Forever a second baseman, Johnson grabbed the glove off Marco Scutaro and pulled it close to his face, then smacked his fist into it a few times. Brandon Phillips ambled over to take a few grounders, too, so Johnson asked to see his glove as well. He laughed. They laughed. His arms moved wildly as he told story after story.
“It’s nice to see what the young guys are using,” Johnson said. “Some of them, I was amazed, even remembered who I was. That was a long, long time ago. But it’s fun to be here now and see the best players in the league.”
In a few months, Johnson no longer will be managing the Washington Nationals. When the second half starts Friday, he will have 67 regular-season games left at the helm in Washington — and, if his players can get him there, however many playoff games fate allows.
At 70, Johnson has spent the better part of the last five decades sewn into baseball’s fabric. He insists the end of his Nationals tenure doesn’t mean he’s going away or that he’ll leave the game, but the man who refuses to plan for the future is starting to think about it.
Over the weekend in Miami, someone mentioned visiting Bora Bora to him. On their flight up to New York, Johnson showed his wife, Susan, a picture of the island and told her, “I wouldn’t mind being there.”
After years of planning vacations months in advance, much to the chagrin of her “today with an eye on tomorrow” husband, Susan couldn’t believe Johnson was instigating.
“I hear the weather’s pretty good in April,” he told her. “Maybe there’s some young talent down there. Maybe I can get a job scouting the French Polynesian areas.”
“She’s already checking rates,” he said with a chuckle Tuesday afternoon. “But I don’t have to think about it anymore. Only in that short period of time would I let her do that. Because I’m enjoying the moment.”
Usually, Johnson avoids reflection. A man who works to remain in the present, trying to enjoy what each day brings, he likes telling stories about the past — but not living in it. Still, as he sat in the dugout at Citi Field on Tuesday night, watching some of the game’s brightest stars play in the city where he achieved his greatest managerial triumph, he remembered to savor the moment.
As part of the All-Star parade down 42nd Street that morning, Johnson, Susan and two of their grandchildren, Kai and Ana-Lise, sat in the back of a pickup truck and took in the scene. As fans — many of whom remembered him from his time managing the Mets and winning the 1986 World Series — shouted “Davey!” Johnson joked that he shouted back, “They’re my grandkids.”
“My wife looks so young and I look so old,” Johnson joked. “I had to explain to everybody. [My grandchildren] didn’t know what they were talking about because they know me as G-daddy.”
During Monday’s media session, which is usually a casual-dress affair, Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann glanced over at a game-attired Johnson and laughed. He was asked if he thought his manager was enjoying himself.
“He’s in full uni,” Zimmermann said. “Think he’s fired up?”
Tuesday, Johnson stood behind the batting cage and talked about thumb injuries with Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, and hitting with Yadier Molina and Brian McCann. He noticed McCann, the Braves backstop, was using an ash bat, but Molina’s had several knots in the wood grain. He was curious about how the Cardinals catcher held his bat, where he positioned the label to avoid hitting on the knot or the label.
“I always had the label on the back,” Johnson said. “He said it was a maple bat and they’re real hard no matter how you hold it. He said he used it the same way. It was fun. I learned that.”
When he arrived at Citi Field on Tuesday, he saw a base coach helmet in his locker. He shoved it into his bag when he ran into National League manager Bruce Bochy, who said he thought Johnson might coach first base.
“I said, ‘I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you use the current manager [fellow NL coach Terry Collins] at first base and not the one they ran out of town?’” Johnson said. “I told Bochy, ‘If you need coffee or anything like that, I’m your man.’”
During the game, Johnson stood near the dugout steps chatting with players and enjoying the game. He applauded after one of his favorite singers, Neil Diamond, performed “Sweet Caroline” on the field. Zimmermann walked by and joked with him.
“You didn’t screw anything up yet, did you?” Zimmermann asked him.
“No,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to stay away from everyone.”
No one knows how this season will end for Johnson and the Nationals, how this chapter of his story will conclude. Tony La Russa got the rare opportunity to retire from managing after a thrilling World Series victory in 2011. Johnson would love to do the same, ending on a high note.
But even if he does, those who watch him here, those who can still see his pure love for the game, doubt he’ll ever really leave.
“It’s like [St. Louis pitcher Chris Carpenter] coming back,” said Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, who watched La Russa’s final season from the best seat in the house. “People say this is probably his final year and he always comes back.
“It’s like, to say that about Davey or Tony, I would never say that, because you just never know. These guys could be managing from a bed in an old folks’ home 20 years from now.”