Thursday, January 30, 2014
Happy Birthday, Davey Johnson
By David Schoenfield
All-Stars born on Jan. 30 -- Davey Johnson, Charley Neal, Brooks Lawrence, Walt Dropo and Mickey Harris. Also born on this day: 19th century star Tony Mullane, 1955 World Series hero Sandy Amoros and 1970s pinch-runner extraordinaire Matt Alexander.
Davey Johnson: Born 1943
You probably know about Davey Johnson the manager. Or maybe you don't, at least outside of his recent tenure with the Nationals, since before the Nationals hired him to replace Jim Riggleman during the 2011 season he hadn't managed in the majors since 2000. Part of that was Johnson's fault. When he managed the Orioles he got into several public spats with owner Peter Angelos. After making the playoffs in 1996 and 1997, Johnson faxed a demand to Angelos, asking for an extension or a buyout. Angelos accepted Johnson's resignation the day he was named Manager of the Year. Before that, he managed the Reds to first-place finishes in 1994 and 1995 ... and Marge Schott promptly fired him. So Johnson developed a reputation and after two years managing the Dodgers; he didn't get another job for 11 years.
Anyway, Johnson's record as a manager is close to the level of a Hall of Famer. He managed one of the most famous teams of all time, the 1986 Mets. He took four different teams to the playoffs, a feat matched only by Billy Martin. He was one of the first managers to use computers. His strength as a manager was a belief in young players -- best exemplified by his insistence on promoting Dwight Gooden from Class A to the majors in 1984 and that Bryce Harper was ready for the majors as a 19-year-old. He's 28th on the all-time wins list (19 of the managers ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame) and he has a higher career winning percentage than Bobby Cox, Joe Torre or Tony La Russa.
OK, Johnson the player. For some reason, the Hall of Fame seems to consider individuals only as players or managers, but not both. If Johnson's record as a manager gets him to the front door, should his playing record let him enter? I've always thought it was a reasonable argument.
Johnson played two years of baseball and basketball at Texas A&M before signing with the Orioles for $25,000, in the days before the draft. Originally a shortstop, he moved to second base in Triple-A and reached the majors at the end of the 1965. He was a rookie second baseman for the 1966 club that won the pennant and swept the Dodgers in the World Series. Jim Palmer, Wally Bunker and Dave McNally spun consecutive shutouts in the final three games, two of them 1-0 wins. The Orioles' farm system was spitting out good young players in those days like Lenny Dykstra used to spit out his chew on Johnson's '86 Mets. Palmer, Bunker and McNally were all 23 or younger. Five regulars in the lineup were 24 or younger.
With all that youth, it's not surprising that the Orioles built a dynasty that would last into the early '80s. They were built around defense and pitching. It took a couple of years for that '66 team to consolidate -- Palmer got hurt and missed almost two years and Bunker was already damaged goods. But the team acquired Mike Cuellar, replaced Hank Bauer as manager with Earl Weaver and won three straight pennants from 1969 to 1971 winning 109, 108 and 101 games. They twice got upset in the World Series, otherwise they'd be more fairly remembered as one of the greatest teams ever.
Johnson was a big part of their success. He was an All-Star in '68, '69 and '70 and won three Gold Glove Awards, drew some walks and usually hit around .280. With Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair and Johnson leading the way, it was one of the best defensive squads ever assembled.
Even then, Johnson was always thinking. He took classes at Trinity College in San Antonio and his SABR bio reports that in 1969 he fed various Baltimore lineups into a computer to determine the optimal order. I'm sure Weaver responded loved that. In 1972, Johnson had shoulder and back injuries and hit just .221. Bobby Grich was ready to take over, so the Orioles traded him after the season to the Braves.
Johnson responded with one of the greatest fluke home run seasons ever, hitting 43 -- his previous career high had been 18. Johnson credited Hank Aaron, but the balls must have been juiced in Atlanta that year as Johnson, Aaron and Darrell Evans became the first trio of teammates to hit 40 home runs. (The 1996 and 1997 Rockies later matched the feat.) The Braves hit 118 home runs at home that year, 88 on the road, and led the league in runs. Unfortately, Braves pitchers also led the league in runs and the Braves finished 76-85.
That what was about it for Johnson has an effective player. He'd made 30 errors in 1973, so he played a lot of first base in 1974. He dropped back to 16 home runs. In 1975, he played one game with the Braves and then signed with the Yomiuri Giants, becoming one of the first Americans to play in Japan. He played there two years before returning for two final seasons in the majors.
Johnson may not have always gotten along with his owners, but he was probably always smarter then they were. His long absence from the diamond seemed to have mellowed him during his two-plus years with the Nationals. He retired after the 2013 season, and is now 71 years old, a reminder of how long ago 1986 now seems.
I'm left pondering this: What if Stephen Strasburg had pitched in the 2012 playoffs? You know Johnson wanted him out there. If he has Strasburg on his team, maybe the Nationals win it all. And a second World Series title might have made Johnson a Hall of Famer.