The big question for the Washington Nationals is a trivial matter for the man whom the answer affects most. Will Davey Johnson manage next season? His wife sometimes asks him what he’s thinking about next year. “I’m just totally not,” he responds, and they both laugh. It’s like when Susan Johnson tries to plan vacations three months away. Davey tells her, “Why don’t you just enjoy going to the beach today?”
Davey Johnson almost died once, and twice he experienced something worse than death. He is a man too wrapped up in the present to concern himself about the future. He’s also enjoying it too much. Johnson, 68, took the Nationals’ managerial position after years of declining overtures from other teams since his last big league job, with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2000. He liked ownership and General Manager Mike Rizzo, and the timing was perfect, so perfect it almost felt destined.
Johnson will remain with the Nationals through 2013 in some capacity. If by Oct. 31 he has not been named the Nationals’ manager for 2012, he will become a well-compensated consultant, maintaining an active and influential role in the front office. The expectation around baseball and around the Nationals remains that Johnson will return as the manager next season after the team conducts a managerial search, one mandated by MLB that requires them to interview a minority candidate.
For Johnson, there is no expectation. In the last two months, Johnson has gone 32-40 while focusing on using the last 2 ½ months to answer questions for next season. He wants to sort out the bench and the bullpen, to develop young starting pitchers and to gain players’ trust. He has thrown some of them batting practice. He thinks about where needs lie and how free agents might fit. When he took the job, he figured maybe 10 positions were up for grabs next spring training. He wants that reduced to two or three.
“With all that in mind,” Johnson said, “how in the hell can I be thinking about anything other than that?”
Johnson has cherished his time as the Nationals’ manager. He and Susan, both independent people, made a rule more than 20 years ago that they would never spend more than a week apart. Susan spends four days at a time in Winter Park, Fla., tending to the clothing boutique she owns, and then four days wherever the Nationals are. The experience works for both of them.
“He seems younger to me now than he did with the Dodgers,” Susan said. “I think he’s fit and enjoying it. Maybe that’s the thing about getting life experiences. He seems very excited to go to work every day.”
Not long ago, Johnson’s health became a grave question. His appendix ruptured in 2004, and before doctors realized what was wrong they had taken a hole from his stomach. Before he had his appendix removed, doctors asked if he had a living will. After the operation, his weight dropped to 150 pounds. One of Susan’s employees suggested he take vitamin B12 shots. Johnson started gaining three pounds a week, and he developed the strength to manage teams in international competition.
This winter, Johnson developed an arrhythmia. Doctors put him on blood thinners and other medication to avoid a stroke. Nationals executive assistant Harolyn Cardozo insisted Johnson go to the Mayo Clinic. Doctors there performed an ablation, a procedure that involves a small puncture in the left aorta and sending electrical impulses to the heart through veins. It made a profound impact in his energy.
“At 11 o’ clock at night, I’m running around the halls,” Johnson said. “I’m going, ‘I never felt this good in my life.’ They wanted to keep me two days. I said, ‘Man, I feel too good. I got a jet out there, and I’m getting on it.’ ”
Once a week, he stabs himself in the thigh with a needle to administer the B12 shot. He walks with a slight hunch and stilted gait, effects from a life lived hard. But he throws batting practice and hits fungoes in the afternoons before games. He can still shoot a par round of golf.
Another factor contributed more to willingness to manage. Susan had devoted the biggest part of her life to Jake Allen, her son from another union, who was hearing- and visually impaired since birth. Johnson grew to love his stepson as Susan did, and bought and furnished a house for Jake in Asheville, N.C., around the corner from a house Johnson bought for himself.
“It was easy to love Jake,” Susan said. “Sometimes it was challenging to care for him.”
In April, Jake got sick — an infection, then pneumonia. He stopped breathing three weeks into a stay at Florida Hospital in Orlando. Despite attempts to resuscitate him, he died on May 3. He was 34.
Less than two months later, Johnson received the call from Rizzo, asking him to manage the Nationals after Jim Riggleman resigned suddenly.
The time at the park and the travel have been blessings for Susan and Johnson. They have “this big distraction,” Susan said, to occupy their minds with something besides their loss.
Johnson had been through this before. His daughter Andrea was a world-class surfer, an athlete like her father. In 2005, at 32, she died suddenly from septic shock. Later that year, Johnson turned to baseball to help recover and took an offer to manage Team USA.
“Susan would tell you, she knows that Jake is in heaven. He’s talking. He’s hearing,” Johnson said. “I know my daughter is surfing and happy. You celebrate that every day. It isn’t annually or monthly. It’s every day. It’s forever, for the rest of our lives. That’s the way you deal with it. You live that. And you go on. And you try to do the best you can every day to be as good as you can be.”
And so, Johnson lets the big question hang as if it is not even there. He will not think about next year now.
“I wouldn’t change my life,” Johnson said. “I think if you enjoy the day, it’s easier to face things that come up. In baseball, the manager is really the problem solver. You really can’t do a great job of that if you’re thinking too far down the road.”
Last Wednesday, on a free afternoon in New York before the Nationals played the Mets, Susan dragged him to Saks Fifth Avenue. They wandered around the eighth floor looking at shoes, and afterward they ate lunch outside on a gorgeous New York day. The love of Davey Johnson’s life sat in front of him. Another challenge was waiting that night. He enjoyed that day. Who could worry about what might come tomorrow?