At 69 years old, Johnson does not occupy himself with the past or the future. He is about today. “A week from now, man?” he says. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now.” This winter, Johnson and his wife, Susan, spent many nights sitting outside watching the sunset, peering into Florida’s Technicolor horizon. “Look how beautiful that is,” one would say to the other. “Look at that.” One night Johnson leaned close to Susan, the love of his life, and told her, “I feel so lucky that I’m doing this this year.”
This year, Johnson will manage the Washington Nationals. Thursday at Wrigley Field, he will spend opening day in a major league dugout for the first time in 12 seasons. Between then and now, a ruptured appendix almost killed him, but he feels healthier than he has in two decades. He has lost a daughter and a beloved stepson, but he harbors no grief. He has re-entered a world of constant scrutiny, but he never questions himself. He cherishes every moment.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him happier than he’s been this spring,” Susan Johnson said. “He just feels so comfortable in his own skin. He just feels he has so much to give his players and his coaches. He feels like he’s been there and done that. He loves the players. He just likes this team so much.”
Johnson says he would find the same happiness in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, the place he managed before the Nationals hired him to replace Jim Riggleman last June. His experiences — as a four-time all-star second baseman, a millionaire real estate investor and a World Series manager — have steeled within him an intense self-belief.
“There will be another challenge for me somewhere down the road [where] I’ll get just as much joy and satisfaction,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a big ego that I need fed by anybody. I’m comfortable with who I am, whatever I am.”
‘The joy of managing’
When Johnson took his first managerial job, with the New York Mets in 1984, he wanted perfection. The win-loss record did not preoccupy him as much working toward an ideal. He aimed for complete continuity, from ownership to the lowest rung of the minor leagues, a seamless baseball machine meant to maximize the career of every player who entered its maw.
Johnson never achieved that with the Mets, or any other team he managed. He accepted the Nationals position because he believed they were close, and that he could help — or at least not hinder — their progress. He admires the ownership, adores General Manager Mike Rizzo and respects the baseball men who surround him.