He insists he’s not coming back to manage the team, even if a strong finish, while falling short of a playoff appearance, sets the stage for a postseason return next year. His unfinished business is not in Washington. It’s at Tinker Field, the historic ball field in Orlando, Fla., where Johnson, at the age of 10, determined he wanted to be a major league ballplayer.
Johnson’s dream is to offer that chance to other kids — not just a chance to play baseball, but a chance at the hope of a better life.
He wants to open an urban youth baseball academy in Orlando.
“I really want to get this urban youth baseball academy going,” Johnson said. “It’s very important to me, and I wouldn’t trade anything if I could spearhead that.”
Major League Baseball began supporting urban youth baseball academies starting in 2006 in Compton, Calif. (which is now being operated by a former Baltimore Orioles teammate of Johnson‘s, Don Buford).
Since then, academies have opened in Houston, New Orleans and Cincinnati, and a number of other initiatives are in the works in various stages in Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia and Miami. The Nationals are backing the construction of an urban youth baseball academy in the District at Fort Dupont Park, scheduled to open this fall.
“I saw it first hand in Compton when I was doing the World Baseball Classic,” Johnson said. “I fell in love with what they were doing. They cleaned up that whole area, it was a great thing for the community and gave a lot of opportunities for a lot of young men. That’s what I want to do most.
“I’ve talked to Joe Torre [executive vice president of Major League Baseball operations] about it,” Johnson said. “I had [ball field architect] Murray Cook down there to look at the location. I’ve got the people ready to run it. I had it all set up. I met with city officials, and Major League Baseball ready to go, but the city wasn’t on board. Now I finally got the city on board, and Major League Baseball took on two or three other projects. I was ready to move forward with the project.”
Here’s the good story: He wants to bring the academy to the place where, as a 10-year-old, he decided he wanted to be a major league baseball player. It just happened to be the spring training home of the Washington Senators.
Tinker Field in Orlando was built in 1914, and is named after Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Joe Tinker, of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” fame. It was the spring training home of the Washington Senators, and when Griffith Stadium in the District was torn down, about 1,000 seats were shipped to Tinker Field — and are still there.
“Joe Haynes was a pitcher for the Washington Senators that lived across the street from me,” Johnson said. “When I was 10 years old, he had a son who was about 7 or 8. I would go over and play catch with him. I wanted to hang out with him because I knew his dad was a big league pitcher. His dad saw me playing catch, and liked the way I threw the ball.
“He took me to Tinker Field, where the Senators had spring training, to be bat boy for a day,” Johnson said. “It was the greatest thrill of my life. I was in the clubhouse with the Washington Senators. I made up my mind that day I wanted to me like those guys. I told Joe Haynes, ‘I want to be just like you.’”
Johnson likely will continue with the Nationals in a consulting capacity, and his presence will still be felt. But this future Hall of Fame skipper who has played with great players like Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron, and managed Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken and Barry Larkin, wants to go back to the beginning.
“I want to give something back,” he said. “I want to work with these kids.”
⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.