Davey Johnson needs the game more than ever

Baseball

September 04, 2005|By RICK MAESE

DAVEY JOHNSON is back in the dugout today. Maybe he'll call for a hit-and-run or a double-switch. Maybe he'll yank the pitcher early or send up a pinch-hitter late. It doesn't matter. The important thing here is that Davey Johnson is back in the dugout.

"I was just getting bored," he'll tell you, giving a superficial reason for taking the managerial post with USA Baseball.

It's more than that. When you're bored, you take a walk, visit a golf course, flip on the television.

Johnson, the former Orioles manager and second baseman, is back because he needs baseball. He needs something else - anything else, really - to think about.

He used to call her his Little Surfer Girl. And when Andrea Lyn Johnson was on that board, floating in the ocean, waiting for the big one, she'd feel closer to her daddy than ever.

"It connects us," she once told Sports Illustrated.

Andrea was a professional surfer, living off the same competitive juices that fueled her father and made him one of the best baseball minds of the past quarter-century. She was just 32, the youngest of Johnson's three children and a Baltimore native.

A couple of months have passed, but he still can't talk about the details. What we do know is that she died in June after a long battle with schizophrenia. That's one of those mental illnesses that is supposed to operate in shadows. It's not supposed to leach onto beautiful young women who are approaching the prime of their lives.

"It hasn't been easy," says Johnson, 62. "Every single day I'm thinking about her. There's no easy way to get past this. I mean, you're not supposed to outlive your daughter, you know?"

You might not be able to get past it, but you have to move forward. And so Johnson turned to the one thing that has threaded itself through every stage of his life: baseball.

Bob Watson is Major League Baseball's vice president of on-field operations. He's also the general manager in charge of USA Baseball and, about a month ago, he began looking for someone to lead a national team into the World Cup, the biggest international tournament of the year.

Watson called Johnson. He could hear the old manager's sorrow over the telephone line.

That's the thing about sports that's easy for us to forget. The game is always there for us, bad times and good. The game entertains us. It gives us something to argue about with our uncles and fathers. And it distracts us when the real world weighs too heavy.

"The better word to use is coping," says Watson. "Not to take anything away from his grief and his sorrow, but baseball has always helped people get by. Even major disasters, if you remember back to 9/11. Personally, a guy dealing with his own tragedy can really use the game sometimes. Baseball is just a microcosm of life, and it will always be there for people."

After two seasons managing the Los Angeles Dodgers to .500 records, Johnson was fired and walked away from professional baseball. He wasn't looking to go back, he says, because he knew he needed to spend some time with Andrea.

"I needed to be around my Little Surfer Girl," he says.

Johnson's own health has wavered a bit in the past 1 1/2 years. Doctors removed half his stomach and diagnosed him with a burst appendix. He lost nearly 50 pounds, but says he's healthy today.

He's a baseball man whose interests still extend beyond the game. Orioles interim manager Sam Perlozzo was a coach on Johnson's staffs in New York and Baltimore. When the game was over, conversations were about more than baseball.

"You could just tell how much he loved his family," Perlozzo says. "He was so proud of her and what she was doing."

Baseball is a game that's unfriendly to families. It keeps fathers from birthdays and anniversaries and Little League games. Johnson did his best to be there, to watch Andrea navigate the water. Now is a time to remember when he was there, not those times when he was just a voice on the phone, guided by baseball from city to city and hotel room to hotel room.

When Andrea died, the baseball world showed its support. Perlozzo left a nice phone message. Peter and Georgia Angelos sent flowers to Johnson's home in Winter Park, Fla.

But Johnson grieved steadily until Watson called. Last week, he flew to New York, where he and his coaching staff whittled the World Cup roster down to 24 minor-league prospects. And on Wednesday, the group flew to the Netherlands, where Team USA opens play at noon today against Colombia.

Johnson didn't go to forget about Andrea. He just needed something else to think about, something to remind him of happier times.

"With baseball, everything else can just drift away," says Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks, who has both played and coached alongside Johnson. "But losing someone, it's difficult. That's hard to keep out of your mind."

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