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He Plays Stand-Tall Ball

USA Baseball needed help; Davey Johnson needed a lift. After a heart-wrenching time, he has Games to consider.

November 15, 2005|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

MESA, Ariz. — When finally and officially fired as the Dodger manager at the end of the 2000 season -- after two years of coping with organizational dysfunction under Fox and Kevin Malone -- Davey Johnson knew it was time for a sabbatical. He knew, after 27 summers as a major league player and manager, he needed a break.

Now, five years later, wearing red, white and blue rather than just thinking blue, he has returned to the game that had been his life and found it to be a measure of solace.

Hired by USA Baseball to manage the team that hopes to survive a series of qualifying tournaments and compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics -- and redeem itself for an embarrassing regional elimination by Mexico before the 2004 Athens Games -- Johnson has found this to be a slice of therapeutic refuge.

"Timing is everything, and this has been a godsend," Susan Johnson, his wife, said. "He just went through as tough a year and a half as anyone possibly could. I can't imagine it being any tougher."

There was a life-threatening illness in 2004 -- "We weren't sure at times if he was going to make it," Susan Johnson said -- that resulted in three abdominal surgeries and the loss of more than 60 pounds and half his stomach, with doctors at the Mayo Clinic ultimately draining and removing a ruptured appendix.

While still regaining strength in 2005, Johnson endured an even more powerful body blow in June: the death of daughter Andrea Lyn Johnson at 32.

"My little surfer girl," Johnson says.

A world-class professional surfer, Andrea Lyn had battled the shadowy grasp of schizophrenia for a decade before her system, in Johnson's view, capitulated to heavy medication. Ultimately, as her condition worsened, her father was forced to make the decision that removed her life support.

"It was hugely painful for everyone in the family, and particularly to Davey," said Susan Johnson, his second wife. "Of his three children, Andrea was most like him. She was athletic, competitive and loved the beach, as he does. Even when she was most sick, he would pick her up and they would spend time together at the beach.

"We were grateful that he was away from the game and had that time then, and we're grateful he is back now. He loves working with young players and is excited to represent the country."

Davey Johnson talks about the honor and excitement while sitting in the dugout at HoHoKam Park and watching his team prepare for a five-day, six-nation qualifying tournament that begins in Arizona today. The top four finishers advance to Cuba in August for another qualifying tournament on the road to China.

The global game is not new to Johnson.

He accepted an emergency call and managed Holland to the European championship in 2003 before serving as the Dutch bench coach in Athens while still recovering from his illness.

He then accepted an offer to manage the U.S. team in the 2005 World Cup in Holland in September after Bob Watson, general manager of USA Baseball and vice president of on-field operation for Major League Baseball, read about Andrea Lyn's passing.

"We were in the process of reviewing potential managers and I said, 'Let's give Davey a call and see if he'd be interested,' " Watson said, leaning on the batting cage at HoHoKam. "I thought he would be a good fit for a young team and it would be the right therapy for Davey."

The U.S. finished seventh in the 16-team World Cup. The usual roster restriction -- no player on a 25-man major league roster is eligible -- was compounded by the September tournament dates.

Several potential players were competing in minor league playoffs or had joined the expanded big league rosters.

Regardless, said Watson, "We liked the way Davey went about his business. His energy, enthusiasm and passion for the game were evident, and it was natural for us to retain him. Part of what we've been looking for is continuity in our pro staff."

For Johnson, it is still a day at a time and always will be. Apart from the interplay of the diamond, or amid it, Andrea Lyn, the apple of his eye as he calls her, is never far from his thoughts, his view.

"Being here, being part of this, is definitely therapeutic," he said. "It takes some of the hurt away. If I wasn't doing something constructive I would have a hard time letting go.

"There are still times when I find it difficult thinking about anything else, but I know she's up there surfing somewhere and still has the smile she had every day of her life. I'm also sure she's happy to know that her dad has been blessed here with a second family of sorts. In a big way, these are my kids too."

If expectation and pressure are part of the package, what's new?

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