VIERA, Fla. -- Nick Johnson's right hip hurts when he walks.
Running? Forget that -- the pain's much too severe.
So the Washington Nationals' cleanup hitter and first baseman
quite simply has no idea when he'll be able to play baseball again,
when he'll be fully recovered from the broken right leg that ended
his career-best 2006 season.
He arrived at spring training Friday and was asked what he
thinks the best-case scenario is for a return. Johnson paused,
before offering a guess: "June?"
"But I won't know until I start hitting, running, getting on
the field. It's hard to make a prediction now," he added. A few
minutes later, he referred to the June estimate again: "That's in
my head, but I just threw it out there. I don't know."
Team doctor Ben Shaffer will examine X-rays Monday, and manager
Manny Acta and general manager Jim Bowden both said there's no way
to put a timetable on when Johnson could play.
Indeed, no one knows when he'll start jogging, much less taking
batting practice or fielding grounders. For now, Johnson is limited
to rehabilitation work.
"People were being a little overoptimistic when they were
talking about him being ready for spring training," Acta said.
"We're not going to jeopardize 2008 -- and years beyond 2008 -- just
to get Nick Johnson here two or three weeks earlier. Not at all.
Nick is not going to be on the field until he's 100 percent ready
to go, free of any type of risk of injuring himself out there."
Acta, then the Mets' third base coach, was at Shea Stadium on
Sept. 23, when Johnson collided violently with right fielder Austin Kearns while they chased a popup. Johnson threw off his cap and
dropped face-down on the outfield grass.
"I knew something was wrong right away," Acta said, "because
I heard it. I heard the impact between him and Austin."
A titanium rod and screws were inserted in Johnson's leg during
a two-hour operation that night; at the time, the team issued a
statement from Shaffer saying Johnson was "expected to make a full
recovery and be ready for 2007 spring training."
Johnson later had two more operations, to remove the screws and
clean up scar tissue.
If the physical healing is ongoing, Johnson sounded as if
there's no lingering psychological damage.
Speaking about what aspects of his game he's most concerned
about when he returns, Johnson snickered a bit before answering,
"Probably that ball over my head. Might have to peek the first
It took a couple of months before he was ready to watch replays
of the gruesome collision. His thoughts when he did see it? "That
hurt," Johnson replied, smiling.
Kearns, though, can't bear to watch.
"I haven't seen it. Didn't really care to," the outfielder
said. "Just being out there when it happened was enough. I'm
trying not to think about it."
The two stayed in touch over the past several months,
text-messaging or talking about fantasy football, about other
sports -- about pretty much anything other than what Kearns called
"a freak thing."
It marked an end to what was a breakthrough season for Johnson,
who set career highs with a .290 batting average, 46 doubles, 23
homers, 77 RBIs and 110 walks.
"Statistically speaking, Nick Johnson was the most productive
hitter we had here last year," Acta said. "Whether it's one month
or six, we're going to miss him, no matter what. But we made
certain moves to stop the gap that he's going to leave there."
Still, as Kearns acknowledged, the Nationals are going to miss
"He's a guy who gets on base. He's going to hit, but he takes a
lot of walks. So he's going to be on base a lot, he's going to
drive in runs," Kearns said. "It definitely takes a hit out of
Johnson set a personal best in another category in 2006: 147
He made at least one trip to the disabled list in each of his
five previous major league seasons with the New York Yankees and
Expos-Nationals. There was a long list of injuries: thumb, left
wrist, right hand, back, broken cheekbone, heel.
Nothing as debilitating, though, as what he's facing now.
"He's still got a lot left to do," Kearns said, "but he's a
lot better than the last time we all saw him."