A Long Struggle To Get Back Up And Running
16 Months After Breaking Leg, Nats' Johnson Is Ready to Battle for the Job at First Base

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

SACRAMENTO -- It is 8:40 a.m., and the sun is just beginning to bake through the windows of a gym that sits anonymously in a business park on the edge of California's capital city. Cars whip by on an adjacent freeway, state workers gearing up to make the government go. And Nick Johnson sits back in a chair at what is his own office, bouncing his right leg.

Up, down -- up, down -- up, down -- up, down -- nervous energy in a building otherwise devoid of it. That leg, not long ago, housed a titanium rod and three screws, the tools used to mend a devastating break suffered -- goodness, it's 16 months ago now. Sixteen months since the last time Johnson played a game for the Washington Nationals, back when that up, down -- up, down came in between at-bats in the middle of a stellar season, not in an empty gym in his home town, baseball still far off.

"It's been a long time," Johnson says hours later, sitting in his white Cadillac Escalade. A red bowl caked with the remnants of that morning's oatmeal sits on the floor in the back seat. Sweat spikes his thinning black hair. More than two hours of workouts -- an elliptical trainer conquered, plyometric balls slung against walls, free weights and a Nautilus machine attacked and abandoned, and 30 minutes of running the bases, home to first and first to third and then back home again -- are done.

"A long time," he repeats.

The way Johnson feels and looks now, he is betting that it will, finally, be a short time before he is back on the field, and as the traffic races by, he absent-mindedly ticks off the things to which he looks forward. "BP, seeing pitches live. Just to see the ball, just to get in the box, be on the field."

When the Nationals hold their first full-squad workout in less than a month, Johnson will be a focal point. He has no remaining physical limitations, and he will be left to battle with Dmitri Young -- the National League's comeback player of the year in 2007, now the incumbent -- for a starting job. There will be no more important story line than how the team resolves the conundrum of potentially having two healthy first basemen, neither of whom can play another position, both of whom are well compensated (Johnson will earn $5.5 million in 2008, Young $5 million).

"We have to see him in baseball shape, his timing and everything," Manager Manny Acta said of Johnson. But Acta is well aware of Johnson's breakout 2006 -- 46 doubles, 100 runs, a .428 on-base percentage that was third in the NL. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano (46 homers, 41 steals) and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (110 RBI) received more attention on that club. But were they more productive?

"Nick, even when Soriano was here, was the most productive player we had because of his on-base percentage," Acta said. "That prolongs innings, prolongs games. It wins games. It's huge. He has so much value for us."

Johnson understands that, if quietly. His weight, which ballooned to more than 260 pounds during an inactive offseason a year ago, is back down to 238 or so. Not the ideal number, which he believes is 230, but about what he played at back in '06. He is taking grounders and running on the field, swinging a bat in the batting cage. The difference between this January morning and back in November?

"Night and day," said Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, one of Johnson's training partners. "Not even close."

A Painful Process

When Johnson broke his femur on Sept. 23, 2006, in a violent collision with Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns at Shea Stadium in New York, Nationals doctors expected him back for spring training of 2007. By January, the projection was for May, then June, then the all-star break. During that time, Johnson's daughter Brianna, who'll turn 2 next week, learned to walk. Her wobbly gait occasionally looked like she was mimicking her daddy, dragging her tiny right leg across the floor of their spacious home in nearby Fair Oaks.

Even as Brianna straightened her stride, the pain never left Johnson's hip, where that titanium rod was inserted. He could swing the bat but not thrust himself out of the box. He couldn't range quickly to his left, couldn't backhand a ball, pivot and fire. "You start to put together a timeline," he said, and by maybe late July, he knew the season was done.

"It was just kind of a shock," said Johnson's wife, Liz. "You say, 'Okay, okay, not too much longer and he'll be ready.' And then things kept happening where he had pain in his hip and pain in his knee and it wasn't getting any better. No matter how hard he worked, there was something wrong there."

So in August, a hip specialist removed the rod, removed the screws, patched him back up. When he arrived back in Sacramento, the rehabilitation process Johnson refers to as "the slow burn" began yet again. Workouts were six or seven days a week, and milestones came not with a .300 average but when he hit level 7 on the treadmill.

There also were differences from years past, even the years in which Johnson was coming off other injuries, a sprained thumb or a bruised heel or a broken cheekbone. This offseason brought a workout and lifestyle program designed to bring down his weight and increase his leg strength. He hired a chef to cook healthy lunches and dinners five days a week. He all but eliminated In-N-Out Burger (one trip, albeit heavenly, since he came home). He brought an in-season intensity to offseason workouts. If he stews about all the freak injuries that have disrupted his career -- "He's like Linus with that little cloud over his head," said his trainer, Jeff Boe-Hagelis -- he doesn't let on.

