By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008
It was, in a way, the cruelest of ironies.
Here was Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson in his triumphant return to big league baseball a year and a half after a broken leg that looked so horrific it was reasonable to wonder if he would ever play again, and they were making him run 450 feet. A door opened in the center field fence during pregame introductions in a new stadium, and a cheer arose as each Washington starter's name was called. The rest of his teammates lined up along the first base line were so far away, they looked as if they were in Virginia.
Still, Nick Johnson ran. Yet maybe it was the perfect moment after all. As he sprinted, a giant roar filled the new stadium. As if the 39,389 in the stands knew about those three-a-day training sessions and the team of personal trainers that pushed and urged him to run even when his right leg still barked and making it here, to this night, must have appeared an impossibility.
As he ran he thought of his wife, Liz, who was in the seats. He thought about his mother and his stepfather, the friends who had made the trip. When he finally arrived at his place in line, were there tears in his eyes?
"Not tears," he said somewhat shyly after the game. "But it was emotional. All the ups and downs."
Then in the first inning he was standing in the right-handed batter's box facing one of the National League's best pitchers, Tim Hudson. Cristian Guzm¿n danced off third base. Hudson fired one of his nastiest pitches, a cut fastball, slicing in on Johnson's hands. He swung anyway, getting enough of the bat on the ball that it flew over the head of first baseman Mark Teixeira and in front of right fielder Jeff Francoeur who was probably about 30 feet away.
Johnson saw the ball land, looked at Francoeur, who possesses one of the finest throwing arms in the league, and decided he would try for second anyway.
Later -- after the gamble worked and he flopped into second base with an awkward slide as Francoeur's throw bounced harmlessly away -- Johnson would say that this was not the act of hubris but rather the calculated move of a player who had become a major league star by playing aggressively and wasn't going to stop now -- surgically restructured leg or not.
"Absolutely, you've got to keep doing things like that," he said. "There were two outs. I wanted to make something happen."
Still, it seemed almost a reckless act of idiocy, what happened next, when Austin Kearns followed with a sharp single to right field and Johnson rumbled around third base, once again testing Francoeur's arm.
"Francoeur again," he later chuckled.
Once again, rebuilt leg and all, there was another slide. And once again a Francoeur throw bounced harmlessly away. In a matter of minutes, the player with the rebuilt leg had driven in the first run at Nationals Park and stolen a second one.
Afterward he smiled. Nick Johnson has never been a man of many words. He has always been one of the friendliest of Nationals players, offering joyful hellos to familiar faces. Yet when it comes to talking about himself, to expressing the searing pain of his outfield collision at New York's Shea Stadium on Sept. 23, 2006, when he collided with Kearns as he chased down a David Wright fly ball, he doesn't say much. He's always been one of those players who said he liked to let his game speak instead.
Though as he stood in the triumphant Nationals clubhouse on Sunday night, he paused for a moment to watch a highlight of his first inning hit and awkward slide into second base. As the televised image of himself stood, back of his pants covered with dirt signifying his body had come down in all the wrong places, a silly grin slid across his face.
"Very graceful, huh?" he said mockingly.
He had long stopped worrying about the fear that he would re-injure his leg with a slide. That went away one day in spring training in Lakeland or Kissimmee or one of those cities when as he stood on first, Kearns hit a ground ball to the second baseman -- a perfect double play -- and Johnson knew he was going to have to hit the ground and try to break up the play at second. He slid, stood up and nothing hurt. That's when he knew he'd be fine.
"It was funny," he said. "I was out but I was running off the field with this big smile on my face."
Sunday there was another smile on a night his career was officially redeemed. The first baseman Washington brought in to replace him, Dmitri Young, sat on the bench and might well sit on the bench a lot this year. For this scrappy team that seems to get more out of itself than its roster says it deserves, Johnson is the ultimate survivor: the one they wondered if they ever would see here again.
This time in the new stadium, there was a new start of an old career alive again.