Micah Johnson Is Living The Dream

Gabe Zaldivar

Icebreakers are the worst. The second anyone introduces one you begin to quickly think up clever answers. When that proves futile you look for the nearest cliff from which to leap.

But sometimes the person suggesting the icebreakers is Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. And sometimes that icebreaker changes your life forever.

That’s what happened to Micah Johnson, a former MLB second baseman who discovered relatively late in life that he had a talent and passion for art.

Photo Credit: Micah Johnson

“2016 was when I really first started painting seriously, and it all started when I was with the Dodgers and Dave Roberts asked me in front of the team what I liked to do,” Johnson said. “For some reason, I said painting even though I didn't really paint.”

We’ve all been there, caught between telling the group that you enjoy collecting very rare Russian nesting dolls and instead telling them something else because there’s no way in a million years they will make you do that something else.

Well, the skipper made Johnson do that something else. That led Johnson down a path he continues to maneuver, a life he continues to embrace and discover and savor.

Life On The Diamond

The 29-year-old father of a beautiful baby girl lives in North Carolina, where he keeps a studio. It’s a place to immerse himself in his work, throw himself into his passion, making up for hours of lost time.

Johnson isn’t that guy who relies on perfect technique honed over decades of training. He’s never been that guy. Johnson is the one who wakes up early, stays late and outworks you to the ballpark or to the canvas.

“I would say I was just a grinder, really,” he said. “I really made a name for myself my first full season in the minor leagues. I led all of baseball in stolen bases. I was just a grinder man. Not too many skills, but I was fast and I just worked really hard.”

Johnson spent seven seasons in professional baseball, mostly in the minors where he would steal 193 bases, batting .283. He got the call to the bigs in 2015 with the Chicago White Sox where he played in 36 games, batting .230.

He would then get dealt to the Dodgers in a three-team deal that also sent players like Todd Frazier to the White Sox, Jose Peraza to the Reds and Trayce Thompson (Klay Thompson’s brother) to the Dodgers.

Johnson would play in just seven games with the Dodgers before spending his final year in MLB with the Braves in 2017.

But it was that second year in the majors the proved most fruitful.

“I bring guys up, different guys each day, mostly young players to break the ice to kind of engage them,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts tells En Fuego on Sports Illustrated. “Let the veteran players learn a little bit more about them and their story. I just believe that the more you know about somebody, the more you care about them.”

Johnson certainly had a skill you might normally toss out in an icebreaker situation.He just decided not to disclose it.

“Honestly, I did a watercolor one time before that that my mom still has,” Johnson explains on the depth of his artistic experience prior to landing with the Dodgers.

“I don't know why I said it,” Johnson recalls about telling the team he painted as a hobby. “I think it was because I played piano forever and I didn't want to have to play piano, because he (Roberts) was making guys do stuff. I caught on to that. Like, if someone said hunting or fishing they would go fishing, right? Well if I said piano, I didn't feel like playing piano for 500 people. I was just embarrassed. So, I thought painting; he's not going to make me paint anything. And I was wrong.”

It’s funny what life forces you to do. You stretch muscles to limits you never thought possible, open your heart to possibilities previously thought unthinkable.

It’s those glorious revelations that get us moving onto the next chapter in our life with zeal, or in the case of Johnson, with long nights of putting the finishing touches on early works.

“But Micah was a guy that I didn't know before he got with us,” Roberts recalls. “And I found out, we found out that his skill of painting and love for the arts.”

Roberts essentially commissioned his player to try his hand at painting Dodger great Maury Wills, a person who still has that very first Micah Johnson piece.

“I said, ‘hey, man, why don't you take some time and do something with Maury Wills?’” Roberts said. “And he was so excited because Micah took to Maury and vice versa…But when I (saw) the finished product it was amazing, I was like it should have been in a gallery. And so that was really cool.”

Helping, Hoping, Dreaming

48” x 36” Oil & Charcoal on 2.5” Birch Panel.
Photo Credit: Micah Johnson

As an artist, Johnson has a singular ability to uplift the community with his pieces. Inspiration comes easy when you stare at the children that adorn his recent works, astronauts ready for their next mission just a couple of years after learning to walk.

At the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, Johnson was struck by an idea. There was a way to further help those he knew were struggling because he was once among their ranks.

“The minor-league guys are always the last ones to eat,” Johnson said. “Then (they) wait for that first paycheck even though it's five hundred bucks, six hundred bucks; it's really important to them.”

