I was a rightfielder who bore a presidential last name (one of six major leaguers to own this last name). However, I was not much of a crook, having stolen only 30 bases in 1092 career games. My name actually has a (99%) pointless entry on Urban Dictionary dot com, which befuddles our esteemed trivia master and master researcher. I bet his Wikipedia page is full of shit, too. I played in one World Series, won a historically momentous ring, and slashed .357/.400/.571 in that Fall Classic’s small sample size. I once sported a handlebar mustache that rivals the beauty of the author’s glorious mustache. I also once replaced renowned team scientist Carl Everett in center field when he went down with a sprained T-Rex ankle. By the close of my career, I was worth 21.3 WAR, hit 137 dingers, and hit the finish line with a 112 OPS+. Who is this dirty muthafucka?
This outfielder’s father was a star first baseman with the Chicago American Giants and Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, playing alongside Willie Mays for a time. As a child, growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, his family gifted him with the silly nickname of “Red Bone,” apparently for his propensity to turn a reddish hue when out in the summer sun. Versatile in the field, he played significant time at all three outfield spots. He played 57% of his career innings in center field with a .988 fielding percentage, but produced a mildly uninspiring -4 Total Zone rating (per FanGraphs). Sadly, his life was cut drastically short when he was murdered at just 27 years young. During his four major league seasons, his primary value on the diamond was from the left-handed batter’s box. In just 526 career games (2214 PAs) he produced a healthy 13.1 WAR based on a well-balanced slash line of .311/.365/.427 and 123 OPS+. His age-26 season was by far his best, as he had 199 hits (.336 AVG), which included 36 doubles, 12 triples, and 14 home runs. He scored 104 runs (roughly 12% of his team’s total runs scored for the season) and drove in 90. All that to be crunched into a WAR of 5.8 – 3.9 WAR behind his Hall of Fame teammate. One last peculiar hint: he shares the record for putouts in a 9 inning game buy a centerfielder with Jacoby Ellsbury at 12 putouts. Got any idea who this is?
PS – Acknowledgement to the SABR Bio Project, FanGraphs, and Baseball Reference for data and historical information.
Despite a career .313 batting average, this first baseman has surprisingly never won a batting title, even in an era of lower averages and soaring strikeouts. Six times he’s led his league in on-base percentage, half of those seasons leading all of baseball in OBP. Five times he’s led his league in walks, three of those leading the majors. During the current run of his career, he has the sixth most intentional walks (132). He has a single MVP award to his name (with five more top-10 voting finishes), is a five-time All-Star, and has a Gold Glove to his name. As of the time of this writing, he has 55.3 WAR spanning 10 full seasons and a cup of coffee. Name this cat with the high socks and keen batting eye.
This catcher and first baseman is one of six major leaguers born in New Ulm, Minnesota. He was a three-time All-Star, an All-Star Game MVP, and has a World Series ring. He hit a home run and drove in seven runs in the World Series he earned a ring in. Spanning 14 years of major league service he slashed .271/.326/.420 with an OPS+ of 102. After his retirement, he continued to play in amateur baseball leagues until he was almost 50. A college teammate of Paul Molitor, this backstop racked up a respectable 28.0 WAR in 5905 Plate Appearances. Got any idea who he is?
I have been listening to Johann Johannsson’s music for over a decade. I have written numerous poems as reflections upon and inspections into my emotional interactions with his music, his aesthetic. His heartfelt compositions have guided my dreams many a night, as I plug in my iPod and set it to shuffle through his music and other similar compositions. His music was integral to my process as a writer, as a music junkie, and someone continuously learning to deal with depression (it serves as a balm, believe it or not).
A week and a half ago, I was distressed to learn of his untimely death, amongst the many depressing things Twitter served up for me that Friday morning. Upon reading of his death, I choked back a couple lonely tears. Not because I had lost a “friend.” Not because my family had been whittled down by one. Because I faced a void in the sonic landscape of the future. Because an artist with real drive to make his audience look around and within themselves had vanished from the land of the living.
There will be no new albums or soundtracks or concerts of his to look forward to. Not one new sweep of cellos and field recordings composed by him will soar out of my stereo speakers.
This is not hero worship, but homage to an artist who truly touched my soul. Sometimes, you can legitimately, validly, and logically love a human being you’ve never met and, quite often, those people are artists, because art enriches our lives in so many facets. So many facets that we may have a better understanding of exoplanets than all the ways in which art can enrich, and even save, our lives.
