By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006
NEW YORK, Sept. 24 -- Nick Johnson noticed the high socks, even on guys who normally pull their baseball pants down over the tops of their shoes. It is, after all, how he wears his uniform, an old-school look for an old-school player. He noticed his jersey, No. 24, displayed prominently in the Washington Nationals' dugout, even as Johnson watched on television from a hospital room a few miles away.
"That was nice, real nice," Johnson said late Sunday afternoon of the tributes paid by his teammates. "It was good to see it. And it was good to get a 'W.' "
That Johnson would even bring up the result of a baseball game -- the Nationals beat the New York Mets, 5-1, Sunday afternoon at Shea Stadium -- roughly 24 hours after his season ended in catastrophic fashion says something about the Nationals' first baseman. Johnson had surgery to repair the broken femur in his right leg suffered in Saturday's loss, and his teammates were still rocked by the violence of his collision with right fielder Austin Kearns, by the cries of pain afterward.
"It's very important we show we miss him," left fielder Alfonso Soriano said. Yet groggy as he was, having undergone surgery overnight, Johnson's thoughts were with his teammates, too.
"It was really emotional to see the jersey, to see them wearing the socks like that," his mother, Paula Graf, said by phone while watching the game on television. "Nick loves to play baseball, and he plays hard. He was almost through this season without any [injuries] happening. It's so disheartening. I'm so sad for him. But I know one reason he'd be sad is not being with his teammates."
Yet there was good news on Sunday, too. The assessment of the Nationals' medical and athletic training staffs following Johnson's surgery -- which began late Saturday night and concluded early Sunday morning -- was that Johnson will be ready when spring training begins in mid-February.
"Do I think spring training is realistic? Absolutely," said Ben Shaffer, the team's orthopedist who assisted with the surgery. "That's our goal."
Shaffer, speaking by telephone from Washington after returning Sunday morning, said the bone should be healed enough for Johnson to walk without crutches in six weeks, and, "I would expect to see solid healing of the bone between three and four months," or sometime around the New Year. Johnson could be riding an exercise bike "maybe as soon as next week," Shaffer said.
Shaffer said Johnson benefited from a clean break. He likened the fracture to taking a piece of chalk and twisting the two ends in opposite directions, creating torque that would eventually break it in half. Johnson's fracture, he said, was relatively straight across.
"The fracture was in the lower third of the bone, it was clean and it was not very displaced," Shaffer said. "It was not an open fracture," meaning the bone didn't break through the skin. All of those factors, Shaffer said, made it relatively easy to reset the bone.
During the two-hour procedure, doctors made two incisions -- one near Johnson's hip, the other closer to his knee -- through which they inserted a hollow, titanium rod. After lining up the two sections of the femur, they placed the rod inside the bone, which is hollow, something akin to making a circle with one hand and inserting your finger into the hole.
The custom-fitted rod -- 44 millimeters long and 11 millimeters in diameter -- is secured by three screws, one near his hip and two down toward his knee. The rod stabilizes the leg so that no cast is needed, and Johnson could actually move around on crutches and, as soon as the swelling in his thigh goes down, will be able to put weight on the leg.
"If he didn't have any swelling," Shaffer said, "there's no reason he couldn't put weight on it today. But he still has some blood in his thigh, and that's going to be painful. In a couple of days, there should be no concern about putting weight on it. The earlier we get people up, the earlier we start them moving around, the more problems you can minimize."
On Sunday afternoon, Johnson had trouble believing he would be walking around soon. He said he remembered the entire collision, in which he and Kearns ran into each other in the eighth inning while pursuing a pop-up.
"I've never had pain like that," he said by phone. "I thought it was my knee. I tried to move it, but when I tried, nothing happened. It wouldn't do anything."
Still, he spent Sunday watching the ballgame on TV. He saw right-hander Tony Armas Jr. win for the first time in more than a month, allowing one run over his six innings, not allowing a walk for only the third time in 29 starts this season. He saw rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hit two doubles and drive in a run. And he saw the jersey, courtesy of catcher Brian Schneider, displayed where the television cameras could see it.
"Guys said they wanted to go out and win it for Nick," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It was good. It kind of got the guys up a little bit, a little fired up."
After the victory, a bus load of Nationals headed to the hospital to check on their teammate. They carried optimism that Johnson would be back by spring training. Even those who saw him on Saturday night before the surgery said his spirits were good.
"He was trying to throw in some jokes," Schneider said. "He was being Nick," added right-hander John Patterson.
So Sunday, even in a groggy, drug-induced haze, he continued being Nick.
"I just got to get this thing fixed," Johnson said, "and get back out there."