It took 1,867 days for the prodigal son to come home. There was much rejoicing from all corners of the Braves Twitter-verse. Celebrations were had. Parades were thrown. Large galas were attended by all. Children were taken out of school early to watch everything unfold live on televisions across the country. I believe President Obama even issued an executive order to make January 22nd a day of national festivity.
Finally, Kelly Johnson was back in an Atlanta uniform.
After traveling this wonderful land of ours as a nomadic bastion of sheer baseball perfection, the team that had parted ways with him six years prior brought him back into the fold. At long last, Braves fans around the world could put an end to their lingering nightmare.
Braves have a difficult time parting with their cherished few. Dale Murphy was rumored to be gone for years before the Braves finally dealt him in the summer of 1990. Fans were still devastated, even as inevitable as it may have been. Then slowly, piece-by-piece the fan favorites from the dynasty era went elsewhere. Bream. Deion. Pendleton. Avery. Justice. Lemke. McGriff. Wohlers. Klesko. Rocker. Javy. Maddux. Glavine. Each loss lead to that impending fear that good times wouldn’t last forever growing stronger and stronger.
The 2005 team was supposed to be the year that changed. It was the year of the Baby Braves. Betemit, Boyer, Davies, Devine, Francoeur, Johnson, Langerhans, McBride, McCann. And each was under 25 years of age. This was the year the dynasty would be re-established and another run of glory would begin. This was the youngest and most promising team Atlanta had seen in years despite continuing their string of fourteen straight division titles. They were young. They were exciting. They were the Braves of the future.
Or at least that is how we all hoped it would play out. Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the end. The team that fell into a division title on the back of a mere 90 wins suffered one of the most crushing defeats in MLB playoff history when Chris Effin Burke launched a ball into the Crawford Boxes in Houston. Things would never be the same for most Braves fans.
Just like the dynasty era, the Baby Braves began to drop as the years wore on and the organization began their descent into mediocrity. Brian McCann would be the last to go, outlasting the rest of the group by four years. But the last of the 2005 contributors before McCann was the infamous Kelly Johnson.
From the start, Johnson was a compelling player. He began his ML career slotted into the Braves everyday lineup as a leftfielder in late May, and got off to a horrible start that saw only one hit in his first 36 times to the plate. And with that out-of-the-way, the legend began. The following week he would be NL Player of the Week. The enigma of Kelly Johnson had begun. He would end the season with a .345 wOBA over his final 300 PA after the early struggles.
And just like that, he was gone.
Not permanently, mind you, but 2006 would be a wash after the torrid finish to 2005 because of Tommy John surgery after elbow issues in spring training. Even then KJ was a trendsetter, paving the way for an entire generation of Atlanta Braves players to follow.
Then, in 2007 and 2008, he was more valuable than any player not named Larry or Brian. He was that dude. He played 300 games in two seasons and was solidifying himself as one of the key pieces going forward. Then the struggles returned. He got desperate, started swinging at more pitches out of the zone, which lead to weaker contact, and a wrist injury brought it all to a screeching halt. The Martin Prado Era had begun.
Johnson was no longer an asset. Despite being an eight win player in less than 500 games, the world stood still on December 12, 2009 when the Braves chose to non-tender KJ and set the beast free to the grasp of the rest of the league.
All around Atlanta, the people mourned. Flags were dropped to half-staff. It was Black Saturday all across Braves Country. Rumor has it if you listen on a quiet night you can still hear the wails of the heartbroken, the moans of agony and despair, the cries of woe and torment. Many wondered if this dark cloud of would ever be lifted. He may not have been the hero we deserved, but he was the hero we needed. And he was gone.
Atlanta was in his rear view mirror, and like many a country song’s scorned lover looking back on all that was left behind, brighter days lay ahead for Johnson. The 2010 campaign season in Arizona would leave the Braves looking quite the fool and Johnson looking legitimately like one of the best players in all of baseball. He would be worth five-plus wins, hit 26 homers, and post an insane 126 wRC+ his first year away from the Dirty South.
But it wasn’t meant to be. After seeing his production slip in his second year due to some bad BABIP luck, the Diamondbacks would send him to Toronto in August and kick-start one of the weirdest trips around the baseball world in recent memory.
While it appeared Johnson’s best days may now have passed him by during his time in the desert, he settled into his usual 2B role in Toronto for 2012 and became the model of a player getting a starting spot but putting up replacement-level production. He didn’t hit well, he didn’t field well, but he wasn’t horrible at the same time. He just wasn’t the player that left Atlanta fans still pining for a return to 755 Hank Aaron Drive every December.
Instead, Johnson would settle into a super-utility role with the Rays the following season, as he continued his tour of the American League East. It was a renaissance for KJ. Like a wrestler bouncing around various territories well after his prime, slightly tweaking his gimmick at each stop, he managed to somehow keep reinventing himself enough to keep finding something that sticks. In Tampa he would bounce back to the land of the valuable by picking up starts in LF, 2B, 3B, DH, and 1B. If his bat was gonna become merely league average, then he was going to earn his keep with versatility.
Man, 2014. Kelly Johnson would finish up his run through the AL East teams like a guy plowing through his end of day paperwork on the Friday before a two-week vacation. In his quest to collect all five AL East caps, KJ continued to roll-on as a replacement level piece who can fill multiple roles off the bench. He would start the year in New York, travel up to Boston for a couple of weeks over the summer, and end the year with the playoff-bound Orioles. It was one of the wildest rides you will ever see a player take over the course of 162 games.
And then it happened.
After years of begging and pleading at the trade deadline. Months upon months of rosterbation every off-season, trying to come up with someway for the Braves to bring in a left-handed bat with his better years behind him. Babies stopped crying. Dogs stopped barking. For one glorious moment, everything was right with the world.
All it took was a complete rebuild in Atlanta and a team stock-piling throwaway pieces to bring Kage back on a Minor League deal.
If you’ve missed it, there has been a strong divide on the mean Twitter streets when it comes to Kelly Johnson in 2015. While many were ecstatic to have one of their favorite Braves of the past decade back with the squad, there are those of us who have gone above and beyond to troll that same corner of the fan-base. It’s made for a lot of lively discourse and jokes back and forth. In a season where we didn’t know when, how, or if anything fun would happen, it’s provided a nice distraction for what is sure to be a trying season for a lot of us.
But I’ll come clean: he doesn’t bother me. I’ve been leading the pack in terms of crapping all over the guy at every opportunity, but he’s the perfect guy for a team like this. He’s a perfectly suitable bat off the bench, makes a good platoon fit at a number of positions, and has the ability to provide some actual value to a team that just needs to stay afloat for the 2015 season. I don’t think anyone out there who sings his praises expects him to come out and be anything more than a half-win player, but it’s that back-and-forth between them and those of us who call him the worst player in baseball that keeps it interesting.
We’ll mock him. We’ll praise him. No matter where you sit on the Kelly Johnson fence, he’s at least going to make it fun to have him around — even if it’s for our own entertainment.
All that said — Kelly Johnson is garbage.
*ON SCREEN CREDITS ROLL, A PICTURE OF KELLY JOHNSON FADES INTO VIEW*
“Kelly Johnson would end the day hitting .263/.333/.526, with a near 10% walk rate and a .263 ISO. He is the proud of owner of a .366 wOBA and 136 wRC+ despite a .233 BABIP”
*Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel” plays as the screen fades to black*
/End Editor’s Note)