"Not always," Johnson admitted. "Well," said Weaver, "I can't send our runners when it's 1 and 2 on you, then, now can I?"
Things went progressively sour between Weaver and Johnson last season. The club was going badly, and Weaver, religious about statistics and platooning, shuffled players constantly. Johnson resented the moves. He eventually lost his job to Bobby Grich. Weaver says he is fond of Johnson. "The only thing he couldn't cope with last season," Weaver says, "was the pain in his shoulder. He hurt it sliding a few years ago, and even though we sent him to all kinds of doctors, nothing seemed to help. That caused his bad year at the plate last season. Knowing he was having a bad year and wouldn't get a raise [ Johnson is known as a hard contract], he became unhappy. So the trade worked out nicely. Dave will get a nice raise next season."
At the time Johnson was surprised at being sent to Atlanta. "The Orioles," he said, "gave up too much. Really, I'm serious. The Braves got two frontline pitchers, a good young defensive catcher, who hits line drives, and me. I consider myself a player who's just reaching his prime." Even so, Johnson had other thoughts before the season began, and Mark Belanger could not help but sense them when he visited Johnson during the winter in Orlando, Fla.; Johnson had a batting cage and a pitching machine in his backyard, and there was even a spotlight for practicing at night.
"That is great," Belanger said. "Is it helping you?"
"I don't know," replied Johnson. "I've only used it once. My shoulder is still bothering me. If I don't have a good year, I'll probably hang 'em up. I just can't swing the bat."
An isometric exercise eventually restored the swing, and now Johnson glitters even in the giant shade of Henry Aaron. But the Braves? They are a curious club, sometimes reminding one of a fat ballerina, if ever there was such a specimen. Their defense is comically porous, their pitchers don't fool anyone except maybe their catchers, and the innings can be long in the field. "My feet get awfully sore standing out there for 20 minutes," Johnson says. Yet they are not a bore to watch with bats in their hands. There is Aaron. There is Johnson. And there is Third Baseman Darrell Evans.
" Evans," says Johnson of his teammate, who has 36 home runs, "has a beautiful swing. If I was a manager and had to start a club, he'd be my third baseman."
"Has the emphasis of the bat on the Braves hurt you defensively?" Johnson was asked. He has committed 24 errors, and Evans has made 23. "Well," Johnson said, "I don't know about that, but I've never had such a bad year in the field."
Looking at him, it is impossible to equate him with the majesty that was Hornsby. Johnson makes you think of one of those young men who like to hang around garages in the South. Hornsby, with his cold blue eyes and blunt tongue, was a presence that challenged, and many over the years found they could do without it. Johnson is capable of achieving a rich life outside of baseball; for Hornsby there was only baseball. "People ask me what I do in the winter when there's no baseball," Hornsby once said. "I'll tell ya. I sit and stare out the window and wait for spring."
Johnson will do nothing like that this winter. He will sell real estate. He will go flying—he paid $3,000 for lessons. He will answer questions at banquets about how he came to hit all those home runs. "The difference," he says now, "is in the two leagues. Over here in the National League they let you play. The game isn't overmanaged. It's fun to play over here, but it wasn't over there." And most of all during the winter Dave Johnson will study his figures, those diabolical columns of reality upon which a player's worth stands, and he will most surely agree with Brooks Robinson, who, before Johnson's latest clout, said, "Thirty-eight homers; why, that's good even in a telephone booth."