Crack of bat by Nationals' Johnson takes this dad back to snack shack

OTHER VOICES

July 05, 2005|By Dan McGrath

CHICAGO - The phone rang just as the Washington Nationals' Nick Johnson was crossing home plate after pounding a home run off the facade of the upper deck at RFK Stadium against Greg Maddux and the Chicago Cubs on May 15.

"Snack-shack distance," my son declared.

"And then some," I agreed.

His reference was to Dooley Field, a well-kept jewel of a Little League complex in Sacramento, Calif., that has been a field of dreams for thousands of aspiring ballplayers during its 50-plus years of existence. If Nick Johnson isn't its most illustrious alum, then his uncle, Larry Bowa, probably is.

Dooley's only drawback is that it was laid out with no regard for the left-handed power potential of future Nick Johnsons. The snack shack sits just beyond the right-field fence at the main diamond, and when a left-handed bopper like Nick came to the plate, volunteer moms were wise to keep an eye out for homers as they dispensed chili-cheese nachos to neighborhood youngsters ... and the occasional oldster (heh-heh) with no regard for his cholesterol.

Johnson was in Chicago with the Nationals over the weekend, but he had to sit out their sweep of the Cubs because of a bruised heel he suffered in a freak play at the plate against the Toronto Blue Jays last week. He tried to do some work before Sunday's game, but lingering pain and limited mobility sent him to the disabled list retroactive to June 27. He'll be out until the All-Star break.

Too bad - injuries have kept Johnson from realizing his full potential. In fact, his susceptibility while with the New York Yankees was one of the reasons George Steinbrenner grew infatuated with Jason Giambi (heh-heh).

Not that the Nationals missed him against the Cubs, but Johnson has emerged as their most effective hitter this season with a .320 average, a .444 on-base percentage and 42 RBIs. At 26, he's yet to take a meaningful swing at Wrigley Field, missing the Yankees' memorable visit in 2003 with a damaged wrist and the Montreal Expos' lone trip last season with a leg injury.

But it's still a hoot to see Nick Johnson in a big league uniform - I've known him since he was 10. And it brings back a flood of great memories.

He and my son were teammates on a Pacific Little League All-Star team that made a great run from Dooley Field through Northern California in 1991. Nick's dad, Bob Johnson, was the manager, and another great-with-kids guy named Jim Bonovich was the coach. They put together a team of scrappers whose desire matched their ability and convinced those 11- and 12-year-olds they were as good as anybody. And they almost were, winning, if memory serves, 15 games before a 12-year-old man-child named Kevin Graham mixed hard cheese with for-real curveballs and sent them home.

A kid that big throwing that hard with that much "stuff" from Little League distance seemed unfair ... that much I remember. Truth be told, I was too edgy to enjoy the rest of it, the many good times, the many great games.

I'd buy my lucky root beer in the same inning each night and pace nervously down the right-field line with a grandfather who was sneaking a lucky smoke, and I'd mentally chastise myself for not wearing the same lucky shirt I'd worn two nights earlier when Matt got two hits.

Seems silly now, but what we would have done to help those kids fulfill their dreams.

It was a long, somber ride back to Sacramento from San Jose when the run ended.

But I believed then and I believe now that it was a good experience for them. Baseball is a great game, but a hard game, and it gets harder the further you advance in it. No shame in losing if you give it your best.

Most of the Pacific kids went on to play in high school, a few in college, and here's Nick Johnson in The Show. Who knew? I sort of did. One kid, who later ran afoul of the California penal code, had better tools, but Nick could always hit ... always ... and he was by far the most dedicated.

I'll always have a warm spot for Jack Clark, Chili Davis, Atlee Hammaker and the players I "broke in" with as a baseball writer, but seeing Nick Johnson reminds me that my son and his guys from that memorable 1991 season are my Boys of Summer.

I hope they enjoyed their run as much as I did.

Dan McGrath is an associate managing editor for sports for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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