Ted Leavengood: Heart and soul

Nick Johnson finally hung up the spikes this week, according to MLBTradeRumors.com. Only 34, Johnson will be remembered as the backbone of the first Nationals team in 2005, and to those of us who wore his name proudly on the back of our first Nationals jerseys, he was the heart and soul of that team.

The article highlights Johnson’s ability to get on base, his “keen eye at the plate” that helped him achieve a “15.7% walk rate” that the article notes is “the 29th-highest mark of any player in baseball history with at least 3,000 plate appearances.”

Washington fans will always remember Johnson for his 2005 season. It was early in that year that Johnson played his most inspired baseball. In May, Johnson went on a tear, hitting .346 for the month with five homers. For the first two months, he hit .322 and he continued the pace in June with a .315 clip. His OBP for the first half of the year was an amazing .444, which included being hit by pitches 10 times. He scored almost as many runs as he drove in, and maybe the most enduring image of Johnson from 2005 was the burly man taking his elbow pad off and casting it aside as he jogged toward first base, yet again.

It was in June that the Nationals won 10 straight games to climb into first place in the National League East. The Expos had not seen the upper reaches of the National League in more than a few years, so it was heartening to a new fan base in Washington, D.C., to find themselves in first place on June 5. Even the New York Times took note of the watershed event, “First in War, First in Peace, First in the NL East,” read the headline proclaiming the ascent of the Nationals to the top.

There were many fan favorites that season in Washington. Livan Hernandez made the All-Star team along with Chad Cordero. Vinny Castillo played a surprising third base and Jose Guillen added both temper and flare. But it was Johnson who made it all fit together.

One of my favorite memories of that year was one of those dust-ups where Jose Guillen lost his cool. No one stopped the presses when Guillen went off on an umpire or an opposing pitcher. It was par for the course. But in one game that season, Guillen was at his worse and had to be dragged to first base by his teammates. He stood on first base taunting the opposing pitcher who had plunked him on his elbow pad that he often left dangling over the plate.

Johnson came up to bat with Guillen still pointing to the mound. To quiet the hubbub, Johnson deposited the first pitch into the second deck of the right field bleachers. “Here’s how you do it, Jose,” he seemed to be saying. And as long as Johnson was there to show the way, the Nationals followed. But at the end of June, Johnson was injured at home plate trying to avoid the catcher’s tag. A heel contusion was the official diagnosis, but Johnson missed 24 games and when he came back, he was not the same player as he had been before the injury.

While Johnson was out the Nationals managed to win only nine games and lost 18. They fell off the pace and on July 26, they gave up the NL East lead to the Braves. In the month of August, Johnson was back, but hit only .221 and got on base to a paltry .325 rate. The team fell all the way to last place in the division by the end of that first season, but managed to finish with an 81-81 record.

For all of the eventual heartbreak, Johnson led the Washington baseball brand back to respectability. With a contending team playing at RFK Stadium, 2.7 million fans came out to the old stadium to see them. It was enough to impress the commissioner’s office into following through on their promise to sell the team to local ownership the next season. It was enough to convince the Washington City Council that there was a reason to sign off on the bond sale that made the new stadium a reality.

The following season, Johnson got off to an even better start. The Nationals were horrid. John Patterson tanked. Esteban Loaiza was gone. Castilla’s knees were shot as were Hernandez’s. But Johnson had his best season in the majors. He managed to log 500 at-bats and hit a career-high 23 homers with a .290 batting average, and a .428 OBP.

But from the midst of all of that ecstasy, Johnson managed to pluck defeat. On Sept. 23, with a meaningless season just about in the record books, he went out into shallow right field for a routine fly ball. Austin Kearns came running in and Johnson was not called off. The collision broke Johnson’s femur. Johnson was only 27, just entering the prime of his career and for the first time in his career had played most of a season without injury. He came so close, but that collision ended Johnson’s career in many ways.

He missed all of the 2007 season and in 2008 was a shadow of his former self. He played well in 2009 and the Nationals took advantage of the sudden market for an oft-injured player and dealt him to the Marlins. It was his final year as a full-time regular.

Johnson finished with a career OBP that was under .400 by a hair - .399 to be exact. He hit fewer than 100 home runs, batted only .268 for his career. But for Nationals fans, he will always be the heart and soul of that first team. It was a first love kind of thing. You had to be there. It had real meaning, though. Johnson helped to prove that baseball belonged in Washington, that there were hungry fans who would brave the decrepitude of RFK Stadium to watch a winner.

When and if the 2013 Nationals are contending for the NL East flag again this summer, I hope Johnson is watching. He deserves just a little piece of that flag. He was one of the first, and he will be remembered for that.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

blog comments powered by Disqus