In the summer of 2005, I was sitting in the press box at RFK Stadium early one afternoon when my cell phone rang. I was working on a book about the return of baseball to Washington and covering the Nationals that first season, and I had reached out to some local politicos who had followed the team closely.
“Barry!” a voice drawled through the phone. “It’s James Carville. When the [bleep] is Nick Johnson gonna be healthy?”
There is the question that haunted Johnson the rest of his career in Washington, the rest of his career in baseball, which he quietly ended Monday night by announcing his retirement.
This is not a retirement that has any real impact on any team. Very few fan bases will shed tears or even notice. It was, given Johnson’s history (only four times more than 100 games in a 10-year career) and the way he ended last season (on the disabled list from the end of June with his latest wrist injury), expected.
But there are a couple of things that made Johnson special around here. First, he was the first baseman the night baseball returned to the District – April 14, 2005. So put him with Jose Vidro, Cristian Guzman, Vinny Castilla, Brian Schneider, Livan Hernandez and the rest. Part of me thinks those guys, just by happenstance, shouldn’t have to buy drinks here for perpetuity, and it has nothing to do with their abilities as ballplayers.
But as Sean Newell expertly points out here, Johnson was an old-school player the SABR crowd could embrace. He got his uniform dirty. He rarely changed his expression on the field (unless it was to wince). His chaw seemed lodged in his jaw. He even (before the birth of his first child) occasionally smoked a cigarette in the dugout in the hours before batting practice.
His stats, though, could be a stathead’s dream. In 2006, his best year, he made a career-high 627 plate appearances in a career-high 147 games. His slash line of .290/.428/.520 with 110 walks and an OPS+ of 149 shows he was absolutely a professional hitter. That year, the only National Leaguers with a higher OBP were Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.
I like Johnson personally, and I loved watching him hit, particularly driving a double to the gap in right-center, his hands inside the ball, a beautiful left-handed swing. But my memories are, unfortunately, also of those injuries.
On June 26, 2005, with the Nationals in first place, Johnson looked like an all-star, with a slash line of .320/.444/.508. He had sat out only once to that point. But he scored a run that day against Toronto, and came down awkwardly on his heel as he stepped on home plate. He next appeared in a game July 26, a month later. That day, the Nats lost to Atlanta and fell out of first.
On Sept. 23, 2006, with just a week left in his finest season, Johnson went back on a popup over his head at Shea Stadium. Right fielder Austin Kearns, who would become one of Johnson’s best friends in baseball, came in on the ball. The two collided, gruesomely and violently, and Johnson broke his right leg. He didn’t play at all in 2007. When he came back in 2008 – beating out Dmitri Young, who the Nationals had somehow signed to a two-year contract extension, for the starting first baseman’s job – his timing was off, and he was hitting just .220 in May, though his .415 on-base percentage showed his professional approach. He did become the answer to a trivia question – who drove in the first run at Nationals Park – when he plated Cristian Guzman with a single against the Braves.
And on the night of May 13, as I walked into the visiting clubhouse at Shea Stadium, I saw Johnson, still in full uniform and spikes, walking out, clutching his wrist. He had torn a ligament in it. It ended his season. Really, it ended his career. In 195 major league games after that, he hit .265 and slugged .391 (though his OBP was still .408), and he wasn’t quite the same hitter. And if Nick Johnson couldn’t hit and couldn’t stay healthy, he was done as a big leaguer. He is 34.
Tuesday, I asked Johnson, briefly, what he would do with his time now. He wants to see how good he can get at golf. He’ll spend time with his wife and kids in his home town of Sacramento. But he won’t lament what could have been in a career in which he never truly played a full season.
“Had a good run,” he said in a text message earlier this offseason.