ANAHEIM, Calif. – Davey Johnson's got the blood flowing again and it's more than the fact that he's managing a major league team for the first time in 11 years.
Four months ago Johnson had an arrhythmic heartbeat corrected when a doctor inserted a catheter through a vein that disrupts the abnormal rhythm by delivering a high-frequency electrical pulse directly to the heart tissue. He showed up at the Washington Nationals spring training site a few weeks later as something of an emeritus coach and everybody noticed a difference.
No way Johnson knew then that manager Jim Riggleman would quit in a huff in mid-June over his contract, just when the Nationals were playing their best baseball in years.
No way Johnson knew he'd be calling his wife to tell her trips they'd planned this summer to Alaska and Paris would need to wait.
No way he knew that on a balmy June evening in Southern California he'd be back in the dugout calling the shots at age 68, trimmer than he was managing the New York Mets to a World Series title 25 years ago, calmer than he was managing the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles to division titles in the 1990s, more energetic than he was managing the Los Angeles Dodgers to disappointing finishes in 1999 and 2000.
Johnson is the Nationals' manager because he's a company man, and the dugout is where the company needs him at the moment. He's done the job too well in the past not to entertain the thought of sticking around beyond this season, but for now he'll enjoy each day and quietly reflect on how lucky he is to be alive.
"I love managing but I'm not looking ahead," he said.
Johnson's first episode of heart arrhythmia came in 2000 and he was hospitalized, missing three games. Heartburn, though, was an ongoing problem. He detested Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone and eventually the feeling was mutual. Johnson was ejected in the second inning of the last game of the season and he was convinced he'd never manage again.
Truth be told, he was glad to go.
"Burned out, I can admit it," he said.
Health issues and heartache took up much of the next decade. He had a ruptured appendix in 2004 that took several months to diagnose correctly because his stomach had walled off the infection. The result: five stomach surgeries.
A year later his daughter, world-class surfer Andrea Lyn Johnson, died at 32 of degenerative tissue disease, probably the result, he said, of medications she took to combat schizophrenia.
Johnson seemed to age overnight. He became forgetful and unfocused. His salvation came from the game, when his longtime friend Bob Watson, the president of USA Baseball, asked him to manage the U.S. team in the 2005 World Cup. It was therapeutic, and Johnson remained at the helm through the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Whispers persisted, though, that he wasn't the same manager who posted a .564 winning percentage in 14 major league seasons, winning five division titles. The Americans took home only a bronze medal and criticism grew a year later when the U.S. lost to Japan in the semifinal of the World Baseball Classic. Johnson left Roy Oswalt(notes) on the mound for 66 ineffective pitches on a cold night in a losing effort and onlookers wondered aloud if he'd fallen asleep in the dugout.
The only managing he did after that was helping out collegiate summer league teams near his Winter Haven, Fla., home the last two summers. He seemed to have found a niche as a senior advisor to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, and on the back side of 65, Johnson wasn't the first name that leaped to mind when major league managerial jobs opened.
Johnson contributed in player development decisions and the amateur draft. Long comfortable around a computer, he'd been a statistical analysis pioneer. As a young second baseman in 1968, he handed Orioles manager Hank Bauer a printout that indicated he should be batting fifth in the lineup instead of seventh. Bauer threw it in the trash.
More than 40 years later, Johnson knew his way around a laptop. Yet after a spring training invigorated by the heart procedure, events unfolded unpredictably. In May, his stepson, Jake, died at 34 of pneumonia. Born blind and deaf and with special needs, Jake had been the first priority of Davey and his wife, Susan. After Jake's passing, Davey had more time on his hands.
A month later Riggleman quit after Rizzo declined his request to have his contract option for 2012 exercised. John McLaren took over for three days but wasn't comfortable staying on because of loyalty to Riggleman. The job went to Johnson, his personal life and his health aligned for the first time in years.
He's not the oldest manager in the game – that distinction goes to 80-year-old Jack McKeon, hired a week ago by the Florida Marlins – and is one of seven older than 60.
None of that has Johnson thinking beyond 2011, though. His contract runs through 2013 but describes him as a consultant after this season. He is more likely to have a strong voice in choosing the next manager than he is being that strong voice in the dugout.
It will be a momentous decision. The next Nationals manager will oversee the return of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg(notes), usher in hitting prodigy Bryce Harper(notes) and be expected to turn the team into a perennial contender.
"When we're talking about those two guys, that's when I start thinking about next year," Johnson said, chuckling.
His blood is pumping. Davey Johnson is a big league manager again.
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