Only twice have I seen him perform live – both times with the NYC-based ACME quartet. The first time was at the Triple Door (downtown Seattle for those that don’t know). My mom bought me and three of my friends tickets for my 35th birthday present. I still wonder how they were able to book him with tickets on sale for only $16 (wtf?!?); maybe he got a cut of the dinner sales. Maybe the money didn’t matter…yeah, right…keep fooling yourself, Gabe. All of that doesn’t really matter. It was the tectonic impact of the performance that mattered. I wept openly at the beauty of the performance. I firmly believe in open, unfettered emotional reactions to music and my engagement with it. It was a powerful performance. My friends teased me a little bit for being so weepy. I took it in stride and didn’t care one lick; I had seen a once-in-a-lifetime performance. It was clear that Johannsson gave his all in his live performances; he wanted you to feel it.
The second time I saw him perform was at Benaroya Hall. I took my septuagenarian friend, Ursula, with me. She frequents classical music performances and I thought it would be interesting to take her to a new-ish experience. As a retired person, she doesn’t have a ton of expendable income, but I somehow convinced her to join me, despite the fact that she hadn’t been very familiar with his work. I probably still owe her 30 bucks in recompense for her displeasure; she didn’t like the music, but she sat with an open mind. She was integral in the post-performance discussion. She voiced her distaste for his music, but was receptive to the fact that it had an impact and that, clearly, many people loved it. The exchange was scintillating and probably exactly what Johannsson would’ve wanted, regardless of approval rating.
After the show, we went across the street where my friend Tracy was playing a show…at the Triple Door no less. At one point, I went outside for a cigarette and saw Johann and the quartet loading out after the show. With a couple whiskeys in me, I had the courage to cross the street and approach them. In a simple manner, I just told him that I loved his music and thanked them all. He had a nervous response. It seemed that he was a quiet and reserved person and I may have made him self-conscious. He displayed gratitude through his discomfort. I went back inside to my friends, but with a shine that I had again witnessed a great performance with the addition of getting to meet him briefly.
All this is to say, the passing – all too early, all too suddenly – of Johann Johannsson has struck a deep chord within me. I will forever listen to his music with deep meditative approach and concentration, with a joy and a sorrow and an awe. His body of work cannot be dismissed or ignored in the canon. He deserves a level of recognition we’ve normally reserved for those we deem “masters,” because he is truly a master, in a realm and a time that rarely sees one in the way we venerate the masters of Classical music such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. Part of the sadness is that knowledge that so many people won’t know his grand impact until long after his death.
To Johann Johannsson, I offer my deepest gratitude. Thank you for the sounds you have gifted us with and I hope you find a grand performance hall in the afterlife.
Just in the few moments
we had, earlier this week,
I was enjoined to a soul
you spoke with fire and relentlessness,
but you also had a voice
that cracked, in moments,
as if you were overwhelmed.
it was precious, endearing
and it was moving.
there were seconds at which
I thought you were breaking,
the recounting of a trauma,
the simple telling of the daily attack
my heart bled for you
in those moments, those ticks up against the breaking
I wanted to offer up comfort
to give a physical enrapturing, a holding
when your voice creaked and cracked
if only you would accept it.
They were moments of trial and triumph
moments I wanted to assuage
even if I know I’m powerless in the face of them
a single soldier facing an army so loud and braggadocious
but it also felt like connection.
I really only wanted to be
a decent man in your eyes.
That tree has a mythical beauty;
moss-laden branches and leaves beginning,
as if it holds a manuscript for eternity in its numerous fractaled patterns.
It wraps me in a comfort the world seldom offers.
It is kin.
It is a map to the universe with a living, beating heart.
I would welcome it as a grandmother,
issuing condolence for bearing witness to the world
and wisdom to guide me through the darker passages.
Weave a story, assuringly,
threaded from knot and twist
and cone and leafvein.
If I died in this moment, my soul would be calm.
Let me become the soil
that connects water to root
to photosynthesis to whatever it is we call god anymore.
Become the holy man I thought I could be,
amongst the subterranean tangle
and the rain-kissed height of the canopy.
Imbue my grandmother’s gnarled and loving hands prouder than ever.
Become a story to pass down from Spring to Autumn.
Rekindle the conflagration
that once claimed a ventricular residence
in my heaving, raging chest.
But before my dying moment,
I will construct a philosophical shrine
at grandmother tree’s trunkbase.
There, in the quorum of leaves,
we will abolish violence and the solipsism
of the human heart and psyche.
You needn’t be prostrate
in the presence of this godly, oaken ancestor.
Instead, proud and tall
and reminiscent of a humble dignity.