nerve—“funny bone” surgery. That’s my throwing arm, so it’s not an easy surgery to rehab from—and I’ve had it twice, once in college back in 2012 and once during Arizona Fall League in 2013. In between those surgeries, I was MVP of the Southern League playoffs!

Though I had elbow surgery, the White Sox still drafted me, in the ninth round. The White Sox saw something in me. And I was never unconfident, but between injuries and graduating up to pro ball, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform.

In rookie ball after getting drafted in 2012, I was OK. Spent two months in Montana, made more errors than I wanted. I probably should have just been DHing because of my elbow. Overall, my first year was tough.

When you’re in rookie ball or low Single-A, you look at Double-A like it’s the big leagues. I wasn’t a high pick, but I knew I was good. I had to prove myself, force my way up the ladder against more experienced guys, higher draft picks.

So I tried to outwork everybody. I ran and ran and ran, and hit. My first full pro season was 2013, and I told myself I deserved to be in Double-A, at Birmingham. So I just set myself to it. I tore up the Sally League at Kannapolis, and made the jump from low Single-A to high Single-A at Winston-Salem. And maybe it was Semien getting called up to Chicago, maybe it was how I played with the Dash, but by the end of the year, I’d made it to Double-A.

Birmingham was the first place I could really stand out. And to get there and perform how I did in the playoffs was exciting. I liked playing under pressure. I didn’t want to disappoint the fans. I wanted to add to the atmosphere of Regions Park.

Those playoffs really put me on the radar. The White Sox sent me to the Arizona Fall League right afterward, and I played well there for a few games, hit .320, before my second “funny bone” surgery. By spring, I had an invite to big league camp, and even though it was just a cup of coffee, I tore it up there, too, hitting .360.

So I had a taste of where I could go. I told myself in the offseason that I needed to make it to Triple-A in 2014—the White Sox owed it to me. Now, they started me in Birmingham, but I was only there about a month before I got bumped up to Triple-A Charlotte. I kept putting the pressure on the White Sox to move me up.

Fast Track: It took Johnson little more than one full season to reach Triple-A with the Knights.

That’s what I tell the rookies now: Don’t go into camp with any expectations. Every kid goes to spring training thinking they’ll be on the high Single-A team, and then end up in low Single-A, or they think they deserve Double-A and end up in high Single-A. You have to start somewhere, then push your way up. I had better prospects in front of me, and I thought I would never get past them. I’d stat-check, and stuff. Sometimes it seemed like there was no way for me to break through. But if you perform, they’re going to find a spot for you. It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you end up.

Nothing was given to me. I wasn’t a top prospect. I just performed whenever they needed me to.

I would have gotten my first taste of the majors in 2014, all the way up from Double-A, but at the end of the season my hamstring was sore, so I had to pass. I played a little bit of Fall League, and set my sights on making the big leagues in 2015.

In spring training, I tore it up, hit .339 playing the full month. I put the pressure on the White Sox, and they didn’t have much choice but to take me north with them.

That was an amazing feeling, because I had come such a long way, in a short time. There were so many people in the White Sox organization who were on my side. I needed a lot of work. I’d basically played second base only one year of my life, my sophomore year at Indiana. I didn’t take the conventional route, and I had a lot of people guiding me. Infield coaches, our farm director Buddy Bell, everybody believed in me. When they told me I made the team, I made sure to go over the minor league side of camp to thank every one of those coaches. I didn’t have any polish on my own; they all made me into a major leaguer.

I called my parents, and that might be the only call I made because it’s such a whirlwind. The manager tells you that you made the team right before practice, so you don’t really have a chance to make calls. My parents were excited, but they don’t get too excited about baseball. Does that make sense? Probably not, I guess most parents would be going crazy. But my parents see me as more than a baseball player. Obviously, they were excited, but at the same time, they see me as one of them. As long as I’m happy, they don’t care what I’m doing. As long as I’m working hard and pursuing my passion, they’re gonna be happy. They were equally as happy when I had my first art show as when I broke camp with the White Sox.

That practice is hard to get through, after you find out you’re going to the big leagues. You want to be focused and have a good workout, but at the same time, you’re super excited. Then all the stuff that goes with being a big leaguer kicks in, and you’re processing it. You have 24 teammates depending on you, a city, a team, everybody. It gets real. You still have to prove yourself a few more times to show you’re good enough and guys can rely on you, and that the fans can accept you. So the pressure becomes even greater. At first, you’re in camp playing for yourself, and when you make the big club you realize that it’s all much greater than you—and the pressure really kicks in.

We opened the season in Kansas City, which was perfect because my dad doesn’t fly, so it was close enough for my parents to drive to see me from Indianapolis.

I got a hit in my first game, second at-bat. I saw everything Yorando Ventura had to offer in my first at-bat leading off the third, worked him full, and took him deep on a fly out. So in my second at-bat, leading off the sixth, I kind of knew his game plan. So I cheated on a pitch, and got it good. I thought I hit it in the gap, and was trying to get a double, but Lorenzo Cain ended that real quick! I split the gap, came out of the box super fast and made a hard turn. Cain cut it off like lightning, and that’s when I realized I was in a really different game. Welcome to the majors.

What’s funny is we were losing 4-0, and I wanted to steal. I had Ventura’s move down, knew what he did, studied him nonstop in spring training. Well, I guess he made some adjustments, because he picked me off pretty quickly. So the memory of my first hit was a high and a low.

Baltimore Unrest Forces Orioles Play White Sox In An Empty Camden Yards
Strange Days: One of Micah’s 36 games with the White Sox included the closed-stadium game at Camden Yards in Baltimore on April 29, 2015. Avisail Garcia makes a catch below a leaping Johnson.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

I’m always looking ahead for new challenges. I’d like to get into front office management when I’m done playing. I’m just five credits from my degree at IU, so I’ll definitely finish it. I’d like to go to the management side because it’s so interesting. I’ve obviously played for a lot of guys at this point already, so I realize what style I like or don’t like, and there’s some things I’d want to do differently as a GM. The position is stressful. I like that, though.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles
Still Hustling: Johnson hopes his sixth team is the charm, and he can stick with the Rays.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

As for this coming season, I think positively. I’ve kind of expanded my arsenal, and you can be very valuable off the bench if you play every position. Roster size is limited, so you have to make yourself valuable. If I can play left, center, third, short, second, and be able to run, I’m in good shape.

Everyone who puts on a uniform wants to be able to play every day, but everybody wants to make the big leagues and stay there, too. So I’ll figure out my role, and do the best I can. The Rays offer a great opportunity for me to do that. They see me as a guy who can play multiple positions and fill in what they need. That’s the direction the game is going these days, multi-position flexibility.