Breaking Bread After a Broken Leg
Johnson, Kearns Have Become Close Friends Following Horrific Collision
Monday, March 10, 2008; Page E04
VIERA, Fla., March 9 -- In the top of the fifth inning Sunday, an anonymous hitter for the Cleveland Indians -- guy by the name of Andy Gonz¿lez -- lofted a short fly ball just to the back of first base in a Grapefruit League game. Austin Kearns, the Washington Nationals right fielder, broke in. Nick Johnson, the Nationals first baseman, broke back.
Forget the result of that play for a moment, though. Kearns and Johnson will be forever linked in the minds of Nationals' fans for one break-in, break-back moment more than 17 months ago. That play, of course, resulted in a violent collision, a horrifying scream, Kearns's dazed eyes and Johnson's broken right leg.
On Sunday, that moment somehow seemed more than a year-and-a-half old to both of the participants. Groggy after daylight savings time, Kearns and Johnson spent the early morning hours sitting in front of their lockers -- adjacent in the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium -- talking college basketball, text message styles, the NBA, hitting, Johnson's dangerously-close-to-a-mullet haircut, even mixing in some baseball.
Other players -- catcher Paul Lo Duca, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the occasional pitcher -- drifted into and out of the conversation. But the reality of the situation is that in a clubhouse filled with players from assorted backgrounds and different countries, Kearns, the Kentucky kid sometimes referred to as "Country," and "Slick" Nick Johnson from California have become closer than almost any other Nationals.
"We're tight," Johnson said.
Baseball clubhouses are hardly made up of 25 players holding hands, swaying around the campfire. Even the best rooms have pockets of players who hang out together at the exclusion of others. Friendships form or don't form just as they do in offices, with lockers replacing cubicles, coaches replacing foremen.
"The only thing that matters," Johnson said, "is if everybody plays to win."
Before the trade with Cincinnati in July 2006, Kearns and Johnson knew each other only as opponents for a couple of years. Kearns understood just one particular about the Johnson of 2005, and it dealt not with personality, but with facial hair. "He had an awful porn 'stache," Kearns said. If Kearns arrived at first base, Johnson would typically ask, "What's up?," but that was about it. The only similarity they knew of then: how they played the game.
"You notice the way guys carry themselves," Kearns said.
"And he plays hard," Johnson said.
Neither Johnson nor Kearns is much for outward displays of emotion on the field, other than perhaps a tossed bat from Kearns after a strikeout. Pumped fists following a homer or a double are anathema to both. When Johnson hit a game-ending homer in extra innings in 2006, he all but avoided the celebratory pile that was there to greet him at home plate.
But that play on Sept. 23, 2006 -- the one on which Johnson broke his leg -- happened at least in part because of their styles. Kearns was coming hard from right, Johnson was going back hard from first, and with the immobile Jos¿ Vidro then manning second, one of them needed to catch the ball.
That style, then, provided a backdrop, if not a requirement, for their friendship.
"He's full-tilt," Johnson said. "I mean, he plays baseball the right way no matter what. If he's struggling at the dish or going through a funk or feeling sexy at the dish, he's the same ol' Kearns."
During the 2007 season -- one in which Kearns struggled to produce at the plate, and Johnson never healed enough to play at all -- the two got to know each other better. Kearns became more familiar with Johnson's sense of humor, which is far from understood by everyone.
"Nick's the most bizarre human being I've ever met," Zimmerman said, though he added quickly "in a good way."
"We're alike in some ways," Kearns said. "And different in others. Way different."
Yet they rented houses next door to each other in Alexandria. Johnson's wife, Liz, and Kearns's wife, Abby, became friends, and the two couples met in Las Vegas for some relaxation this past offseason. Brianna Johnson -- Nick's daughter, now 2 -- plays with Kearns's two young sons, Aubrey and Brady. The Kearns boys have, shall we say, energy.
"His kids are teaching my daughter to jump off tables," Johnson said.
Sunday was the first time all spring both Kearns and Johnson were on the field at the same time. Previously, when Kearns played right, Johnson served as the designated hitter, or they had been assigned to different road games.
So it made sense that someone would sky a ball high over the first base bag, into the netherworld between the right fielder, the first baseman and the second baseman. Kearns came in, Johnson went back, but here came Ronnie Belliard from second, ranging all the way into foul ground to snare the ball. As he walked back toward first, Johnson heard Kearns yelling at him: "Stay on the dirt!"
"You'd have seen a little laughing and cussing if the cameras had been out there," Kearns said.
Right after that play, Abby Kearns met Liz Johnson -- each of them toting the kids -- on the concourse behind home plate. The wives took their two families down the left field line so the kids could play in the grass beyond the outfield wall. And when Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns had finished their days -- Kearns going 2 for 3 with a double, Johnson 0 for 2 with a sacrifice fly -- they walked together across the outfield grass toward their cars, brought together by misfortune, linked now by friendship.