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Micah Johnson: Zero to first base in 3.6 seconds

By Seth Lakso
Correspondent
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/23/21/14/1t6IcU.Em.138.jpeg|316
    David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/23/21/14/61Rzy.Em.138.jpeg|268
    David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Charlotte Knights second baseman Micah Johnson gears up to run for third base during Monday’s game against Toledo. He had 84 steals last season.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/23/21/14/7vUrL.Em.138.jpeg|306
    David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Charlotte Knights second baseman Micah Johnson rounds first base behind Toledo’s Jordan Lennerton during Monday night’s game.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/23/21/15/ur63X.Em.138.jpeg|366
    David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Charlotte Knights second baseman Micah Johnson gets enough bat on the ball for a single during Monday night’s game against Toledo at BB&T BallPark.

Baseball’s next Billy Hamilton?

It’s the first comparison that comes to mind and one the Charlotte Knights’ Micah Johnson is used to hearing since he dethroned minor-league baseball’s three-time stolen base champion with 84 thefts last season.

Hamilton, a Cincinnati Reds speedster, set baseball abuzz two years ago when he stole a record 155 bases. After 75 more in 2013, he earned a promotion to the majors, and in doing so, left a void and a legacy.

The hunt for the game’s next elite base-stealer has since found its way to Charlotte, focusing on a 24-year-old second baseman who plays his home games at BB&T BallPark for the Knights.

When Johnson – who hits left-handed – steps to the plate, scouts pull out stopwatches like paparazzi going for their cameras, only their version of the perfect photo is measured in tenths of a second and falls somewhere between 3.6 and 3.8.

That’s how fast Johnson makes his way to first base. If he chops a ground ball a few steps to the right of a shortstop, it’s a hit; if he tops a ball off the plate and it bounces high into the air, that’s going to be a hit too.

“When you have speed like that, you don’t slump,” said Knights bench coach Ryan Newman, who has been with Johnson since he was drafted three years ago.

“There’s a presence now when he steps into the box,” Newman said. “Everyone knows who Micah is. Whenever he gets in the box, you know something exciting is going to happen.”

Johnson’s first hit at BB&T BallPark came on May 20, when he sent a bouncing ball back up the middle for a double.

The ball wasn’t bobbled by the center fielder and his throw was on the mark. Johnson just took off out of the box and didn’t stop until the umpire signaled him safe.

“It’s got to be a double … right?” said the game’s official scorer, caught off guard by what everyone assumed would be a single off the bat.

“Score that a double,” he eventually spoke into the mic with a shrug.

Johnson grew up in Indianapolis and attended Park Tudor School, where he developed a life-long relationship with the team’s baseball coach, Courtney Whitehead, before going on to play college baseball for Indiana.

According to his IU biography, Johnson once defeated Miami Heat center Greg Oden – a fellow Park Tudor alumni – in a game of one-on-one, but if you ask him about the game today, he’ll crack a smile and claim not to know where the story came from.

As a high school freshman, Johnson started at shortstop for the Panthers, who finished the season as one of the top four teams in the state.

“At the high school level, Micah was instinctively fast,” Whitehead said. “We try to teach our kids to play the game with a controlled aggression. You push right to the moment where it appears that you’re out of control. He was always a step ahead of the other kids in terms of his natural tendencies.”

Johnson, who played mostly third base, hit .561 in his first three seasons at Park Tudor before a torn labrum in his right shoulder cost him all but one at-bat his senior year.

To qualify to be in the high school record books, a player must play four years of varsity baseball. Johnson’s injury left him a season short. His three-year average would have been the best ever in Indiana.

In the final game of the Panthers’ postseason run, doctors cleared Johnson (depending on who you ask) for pinch-hitting duties.

After spending the season essentially as the team’s assistant coach, Johnson went to the plate in the seventh inning for one last at-bat.

“He wound up hitting a 410-foot home run,” Whitehead said. “I don’t know how you can not take batting practice for 41/2 months and face a fastball like that – in the low 90s – and hit it that far. He was that kind of player.

“People talk about that home run he hit still today. They tell it just like it was that night. People remember that like the shot heard around the world.”

Ball State offered Johnson a full scholarship – a rarity for a position player – and the University of Arizona gave him its best pitch, but ultimately, he chose to stay close to home and join the Hoosiers.

At IU, Johnson transitioned from third to second and became a second-team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore, leading the team in runs (43), stolen bases (19), triples (four) and walks (25), while hitting .335.

Once again, he lost his final season (his junior year) to an injury, this time needing surgery to correct nerve damage in his right elbow.

Johnson’s bad luck became the White Sox’ golden ticket, when the then 21-year-old lasted all the way until the ninth round of the 2012 amateur draft where Chicago was able to grab him.

After signing, Johnson was assigned to the rookie level Great Falls Voyagers, where he first met Newman, the manager.

“We were all impressed, that’s for sure,” Newman said when asked his first impressions of Johnson. “We had no idea we were getting what he turned into, but we knew he could handle the bat. We knew he had some speed and we knew he was a tremendous athlete.”

Before last season, Newman took over as skipper of the Class A+ Winston-Salem Dash and was reunited with Johnson midway through the season, when the White Sox promoted him from Class A Kannapolis.

While with the Dash, Newman saw Johnson turn an unassisted double play that he still looks back on with disbelief.

“There was a slow-hit ground ball in between first and second,” Newman said. “Micah ran over, fielded the ground ball and tagged the runner going from first to second.

“Then, he couldn’t get the ball out of his glove, so he ran and tagged the runner on his way to first base. He didn’t even tag the base, he tagged the runner – it’s incredible the speed he has.”

By the end of the season, Johnson had left Newman behind and joined the Class AA Birmingham Barons for their playoff run, where he earned finals MVP honors after hitting .329 with three home runs, 12 runs scored, seven RBIs and seven steals.

Johnson finished the year with nine more steals than Hamilton put up with Class AAA Louisville.

With that title came the scouts and with them came the comparisons.

There’s one issue with all the Hamilton talk: Johnson’s not interested in being baseball’s next Billy Hamilton.

“I do me,” said Johnson, who as of June 19 was hitting .256 with a home run and three stolen bases in 19 games with Charlotte. “I think my game’s different than anybody else’s, really. I run, but also I’ve got power. There’s no one I really want to mimic.”

Put on the spot, Johnson will admit to watching the power-hitting Sammy Sosa while growing up, “But his game isn’t my game.”

Last Wednesday, Johnson filled up a stat book like only he can, finishing his night 4-for-4 with a home run, two runs scored, two RBIs and a stolen base.

It’s the kind of stat line that results in pats on the back in the White Sox’ front office.

“Billy gets labeled as a base-stealer and that’s what he is,” Newman said. “I think Micah is a guy who is trying to make himself into a complete player. Micah’s turned himself into the type of guy that can put a team on his back and just go.”

While an average prospect’s time required to reach the majors is generally measured in weeks, months, and in many cases years, scouts continue to line up and measure Johnson’s path one tenth of a second at a time.

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