“In case you don’t know this guy, he’s a pretty good hitter,” Johnson said. “His name is Ted Williams. He and I had gone fishing together. He was the manager of the Washington club …”
Espinosa and Desmond assured Johnson that, yes, they knew who Ted Williams is. Johnson proceeded with his tip: “He told me that he used to swing 80 percent, so that his timing was 100 percent,” Johnson said. “Those are the tidbits I want to share. I want them coming from the horse’s mouth, like it helped me.”
“Some of them didn’t know who Brooks Robinson was,” Johnson said. “I’m under the assumption that, some of my stories, I need to tell them who were they were first. And they can go look them up on their iPad.”
Johnson himself, of course, had a distinguished 13-year career himself. His last year came in 1978, before the majority of his players were born. Mark DeRosa, the oldest National, was born in 1975.
Johnson wonders how many Nationals players actually know he used to be one of them, a major leaguer. He considered informing them during his opening remarks on the first day of full-squad workouts.
“In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Maybe I ought to tell them that I did play,’ ” Johnson said. “Maybe just a brief summary that I have been a player in three World Series. A few all-star teams. That’s overkill. A lot of them probably didn’t even know I had managed before. There’s probably still a bunch who still don’t know. If I am questioned, I will at least be able to tell them, ‘I did play once upon a time.’ ”
Johnson feels like his playing career helps him know his players better. Even if his last game on the field came more than three decades ago, some universal truths never change.
“I know what they’re going through on a daily basis,” Johnson said. “I’m not so old that I don’t understand the same emotions. You’re striving for excellence. You want to be the best that you can be. Peer pressure. You also want to be the best at your position. That doesn’t change. It’s easy for me to relate, as long as how I relate to them is not antiquated or way off the mark, I will keep their trust and respect. If you screw that up, you lose it.”
This spring, Johnson brought a cup and jock strap. It’s hanging up in his locker right now. “I’ve been waiting to get in a little better shape before I put on my cup,” Johnson said. “And then I’m going to go out and maybe take some grounders with them. I’m not quite there yet. My arm’s not quite there yet.”
On Tuesday, a representatives from Dinger bats came through the Nationals clubhouse. Johnson sat down with him and asked, “Do you guys make any B267s?” That’s his model – a barrel like Frank Robinson’s combined with Mickey Mantle’s handle. The rep said they don’t produce the B267 anymore, but assured Johnson he could make one for him. He asked for 34 inches, 32 ounces. When it arrives, Johnson will have a full set of playing gear.
“Then, at some point in the spring, if I come out early and work on my hitting, see if my eyes could still focus on the ball and I could get the bat on the ball in the area I want it in, then I can show them that I was a player,” Johnson said. “And they’ll say, ‘Well, he wasn’t a very good player.’ I do want to show them that I can’t just talk a good game. I still have a little game.”
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