WINTER PARK, Fla. — Davey Johnson had a lot do. Before the Washington Nationals’ game began at 3 o’clock, a new flat-screen television was to be delivered to replace the old, broken one in the living room. The laptop at his real estate office needed fixing. His golfing buddies canceled their outing because the Orlando weather was too hot, so he used the time to tie up loose ends around the house. He was so busy he missed lunch.
By the time Dodgers starter Carlos Frias fired the game’s first pitch to Nationals center fielder Denard Span in Los Angeles, Johnson had settled into the worn leather couch in his home office in front of the television with a chicken Caesar salad on his lap. Johnson, now 71, wore a white polo shirt tucked into his shorts, and on his feet were the same red, gray and white sneakers he wore daily as Nationals manager from mid-2011 through 2013.
“I have two pairs,” he said. “I just keep washing them.”
This may look like retirement from a lifetime in baseball, but, really, it’s not. Johnson doesn’t deal in definitives. Even though his tenure as the most successful manager in Nationals history ended unceremoniously, Johnson isn’t done. He recently started working as a commercial real estate agent. Now that he has tended to all the long-needed renovations at his house, he has grand goals of developing a 300-acre plot of land he owns on the east coast of Florida. He doesn’t rule out managing again because he doesn’t believe in saying never.
“I don’t think you ever retire,” said his wife, Susan. “And what are you going to do if you’re totally retired? He’d go crazy.”
As the Nationals embark on their second trip to the postseason, the man who guided them to their first in 2012 is watching from afar. But he isn’t simply the former manager: He is serving the final year of his contract with the Nationals as a consultant, more of an honorary title than actual work. He has watched nearly every Nationals game this season because, he said, “in case they call me, I’m ready.”
Instead of relentless travel and baseball, Johnson fills his time with his grandchildren, his wife, golf, real estate, chores and fishing. He makes breakfast for Susan every morning and packs her lunch before she leaves to manage her women’s clothing boutique in downtown Winter Park.
“I enjoy being home, visiting my grandkids in Sarasota, my son in Sanford and his kids,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I just wanted to be home. I’ve never been home.”
Much has changed for Johnson in a year, beginning with his health. As the disappointing 2013 season wound down, Johnson’s back was a constant bother. When he spoke with reporters after games, he visibly wore losses and long games. Susan occasionally sat in the back of the conference room and took note.
“His voice was so quiet that it was concerning to me, like he didn’t have the strength,” she said. “And I think it was his back. Once his back got better, he was just exponentially better. He was then like, ‘Let’s go fishing. Let’s do this.’ ”
This offseason, after several epidurals couldn’t do the trick, Johnson finally underwent back surgery in March. He works out three times a week with a trainer, using weights in a small home gym. He golfs three times a week — Wednesday and Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings — and has a five handicap, not as good as he wants to be.
“I play with the best golfers at my club,” he said. “We don’t give shots. We tee it up and say, ‘Let’s go, baby.’ You can lose at most 50 bucks if you’re bad.”
Recently, Johnson’s energy has flagged, and he hasn’t even felt like golfing. He’s undergoing tests to find the cause.
Since his time with the Nationals ended, Johnson has been able to travel. He goes often to visit his grandchildren in Sarasota. He and Susan went to the Bahamas twice since the end of last season, including a three-day Disney cruise with the grandchildren.
Johnson and his wife also went to Alaska this summer, a fishing trip off Prince of Wales Island that required a flight to Seattle, then another flight to Ketchikan, Alaska, and then a 40-minute flight on a small floatplane to the island. They caught all kinds of fish — salmon, king, rockfish and halibut — and shipped 100 pounds of vacuum-sealed fillets to Florida.
They haven’t yet made his long-desired trip to Bora Bora. That may happen this fall. Johnson still has trips to New York, Atlanta and then Chicago for a charity event and card signing later this year. Susan wants to drag Johnson to Paris from Chicago. “I don’t plan on doing it,” he said, a grin creeping across his face.
Johnson wants to be home. His four-bedroom home has a spacious living room with large windows to let in sunlight. The backyard is well manicured, and he has a small motorboat parked at the dock in the back. It’s an enjoyable place to spend time, especially for someone who wasn’t home much the past 52 years.
Johnson had been involved in spring training, in one job or another, for more than five decades. That changed this spring. When new Manager Matt Williams was hired, he invited Johnson to come to Viera, just 75 minutes from Johnson’s home. Johnson declined, not wanting to be a distraction, but it ate at him.