Minor league players have been hit particularly hard by the shutdown of their sport. There remains uncertainty as to when they will again play and are making do with a $400 weekly stipend.

Johnson is offering minor leaguers the opportunity to get into the art-selling game. For whatever they sell of his, they get to keep the commission. He would rather the money go to guys that are struggling than an art gallery.

Or, as he puts it, “I got to live my dream.”

He made it to the MLB and is still pursuing his passions away from the field. His never-ending pursuit of his heart’s desires led him here, and he’s doing what he can to help others realize theirs.

“My goal now and my dream now is I want to be in museums,” Johnson says. “But then this pandemic happened. OK, I got to put that on hold cause I think this is more important to do what I can do, which may not be much but you know I offered these guys to sell paintings.”

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Art And Catharsis

A batter can search his entire life and not find the proper stance. A pitcher might be just one centimeter the wrong way on the the rubber from being truly effective.

Johnson is still relatively early in his career as an artist, a life shaped by long nights and anxious days.

“Towards the end of my last year (with the Braves) I had been seeing a therapist for the first time,” Johnson recalls. “I thought I had A.D.D. or something because I had terrible mood swings.”

Around that time Johnson was playing ball and painting, still finding himself amid acrylics and pine tar.

“I had this ability to play a baseball game and go work and do all the work I needed to do and then come home and I had this art exhibit coming up. I would paint all night and I was never tired I was just wired man, just non-stop and I was never happy,” he said.

Johnson was at the end of one career and the start of another, dealing with anxiety and depression as he was still trying to find his artistic voice.

“It was a tough decision but ultimately I had to walk away from baseball to focus on (art) and I was blessed enough to have art as a fallback and still do what I love,” Johnson said. “Obviously I still miss baseball. you only get one life and I have to achieve my dream and I get more dreams.”

Dreams are a theme with Johnson. He’s since found his voice, orchestrated and amplified by the mix of vibrant colors and the charcoal medium.

Motivation to inspire young children of color that not only should they dream, but those dreams must also be grandiose and gorgeous. Johnson is here to show them that they are attainable. 

“I was able to create vivid imagery but at the same time there was a looseness to it,” he said of his discovery of charcoal. “I'm not a strict person; I'm not a clean person. I don't have a pristine studio.”

Because of the shading and lines that charcoal lends, his pieces have a vitality to them. The kid donning astronaut gear is walking through life wearing his dream for all to see.

The child pulling the iconic red wagon, nostalgia to some a symbol of an obligatory burden to be pulled by others. The child musters on, enjoying the innocence of a summer day as he devours fruit and looks ahead. 

Changing The Game

The depression and anxiety are better now. Although he admits, “it's always going to be a constant struggle, man.”

He beats back the blues with his superpower, the ability to work relentlessly. He’ll be up at four in the morning and give himself a lunch or dinner break, sometimes going 24 hours to finish a project.

One of which was a Kobe Bryant image that landed in the hands of former teammate Adrian Gonzalez.

“Micah was a great teammate and is a great friend,” Gonzalez said. “He is also an incredible artist.”

Some quick thinking got the former first baseman a remarkable image that pays homage to the Lakers legend.

“When he started his work on Kobe I knew I wanted it,” Gonzalez said. “I reached out to him to find out it was still available, I had to agree to purchase it on the spot. I Love it.”

Johnson just so happens to have a lot of innovative projects in the works. He not only has a pair of sneakers coming out soon, a collaboration between himself and Gonzalez’s wife Betsy, founder and creative director of fashion line Mia Becar.

He also continues to bang the drum for the importance and revolutionary nature of NFTs (non-fungible token) and blockchain technology.

“The Next Movement is this digital art,” Johnson said of the technology that may soon revolutionize sports and art collecting, allowing buyers the freedom to own, collect and resell digital assets off of the blockchain.

Chatting with Johnson, you’re immediately struck that you’re in the presence of someone who truly has a singular worldview.

It takes a special kind of person to hop from one passion to the other and not look back.

“I just really enjoyed Micah because he was very cerebral and he was a baseball player,” Dave Roberts continued. “Competed. But that second level of thinking that he really had and I just enjoyed our conversations.”

He’s that person with an infectious drive that makes you pour all of your own energy into what you love to do.

You see his work, hear his dreams and think, I’ll have some of that.

“Every morning I wake up and I have this passion to create,” Johnson said. “And it's beyond making money or becoming famous.”

He’s living one dream after another, simply because he’s brave enough, audacious enough, to continue seeking out new challenges.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Very inspirational, great read!