BALTIMORE — A year later, there weren’t too many eyebrows raised.
The date, June 23, came and went somewhat unceremoniously inside the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse at Camden Yards, except for the note on the white board in blue ink that let everyone know it was clubhouse manager Mike Wallace’s birthday.
It was a year ago that things changed for the Nationals. A year ago that Jim Riggleman decided, following a walk-off win and an 8-1 homestand, to abruptly resign as manager in a contract dispute.
His life changed then, too.
“It was a very sad day for me,” the Nationals’ current manager said. “I like Jimmy, and I hate to see anybody’s career in managing go that way. But it doesn’t feel like I’ve been here a year. It feels more like 10 years.”
“No,” he added with a laugh, “It feels more like a month or so. When you’re back in baseball, it doesn’t leave you. You think about it year-round, offseason, and then the travel. … One day runs into the other.”
As the anniversary was mentioned to players who were there then, it was met more with surprise that only a year had passed than any real reflection or reaction. Felt like longer, most said, and they acknowledged it was one of the strangest days they’d ever witnessed. Felt like a different team and a different time, even though many of the parts remained the same.
These Nationals are 40-28. They’re 80-71 under Johnson, who took over three games later in Anaheim, Calif., after last managing in the majors in 2000 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they’re in first place in the National League East.
“I think we’ve been gradually getting toward playing up to our potential,” Johnson said, the Nationals 38-37 at this time last year. “As far as I’m concerned, we still have a ways to go as a team. We’re still very young, still very inexperienced as a whole team, but I’m not surprised at how we’re playing and where we’re at, because I expected it.”
Johnson ended the 2011 season admitting finally that while his contract stipulated for him to become a consultant at season’s end, he would prefer to return in 2012 as manager. The assumption is that the same options will be on the table for him at the end of the current season.
Asked Saturday if the Nationals’ first 68 games this season have made him re-evaluate or make any decisions about next season yet, Johnson didn’t bite.
“I keep all my energy on today, with an eye on tomorrow,” Johnson said, his stock answer for any questions that he deems too far in the future. “That doesn’t go any farther than that. That’s the way I basically live my life. I’m very comfortable living in the short-term. I think I’m lucky to be here, as I am here now, with all that’s happened. I’ve had a very fun life.
“For me to think about what challenges I’m going to face six months from now is a useless exercise. Why go there? Who cares? I hope they still like me today, and I hope they still like me tomorrow. But I’m not going to ask them, are you going to like me six months from now? Are you kidding me?”
Johnson, 69, uses that mantra in every facet of his life. Even with his wife, Susan, when she tries to discuss future plans or vacations with him. But it’s a unique perspective he brings to the position. When Riggleman, who is now managing the Cincinnati Reds’ Double-A team, and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had their standoff a year ago, it was the opposite perspective that led to Riggleman’s issuing of an ultimatum.