“He would say, ‘They’re going to play a split squad against the Mets today, but I don’t care anything about it,’ ” Susan said. “Well, if you don’t care anything about it, why would you tell me? Or why would you even know? I was worried about him. He didn’t want to go, but he didn’t know what to do with himself. He wouldn’t admit it.”
Johnson is torn. Baseball is in his blood, but he is a proud man with a big personality who doesn’t show weakness. That’s how you survive 13 years as a big league player and 17 years as a major league manager. But he still cares deeply about the Nationals. Susan often says that of all the places Johnson has managed, they enjoyed Washington, its owners and players the best. Ask Johnson whether he misses managing, and he will deflect.
“I see it every day,” he said. “I watch a game every day. No matter what time. I always watch the Nationals.”
Last season was supposed to be Johnson’s triumphant ending. Before the season he declared “World Series or bust.” It was bust. Because of his nature, he didn’t want to say 2013 was his final season, but ownership wanted it to be.
“It would have been nice to finish like Tony La Russa and ride off in the sunset with a World Series ring,” he said. “How many does he got? I got three. Know what else I got? An Olympic ring. How many people got that?”
Johnson prefers not to talk much about 2013, but he still points to the bullpen (which had only one left-hander to start the season) and the bench (which underperformed and was also overhauled midseason) as issues.
He doesn’t long to be back in the dugout now that the Nationals are winning without him. Instead, he is happy to see the team was improved and played better. He takes pride in helping bring along players such as Ian Desmond, stumping for Tanner Roark and helping Anthony Rendon learn second base.
“I care about those guys,” he said. “I want them to be successful. You see the progression. You see where they’re at. I think they’re in a good position to take the next step. I think last year was pretty much a growing year, although we did have some shortcomings in the roster, but I think it was a good growing experience for the guys. But I think they’re ready to take the next step. I think they can do it. I have all the confidence in the world.”
As a consultant, however, Johnson has been an outside observer. When he shifted from front office advisor to manager when Jim Riggleman resigned in 2011, Johnson had two more years as a consultant left on his contract. He agreed to stay on as manager for 2012 and his consultancy was reduced to one year and moved to the end of the contract to make up for the low pay he received during the 2011 season, when he made less than Riggleman.
This season, Johnson is mostly a consultant by name. Johnson said he has talked with General Manager Mike Rizzo’s special assistant, Harolyn Cardozo, a few times but not Rizzo. Johnson has no issue with that.
“They got it going pretty good,” he said. “If they had a problem, I’d probably be asked. But they’ve had no problems. . . . I retired, and they moved on. That’s what happens in baseball.”
“Our relationship is great,” Rizzo added. “I always loved him and respected him and continue to do so. Although he’s been in the background in Florida, he communicates with us all the time. I know a lot of the communication is from him to Harolyn to me. We’re definitely in great standing, and he’s a big part of what happened here for ’14.”
Johnson worries little about the past because he stays busy, and recently it is with his real estate business. His company, Major League Realty Inc., is housed inside the Winter Park Land Company where he was recently named a vice president of the commercial division.
“He’s been here for a few weeks, and he’s already telling me what to do,” said J. Lief Erickson, a senior vice president who sits near Johnson.
The offices are only blocks from Susan’s store on the main street in town. Johnson spends at least a few hours in the office daily. His desk is plain: a laptop, a stack of business cards, tape, a signed photo of him with George W. Bush when he was Team USA’s manager and a photo of Susan.
Johnson enjoys the adventure of real estate. He proudly touts how he earned more in real estate in the offseasons than when he was a player and how he recently made $150,000 for his daughter simply by flipping a house. He wants to buy some office space in town but isn’t keen on the market just yet. He was born and raised in Winter Park, so he knows every street and building.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s challenging. I’m a player. I don’t just sit on the sidelines and broker deals. If I see something I like, I jump in.”
But every so often, Johnson still receives reminders of his past life. The Houston Astros, a young team that could use veteran guidance, had been looking for a manager. Johnson went to high school in San Antonio and attended Texas A&M. Through a mutual connection, Houston General Manager Jeff Luhnow informally asked about Johnson’s availability recently. (Luhnow declined to comment through a spokesman.) Johnson told Susan about it and joked about how fun it might be.
The Astros hired former San Diego Padres executive A.J. Hinch as manager Monday, but that hint of a possibility is what defines Johnson. He isn’t retired. He is happy now but isn’t opposed to managing again. He loves challenges and likely will work until he dies.
“If someone called me and said, ‘You wanna work?’ ” Johnson said, “I’d look at it and maybe take it. I might. It would have to be a big challenge. If somebody asked me to be their bench coach, I ain’t gonna do that. [But] I never say never.”