ORLANDO, Fla. – Davey Johnson waited until two months before his 70th birthday to host his first charity event. He didn’t want his name in the title before his wife Susan convinced him otherwise. And so Friday night, the Nationals’ manager launched the First Annual Davey Johnson Celebrity Invitational.
“I haven’t done anything in 69 years,” he said. “I don’t like to ask people to do things for me.”
When Johnson asks, people come and they give their time and money. The course of Johnson’s life, his broad interests and unfair knack for being good at everything, has somehow granted him his own gravitational pull. It seems safe to assume that until Friday night, Brooks Robinson, Maury Povich, Bryce Harper and Larry The Cable Guy had never before shared one room.
The celebrity list included many other names, and one held the most interest for Johnson. Adam LaRoche came from Kansas to spend the weekend at the tournament, surrounded by the manager he hopes to play for again and the general manager, Mike Rizzo, with whom is negotiating.
LaRoche is a free agent, and he has been in slow-moving talks for more than a month with the Nationals. His affinity for Johnson meant more than his business interest, and so he came.
Johnson still used the event to pitch LaRoche. This winter, LaRoche sold Johnson beef from his cattle ranch in Kansas. On Thursday, Johnson sent LaRoche a text message that read, “Bring your pen” – a plea for him to re-sign.
“I wanted him here to sign the damn contract,” Johnson said. “I’m eating his beef, and I wanted to put an order in for next year, too. After we win the World Series.”
LaRoche and all the rest came to benefit Lighthouse Central Florida, a foundation for the blind that Davey and Susan Johnson leaned on as they raised Jake Allen, Susan’s son from another union. He was blind and deaf, and the Johnson’s gave him a full life. Jake died in 2011 after a virus infected his lungs. He was 34.
“They did so much for Jake,” Johnson said. “When he passed, we felt moved to do something for them.”
The first part of the event was Friday night’s Pairing Party at Shingle Creek Golf Club – a silent auction and a chance for the people who made donations to Lighthouse Central Florida to meet the celebrities they would be playing golf with Saturday morning.
Johnson mingled with the crowd outside the ballroom, greeting and glad-handing. He heard a voice call from behind, “Hey, Skip.” He turned around and saw Harper and his father. They had come from Las Vegas on a three-night trip.
“For Davey,” Harper said later.
They shook hands and grinned. “You might have to hit cleanup for us,” Johnson told Harper as he laughed and squeezed Harper’s bicep. “Start building up.”
Johnson told Harper the player he really wanted to see was LaRoche.
“Did he bring his pen?” Harper asked.
Inside the party, LaRoche and Rizzo drank a beer together, no awkwardness carrying over from their ongoing talks.
(Neither wanted to discuss specifics at Friday night’s event. The Nationals still want to re-sign LaRoche, and LaRoche would like to stay in Washington. The Nationals have been unwilling to offer more than a two-year contract. After trading for Denard Span on Thursday, the Nationals now have the clear option to move Michael Morse to first base in the event LaRoche leaves.)
After an hour into the party, Susan and Davey Johnson walked to the stage. Susan spoke first. She said volunteers from Lighthouse had taught her and Davey how to teach. Johnson in a stool behind her. “When I met David, Jake was 13,” Susan said. “He was a wild and woolly teenager.”
Johnson spoke after his wife. He admitted he did not like asking for everyone to come and give their time and money, “but I guess it’s okay now that I’m 100.”
He thanked Povich, an old golfing partner who had attended his wedding 18 years ago.
He thanked Brooks Robinson – “the reason I wanted to play for the Baltimore Orioles” and “the best player I ever saw.”
He thanked Harper, but also added, “He’s young, so we can control him.”
He had set up the point he wanted to make.
“The guy I really wanted to be here was a guy named Adam LaRoche,” Johnson said. “He’s got hands like Brooks Robinson’s. We need him.”
“Mike Rizzo, Adam LaRoche …”
A shorter pause.
“GET TOGETHER!” Johnson screamed into the microphone.
The crowd, holding drinks and nibbling hors d’oeuvres, cackled. As the laughter died down, Johnson started to speak again.
Johnson stated he had set his team for the next morning’s golf tournament. Johnson shrugged his shoulders, the room now his, and he concluded, “I’m gonna beat y’all’s ass.”