Nationals’ Davey Johnson: ‘I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now’

Davey Johnson has experienced too much death, and so these days he mostly ignores it. He stopped going to funerals. He will not gaze into the casket.

Johnson was deeply saddened when his good friend, Gary Carter, died of a brain tumor this winter. Johnson would have fit perfectly among the baseball dignitaries at the services, the man who managed Carter and the New York Mets to the World Series 26 years ago. He sent his respects, and on the day they buried Gary Carter, Davey Johnson went to the ballpark.

At 69 years old, Johnson does not occupy himself with the past or the future. He is about today. “A week from now, man?” he says. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now.” This winter, Johnson and his wife, Susan, spent many nights sitting outside watching the sunset, peering into Florida’s Technicolor horizon. “Look how beautiful that is,” one would say to the other. “Look at that.” One night Johnson leaned close to Susan, the love of his life, and told her, “I feel so lucky that I’m doing this this year.”

This year, Johnson will manage the Washington Nationals. Thursday at Wrigley Field, he will spend opening day in a major league dugout for the first time in 12 seasons. Between then and now, a ruptured appendix almost killed him, but he feels healthier than he has in two decades. He has lost a daughter and a beloved stepson, but he harbors no grief. He has re-entered a world of constant scrutiny, but he never questions himself. He cherishes every moment.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him happier than he’s been this spring,” Susan Johnson said. “He just feels so comfortable in his own skin. He just feels he has so much to give his players and his coaches. He feels like he’s been there and done that. He loves the players. He just likes this team so much.”

Johnson says he would find the same happiness in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, the place he managed before the Nationals hired him to replace Jim Riggleman last June. His experiences — as a four-time all-star second baseman, a millionaire real estate investor and a World Series manager — have steeled within him an intense self-belief.

“There will be another challenge for me somewhere down the road [where] I’ll get just as much joy and satisfaction,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a big ego that I need fed by anybody. I’m comfortable with who I am, whatever I am.”

‘The joy of managing’

When Johnson took his first managerial job, with the New York Mets in 1984, he wanted perfection. The win-loss record did not preoccupy him as much working toward an ideal. He aimed for complete continuity, from ownership to the lowest rung of the minor leagues, a seamless baseball machine meant to maximize the career of every player who entered its maw.

Johnson never achieved that with the Mets, or any other team he managed. He accepted the Nationals position because he believed they were close, and that he could help — or at least not hinder — their progress. He admires the ownership, adores General Manager Mike Rizzo and respects the baseball men who surround him.

“That’s the joy of managing,” Johnson said. “People think it’s the won-loss record. No. It’s seeing these kids doing what they’re capable of doing. That’s the joy: Knowing you didn’t mess them up.”

Johnson’s outlook makes him the unique manager who does not care about his next job, or even holding on to the one he currently holds. “It’s hard to fire a 70-year-old,” Susan Johnson said. “He’s going to be done soon.” He makes decisions never for himself, only for his players, and they revere him for it.

“He knows how to play your tics,” said Mark DeRosa, who played for Johnson in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. “He knows what motivates you. He knows what things are bigger problems than maybe other people perceive. He’s privy to a lot of what’s going on in our heads.”

“I think everyone here loves him,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

“He’s the perfect manager for this team,” starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez said.

Johnson could not perform his job without his renewed health. For a decade, Johnson contended with atrial fibrillation, a heart defect requiring medication that lessened his energy and sapped his strength. In the winter of 2010, Johnson traveled to the Mayo Clinic for an ablation, a procedure that sends electrical impulses to reset the beat. The doctor told Johnson the walls of his heart were as thick as a boot.

The procedure changed everything. Johnson works out every morning and says he can lift 40 percent more weight now than two years ago. “I got a better beach body,” he said. Johnson keeps an athletic supporter and several bats in his locker.

“I want to see if I can hit the baseball like I can hit the golf ball,” Johnson said. “Without the atrial fib, I’m, shoot, back to where I was when I was hitting the ball in my 30s and 40s. I got another gear I can go into.”

‘I’m happy for them’

Johnson is grateful for the life he has lived, for his experiences and the friends he has made. Two weeks before Carter died, Johnson and Susan visited him at his charity golf tournament. Johnson hugged Carter and told him he loved him. Johnson knew it would be the last time he would see him alive.

Carter smiled a lot. He was doing good, raising money for children in need. Johnson overcame his sadness by holding that picture in his head. He would not let the image of Carter laid to rest replace it. He would not go to the funeral.

“He would want me to be doing what I loved, and not crying over him,” Johnson said. “I don’t want nobody crying over me, either. It’s that simple. It may be callous, but I don’t look at it that way.”

One day last week, Johnson and his wife went to the dollar store where they used to take Jake Allen, Susan’s son from an earlier union. He was a special-needs child who could barely see, speak or hear. He was Susan’s orbit, and so he became Davey’s, too. Last year, at 34, Jake passed away.

Susan and Davey would take him to that dollar store to buy him glow sticks. The sight of it made Susan turn to Davey and say, “I miss Jake.”

Johnson thought about how much he missed his mother and father. He thought about how he prayed for his aunt and uncle. He thought about how much he loved his daughter Andrea. He did not tell Susan how much he missed them.

“I don’t need to burden her with my grief,” he said, before pausing. “It’s not grief.”

Andrea was a world-class surfer. She died of septic shock in 2005, 32 years old. Johnson keeps pictures of her, in good times and bad, surfing and sick. He always goes back to the pictures of Andrea surfing and smiling and happy.

“You have to have faith and know that their struggles, their pain, is over,” Johnson said. “I’m happy for them. I pray that they’re happy. Jake is hearing and talking and seeing. My daughter is surfing. My wife still struggles with it, because she misses them. I miss them, too. I know they’re happy. I know their struggle is over.”

Next January, the Johnsons are going to Africa. Susan planned the trip this winter. Davey did not want to look that far ahead, but he said sure, just don’t talk to me about it. He wanted Susan happy. She thinks he would not have agreed to the trip in his earlier managing days.

“When you’re younger, you think that at this age you’re going to feel old and think old,” Susan Johnson said. “I don’t think that’s the way it is anymore.”

If we are going to make a trip to Africa, Susan told Davey, we need to do it now. The Johnsons, like the rest of us, have only so many years left. For the remainder of his, as much as he possibly can, Davey Johnson is going to experience life.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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