“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.” – Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story”
Here’s what seems beyond dispute:
1. Tim Johnson was born on July 22. I’ve been thinking about that date lately because it’s my wife’s due date. It’s close enough that the baby could come any day. Babies come out all slippery, so I’ve heard. I’ve built my life for over four decades on maybes, and now there will be this slippery, vulnerable annihilator of maybes, an unavoidable fact. I feel less than entirely ready. I have a pair of shaky hands and a lot of bullshit stories.
2. Tim Johnson was sure-handed, able to play any position in the infield. Despite a relatively weak bat (lifetime batting average of .223 with 0 home runs), he stuck around in the majors for seven seasons. Once his major league career ended, he continued on in baseball as a scout, coach, and manager. This phase of his career peaked in 1998, when he led the Toronto Blue Jays to an 88-74 record in his first season as a big league manager.
3. Tim Johnson was born in 1949. American men born that year or in the adjacent years would come to be defined, in one way or another, by the Vietnam War. This is ironic, given that the baby boom they were a part of has been attributed to post-war prosperity, a feeling that the days of war and suffering were over, and better days lay ahead. I guess we’re never very far away from war. I was born in 1968, right in the middle of the Vietnam War, but I reached eighteen long after that war was over, and the draft was over, and America wasn’t shipping thousands of boys anywhere to shoot at people and get shot. Tim Johnson wasn’t so lucky, but right around when he reached draft age he was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though some players from the Cardboard Gods era fought in Vietnam, teams seemed in most cases to be able to keep their players who were drafted into the military stateside, in reserve duty, so that the players could continue climbing up through the system. This is what seems to have happened with Tim Johnson, who served as a reserve in the Marine Corps, and who many years later said, “Friends of mine were going to Vietnam when I was going to spring training. While they were off fighting and getting killed, I was playing baseball. I’ve dealt with the guilt for 30 years.”
4. Tim Johnson was fired by the Toronto Blue Jays after his lone year at the helm. He admitted that during his stint as manager he had told his players war stories, casting himself in these stories as a hardened Vietnam vet. It’s not a crime to do what he did, but apparently at least some of his players felt as if they had been duped. It seems there were morals to Johnson’s stories. He told them to inspire and instruct. After being fired, Tim Johnson continued his life in baseball, the only life he’s known. He managed in Mexico and in the minors. He’s currently the manager of the Lake County Fielders, a Northern League team.
5. In this 1978 card, Tim Johnson is backed by a blue sky I am tempted to modify with the word “pure.” This past weekend, one of my last in my life of maybes, I went running in the park over by the lake, and at the end of the run I kicked off my shoes and shirt and went for a swim. I floated on my back and looked up into the blue. I felt pretty good. Everything is in question.