You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Former major league player Micah Johnson finds new voice as an artist

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 7/16/2020 Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY
UP NEXT
UP NEXT

There was so much Micah Johnson wanted to say when he was a Major League Baseball player, but was afraid to say it.

There were so many times Johnson wanted to speak out about social inequality in America as a Black man, but wanted to keep his job.

Now, with paint in his hands instead of a bat, Johnson is speaking out through his art, finally free to express himself.

From NFL plays to college sports scores, all the top sports news you need to know every day.

“It’s a shame I wasn’t able to speak up, or pay attention like I wanted,’’ Johnson tells USA TODAY Sports. “I was selfish. I was trying to make money. It’s embarrassing I didn’t speak out. I came to the field every day worrying about being sent down. I was just trying to survive. I couldn’t run my mouth about different causes, or else they would have forgotten about me so quick.

 “Now, I have a platform that motivates me, that overshadows my baseball career. I have an opportunity to send a message, a really important way of expressing myself. I should have done that when I played.

“I’m not going to miss out on it this time.’’

Johnson, 29, who spent seven years in professional baseball, including parts of three years in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, has given up baseball for a paint brush.

He spent his whole life dreaming of being a ballplayer, and on April 6, 2015, played his first major-league game with the White Sox, getting his first career hit off the late Yordano Ventura of the Kansas City Royals.

Three years later, Johnson was out of baseball.

“Growing up in the ’90s, baseball was all I cared about,’’ Johnson says. “That’s all I wanted to be was a major-league ballplayer. I miss that competition, but I don’t miss the game. It’s just a mess. I was a small-ball guy. I couldn’t hit home runs. I couldn’t change the game. It got depressing.

“So I got out.’’

NATIONALS: World Series champions' GM may be a lame duck in 2020

NICKNAMES: Time for Indians, Braves to finally change their nicknames

Johnson turned to painting, and suddenly feels free, expressing his mind, displaying his raw emotions, on canvases for everyone to see at the Art Angels Gallery in Los Angeles.

His first painting was a portrait of Dodgers great Maury Wills, and done on a whim in 2016 when manager Dave Roberts asked the young players in spring training about their hobbies away from the playing field. Johnson was a piano player, but too embarrassed to admit it in front of his teammates. So he spit out that he was a painter.

He just forgot to include the part his last art class was in elementary school.

“I wasn’t going to play the piano in front of the team,’’ Johnson said, “so I told him I painted.’’

He spent all spring working on the painting, turned it in just before the end of camp, and it was a hit, with even Wills loving the rendition.

“I don’t think it was good,’’ Johnson said, “but everyone else sure seemed to like it.’’

A new career was born.

Johnson, who retired from baseball two years ago, is a full-time artist, focusing his work on the Black Lives Matter movement. He has painted pictures of George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis triggered the movement. He has also painted scenes from the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Matt Szczur co-painted a portrait of Floyd that was purchased by Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward for $10,000, with the proceeds going to charities fighting for social justice.

“Now, with what’s going on in America, and as a Black artist,’’ Johnson says, “I wanted to depict the emotions of this time. You’re seeing a lot of pride. You’re seeing Black history being rediscovered, history people didn’t know about. It’s my way of preserving history in this very critical time in America, a raw look at what’s going on in America.’’

He also wants to inspire kids, believing that this generation of Black kids could be the most resilient group ever in America, with his own 4-year-old nephew, Elijah, motivating him.

It was Elijah who recently asked his mother, “Mom, can astronauts be Black?”

Johnson was speechless.

“To think he was putting limitations on his dream,’’ Johnson said, “that really hit me. That hurt me. He inspired me to start painting astronauts. An astronaut is a universal statement and can stand the test of time.’’

Looking at Johnson’s recent art work, you’ll see Black children wearing Astronaut suits. Some are wearing capes. One stands with a cello in his hand. A backpack on another. There are no limits to anyone’s dreams in Johnson’s art world.

Johnson, who grew up in Indianapolis and went to Indiana University, is moved by ballplayers now speaking out about systematic racism in this country. He never felt comfortable speaking out, but these are different times. He loves seeing today’s young players, such as 24-year-old St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, speak his mind, openly raising the possibility of players showing unity on opening day by kneeling during the national anthem.

“I think it will happen,’’ Johnson says, “because there is no risk anymore. When a guy like Bruce Maxwell did it, there was risk, and he paid the price. Now, if someone bashes you speaking out, they’re in the wrong, which is great place to be. I do think there will be more outspokenness.’’

He applauds Dodgers Cy Young pitcher Clayton Kershaw opening his eyes to Black Lives Matter, saying in a statement that it’s time to end the silence: “I want to listen, I want to learn, I want to do better and be different.’’ He was stirred by Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein’s criticism of himself, saying, “The majority of people that I’ve hired, if I’m being honest, have similar backgrounds as me and look a lot like me. That’s something I need to ask myself why. I need to question my own assumptions, my own attitudes.’’

The power and the energy created by the moment, Johnson wonders aloud, may not have been possible if it wasn’t for COVID-19. The disease shut down most of the world. And the moment George took his last breath, captured on camera for the world to witness the horrifying scene, people had time to reflect, explore their inner soul, and examine their own consciousness.

“There were no sports, no movies being on, so everybody’s attention was on this,’’ Johnson says. “I truly believe that if sports were happening, baseball was going on, the NBA was going on, we would not see the same response.

“It was almost the perfect storm, people sat and had to re-evaluate. You think Theo Epstein would have been so thoughtful and questioning his hiring practices if the Cubs were playing the Cardinals that day. You think Kershaw would have been saying that if he was ready to pitch in San Francisco. Just the fact there were no sports to distract from that.

“Hopefully, what we’re going through will spark change, and what I’m painting will benefit future generations.’’

Johnson has found his calling, and after growing up his whole life wanting to be a baseball player, he has new ambitions, one that could have a lasting impact far beyond what he could accomplish on the playing field.

“It’s weird to think this is my new life’s path because I was so obsessed with baseball,’’ Johnson says. “It was such an integral part of my life. Well, I learned it’s Ok to have more dreams.

“I found my new dream.

“Really, I found happiness.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Former major league player Micah Johnson finds new voice as an artist

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from USA Today Sports

USA TODAY SPORTS
USA TODAY SPORTS
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon