- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

These are the dog days for the Washington Nationals - coming back home while Redskins training camp is underway. And in the month of August, there are no Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs games on the schedule to bring fans to Nationals Park.

No, it’s Colorado, Arizona, Milwaukee - and Tuesday night’s opponent, the Florida Marlins, to open a six-game homestand.

And not even the return of The Last Expo seemed to make a difference in the sparse attendance.

Nick Johnson left Washington on July 26 as a Nationals player and came back Tuesday night with the Marlins. He was traded for 22-year-old pitching prospect Aaron Thompson. Thompson, with his 22-34 minor league record and 4.00 ERA, was deemed expendable in return for renting Johnson for the final two months of the season before he becomes a free agent.

It was strange to see Johnson in a Marlins uniform in the visitors clubhouse. He was with this franchise for 5 1/2 seasons, the last Nationals player who saw the field in the team’s previous existence in Montreal, arriving there in December 2003 from the Yankees as part of a package that sent Javier Vazquez to New York.

And even though he was on the roster for nearly six years, he actually played in just 487 games, missing more than 300 over that time because of a variety of injuries. Those injuries came to define his career. But when Johnson did play, he gave everyone just enough of a tease to think of what could have been.

Johnson was a professional hitter with the Nationals who rarely wasted an at-bat. He remains an on-base percentage machine. In 2006, with the heralded Alfonso Soriano and his 46 home runs in the lineup, Johnson was the Nationals’ best and most important hitter. He batted .290 that season with 23 home runs, 46 doubles, 77 RBI, 100 runs scored and an on-base percentage of .428 in 147 games.

In September of that year, Johnson and outfielder Austin Kearns collided in New York on a pop fly. Johnson suffered a devastating fracture in his right femur that kept him out for all of the 2007 season. When he came back in 2008, he missed much of the year with a right wrist injury.

It was both a pleasure and painful to watch Nick Johnson play - which made him a perfect symbol for the Washington Nationals.

Ryan Zimmerman may be regarded as the face of the franchise, but no one had more pages devoted to him in the 2009 Nationals media guide than Johnson, with as much information devoted to disabled-list stints as baseball accomplishments.

It has been a complicated career for a truly uncomplicated man. Johnson wore No. 24 during his time here, but he is wearing No. 20 for Florida - which happened to be the number worn by his manager for three years with the Expos/Nationals organization, Frank Robinson.

Is that why Johnson picked No. 20?

“Nah,” he said. “It’s just what they gave me.”

When asked what it is like being on the other side, Johnson said: “It’s a little different. You get over that pretty quick, and it’s all about winning ballgames. … You go out and see the guys. When it’s time to play ball, it’s time to play ball, and win. … We’re playing good against, uh, Washington, and we hope to continue that.”

Like I said, a truly uncomplicated man.

The game opened in true Nationals fashion - a shot to right field by Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan off starter J.D. Martin that right fielder Elijah Dukes managed to misplay into a triple.

Then Johnson came up to the plate and drove Coghlan home with a single to right.

As Johnson stepped into the batter’s box, the small crowd of Nationals fans on hand acknowledged his contributions to baseball in the District with sporadic standing, tepid applause. After all, it’s a beaten and bruised fan base that, understandably, isn’t passionate about celebrating another major leaguer who is gone from this team.

Who knows, he may be back next year given the right circumstances.

The sad question is, would most of the baseball fans in this town have known he was gone?

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