"We always say, you got two options: cry or try," Boe-Hagelis said. "You really do. He's definitely taken more responsibility. There's been a change. I think the light came on: 'I'm not that young, hot prospect anymore.' He's definitely taken more ownership of his career."

Close to Home

Johnson's right leg is on the gas pedal of the Escalade, and the up, down -- up, down has stopped as he pulls off the freeway and past Land Park, where the baseball fields used to be packed for the annual Easter tournament. After a workout, this might be his normal course, pulling into a cul de sac to his mother's small brick home, cruising on by to his dad's -- all of two turns away -- if mom's not home, heading two more turns toward Liz's parents' if all else fails. The addresses are the same as when Johnson was a kid, when his parents got divorced, when he'd spend two weeks with mom, two weeks with dad, clothes and comfort in both places, just a short jog between.

By this point in their careers -- Johnson is 29 and entering the second year of a three-year, $16.5 million contract -- many major leaguers have abandoned their home towns for the tax havens of Florida or Texas or the comfort of Scottsdale, Ariz. Fine for them, incomprehensible to Johnson.

"For me, it's about the family, being close to them," he said. "You're away so much during the year, when you come home, you just want to get your work in and spend time with them. I couldn't imagine living somewhere where you can't just go see Mom and Dad."

As he says this, Johnson wears sweatpants and a cotton pullover. On this January day, his post-workout routine will include stopping home for a quick shower and to roust Brianna from her nap, watching her pat the Johnsons' basset hound, Slick, swinging by his mother's house for a quick visit, settling in at the neighborhood grill owned by a buddy to watch some college basketball, then ending up at the in-laws, where he and Liz will stay over with Brianna, though their own house is all of 10 minutes away. Everything is here: the funeral parlor that buried three grandparents, just down the street from Vic's Ice Cream, where Nick used to crush two cheese dogs and a strawberry milkshake all but daily, back when he was trying to gain weight, not lose it.

It is a familiar rhythm, exactly what Johnson seeks during the season. He and Liz went on their first date when she was a freshman and he a junior in high school, but they didn't get serious until after she was done with college and he well into his pro career. When he's home now, Johnson will pull an orange from the fridge and plop down on the island in the kitchen, talking to Liz and Brianna about their day. Just two offseasons ago, he would arrive at his workouts in a 1990 Honda Accord. ("I loved that car," he said longingly.) Johnson's favorite in-season saying is simply "Keep grindin'." His offseason life reflects the same simplicity.

"That's just the guy he is," Liz said. "He doesn't want to be any other way."

Questions Down the Line

On the baseball field down a hill behind Rosemont High, Johnson stands in the batter's box in black, high-top Under Armour spikes and blue Nationals shorts. He mimics that sweet, left-handed swing, and as he digs hard toward first, then rounds the bag and stops short, with all those 238 pounds landing on that right leg, it almost seems he could, once again, hit a single.

Yet for all the hard work -- by the end of this session with Lee and two minor leaguers, Johnson will be bent at the waist, spitting to the side and cursing into the crisp January air -- there are other obstacles ahead.

"People think if a bone's healed, you should be ready," said Lee, a two-time all-star who broke his right wrist in 2006. "But mentally, you're holding back. Subconsciously, you're holding back. Getting over all those hurdles is huge. You have to trust it. You tell yourself, 'Okay, I'm fine.' But you hold back slightly until you know you can do it."

Johnson knows those moments will come gradually. As he takes off from second and heads for home -- with Boe-Hagelis barking after him: "Score that run! Score that run!" -- he has no limp. If and when he proves to the Nationals he can play during spring training, he knows the questions about him, Young and the first base job will follow. That, of course, could lead to a trade.

"It's part of the game," he said while picking at a lunch of Korean grilled chicken and beef, Boe-Hagelis across the table. "I want to play every day. So if that's what needs to happen, then" and he trails off. "But it's not something I want."

What he would like to do is win. "Why else play?" he asked incredulously. Indeed, why else show up early for a two-hour workout? Why else eat grilled chicken instead of fast-food burgers?

Back in the car, he points his way home. There, what matters most -- Liz, Brianna, Slick, his whole life in his home town -- awaits. What matters next would be baseball. The up, down -- up, down of his right leg is on pause. What's left? To swing an actual bat at an actual ball, to watch it fall into the outfield grass, to plant that right leg in the dirt and start digging for second. What's left is to revive a career and prove that slow burn of the past 16 months was somehow worthwhile.

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