Johnson overcomes injury to play again
Nationals first baseman missed entire 2007 season
The pain surged through first baseman Nick Johnson's body as he crashed into Austin Kearns in short right field at Shea Stadium, hitting his teammate with a sickening thud. It was the kind of collision that can only mean trouble. In a few moments, Kearns got to his feet, a bit wobbly. Johnson stayed down, though, the pain telling him he was badly hurt.
There was barely a week left in the 2006 season and Washington was playing an otherwise meaningless game against the New York Mets. David Wright lifted a pop fly just beyond the infield, the area commonly known as "no-man's land." Johnson went back. Kearns came in. And then they met. Violently.
His teammates heard Johnson's right leg snap. Johnson remembers the moment. "When I was laying there, I didn't want to look at it," he said. "I knew it was pretty bad."
Johnson's femur was broken, an especially serious injury for an athlete. He was carried off the field, his baseball future left in the hands of surgeons who operated on him that night.
Doctors inserted a titanium rod and several screws in the leg. The word was that Johnson would be ready for Spring Training 2007. The prediction was about a year off. It wasn't until this spring that Johnson was fit to play.
Johnson is back at first base for the Nationals after missing last season rehabilitating from the injury. He is an important bat in the middle of the lineup and drove in the first run at Washington's new Nationals Park on Opening Day. Except for normal aches and pains, the broken leg is becoming a distant memory.
It was not easy.
Johnson went through a grueling rehabilitation last season, and there were times when it seemed he would not make it back on the field. There were three operations on the leg. As late as last September, a month after the hardware was removed from his leg, he was still hobbling around, his future uncertain.
Johnson, however, never doubted his ability to come back.
"There were a lot of ups and downs," he said. "You feel like everything is progressing and then there's a setback. It was helpful that I was able to stay with the team. That really helped me."
Johnson's comeback turned the corner when he was able to make backhanded plays in fielding drills this spring.
"That was a big step for me," he said.
It showed him that he had regained mobility, that the broken leg would no longer inhibit him.
Johnson was no stranger to the disabled list, even before the broken leg. In 2003, when he was with the Yankees, he went down with a stress fracture in his right hand. Back problems and a broken cheekbone limited him to 73 games the next year. But in 2006, Johnson was healthy and had a solid season for the Nationals in their second year in Washington. He had career highs in home runs (23), runs batted in (77), hits (145) and runs scored (100).
And then David Wright hit that fateful pop fly.
The Nationals weren't sure Johnson would be able to start the season with them, but he proved to be healthy in Spring Training and won the starting first base job over Dmitri Young, his replacement a year ago.
Now he's in the lineup every day, hoping to repeat those 2006 numbers. And every time one of those pop flies heads out to short right field, he makes sure to look around, just to see if Austin Kearns is galloping toward him.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York City.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.