TORONTO – The ruptured appendix and the multiple surgeries and the drastic weight loss that caused his friend Davey Johnson to lose nearly 70 pounds in a matter of months? Sure, said Mike Schmidt, the Hall of Fame third baseman and novice third-base coach for Team USA, he wondered more than once whether Johnson would survive, never mind manage big leaguers again.
"We almost lost him again a couple of months ago,'' Schmidt said. "He fell down the stairs. He was in North Carolina, and fell down the stairs, and they had to call the paramedics. He was unconscious. They took him to the hospital, and revived him.
"He took two or three weeks to recover. And that was one of the small things that's happened to him. He's a warrior.''
The fall took place at Johnson's new home in Asheville, N.C., the day after he'd appeared at the winter meetings in Las Vegas for a press conference announcing he was the man selected to restore Team USA's rightful place in the baseball universe.
Less than three months later, Dustin Pedroia, Team USA's second baseman, was headed for the on-deck circle in the eighth inning Saturday afternoon when he stopped and turned to Johnson.
"Are you nervous?'' Pedroia asked.
"Yeah, a little bit,'' Johnson replied.
"You know what,'' Pedroia said, "I am, too. If you're not nervous, you don't care.''
Davey Johnson was back on a big stage Saturday in the World Baseball Classic, managing the way he did when he won a World Series with the Mets and division titles with the Reds and Orioles, before he got his fill of combative general managers and meddling owners and walked away to manage kids instead.
"It was kind of like a happy nervous, because we were ahead,'' Johnson said after the USA belted three home runs and held on to beat Canada 6-5 in the Rogers Centre, payback for the first-round upset Canada pulled off three years ago in the inaugural WBC.
Barry Larkin, who won a National League MVP award under Johnson when he was in Cincinnati, is now sitting alongside Johnson as his bench coach.
"Oh, this is very, very important to the man,'' he said. "He plays it cool, like a duck on top of the water. Everything looks like it's calm, but underneath the water the feet are going whirrrrrrrrr. Davey's a cool cat. He doesn't show emotion. He talks a lot, he verbalizes what he's thinking, but he doesn't show any kind of panic. He has a very calm demeanor, but he's very excited about this.''
Red, white and blue nerves remained on edge during a frantic ninth inning when Joey Votto's fourth hit of the night, a run-scoring double, put the potential tying run on base for Canada before J.J. Putz retired Justin Morneau and Jason Bay to end it.
"It was a battle for sure today,'' Putz said, "not being able to reach back and have 97, 98 like you do in the middle of the season.
"I knew it was going to be an exciting game. I didn't really think about how it's going to end. Any game that you save is at a high level, but this one was even higher. It was a big yell of relief and excitement, all at the same time.''
Davey Johnson, who managed 14 seasons in the big leagues – his winning percentage of .564 is higher than any active manager – has spent the last few years managing teams in international competition, first a stint with the Netherlands leading up to the Athens Olympics, then with U.S. national teams. But late in 2004, he was hospitalized with a life-threatening illness that caused him to undergo three abdominal surgeries. He lost half his stomach and 70 pounds before doctors removed a ruptured appendix.
A year later, while still in recovery, he lost his daughter, Andrea, a world-class surfer who had battled schizophrenia for the better part of a decade.
"Davey took time to grieve,'' Schmidt said, "but he has a way of coming back with a smile on his face.''
Last summer, when he took a US team of college kids and minor leaguers to the Beijing Olympics, Johnson said he'd happily swap one of his world championship rings for a gold medal. Did he feel as strongly about the WBC?
"I do want to win a great deal,'' he said, "but in the U.S. [the WBC] doesn't have the glamour appeal.''
Johnson never left the dugout from the time the game began until it was over. Neither, for that matter, did his pitching coach, Marcel Lachemann. Jake Peavy pitched the first three innings ("I had zero breaking ball,'' he said. "It was hard to be one-dimensional''). Johnson started each of the next six innings with a different pitcher.
"It wasn't quite like a big league atmosphere,'' he said, "because you can't really manage matchups. Your relievers need the work, and if you warm a guy up and don't use him, you can't use him the next day. It's kind of an uncomfortable feeling for the pitching coach and me.''
The biggest managing decision, Johnson left to Larkin. All week long, while the team was training in Florida, Johnson had chafed at having two All-Star shortstops on his roster, Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins. The one thing he vowed to stay away with was to pull one player in midgame.
So what happened? After Jeter singled in the fifth, his second hit in three at-bats, Johnson lifted him for Rollins, who reached base twice on an infield hit and error and made a sparkling defensive play in the ninth, throwing out Adam Stern from the hole.
"That is a serious, sensitive issue with Davey,'' said Larkin, a 12-time All-Star at the same position. "I kind of took that away from Davey, to make that decision. Derek Jeter is the captain, the face of the team. He wants to play, but Jimmy Rollins needs to play. And while Davey certainly does not want to go an All-Star game type of situation, at times, based on your personnel, sometimes you have to make an adjustment.
"Davey told me the very first night when I got there, 'You figure out what to do with the shortstops.' Today, Jimmy was over there in the dugout getting loose, and that's when I thought about [substituting]. Davey said, 'I thought …' I said, 'No, we've got to get them both in the ballgame.' ''
Johnson turned 66 on Jan. 30. The big leagues no longer have their allure.
"Davey's had his fill of that,'' Schmidt said. "But if I said to you, who are the five greatest managers in big league history, I don't think you'd put Davey Johnson in that group. But he won a world championship, and managed the Mets, Dodgers, Reds and Orioles. How many guys can say they managed those four teams, with all that tradition?''
Baseball is striving mightily to begin a new tradition with the WBC, especially in the U.S. Davey Johnson, who has picked himself up many times, may be just the man to get it there.