The subject was Davey Johnson, the 69-year-old manager of the Washington Nationals, and as F.P. Santangelo sat in the team’s home dugout on a recent afternoon, he struggled to keep a straight face.
Twelve years ago, Mr. Santangelo was a utility player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, then managed by Mr. Johnson. Today, the color analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network is long retired from baseball — and Mr. Johnson is still leading a big-league club.
Has Mr. Santangelo’s former skipper changed with age?
“Davey’s lost it,” Mr. Santangelo said. “He has no idea what town he’s in right now. He thinks he’s managing the [Baltimore] Orioles.”
Mr. Santangelo grinned.
“No, he’s as sharp as he’s ever been,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
Long considered one of the brightest minds in Major League Baseball, Mr. Johnson has guided the young and talented Nationals to a breakthrough season — including a division title, for the first postseason appearance by a Washington baseball team since 1933. And he is a leading contender for the National League’s Manager of the Year award, despite being the oldest manager in the majors.
Mr. Johnson’s success raises an intriguing question: How does he remain mentally proficient at his age, particularly in a line of work that requires statistical command, stellar memory, quick decision-making and astute emotional judgment?
The answer may lie in Mr. Johnson’s brain — and in the emerging scientific concept of neuroplasticity.
Once upon a time, conventional wisdom held that the human brain developed along a fixed arc, a curveball sailing through time. Born with hard-wired mental ability, we peaked in our 20s and then dropped off, ultimately lucky to remember where we left our car keys.
Over the past two decades, however, researchers have discovered that our brains are more flexible and resilient — more plastic — than previously believed. Through our habits and actions, we can alter our mental hardware and software, staving off and perhaps reversing age-related decline.
As it turns out, Mr. Johnson is an unwitting case study in pre-empting trouble with the curve. Here’s why.
A lifelong learner
Mr. Johnson isn’t just a baseball manager. He’s a full-fledged action figure.
He develops real estate in Florida, including a lakeside fishing camp and a recreational vehicle park. He is building a bank. He helped found an Arena League football team. He once managed the Netherlands’ Olympic baseball squad and has traveled around the world. He’s a self-professed “gadget geek” who stays current with video games (which he buys for his grandchildren) and mobile computing. (Mr. Johnson has an iPad and an iPhone; at Nationals spring training, sources report, his devices were the only ones to consistently get a network connection.)View Entire Story
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Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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