Commentary

Davey Johnson: Nationals' pleasure

He's seen it all, done it all and won it all. No surprise he's winning again in D.C.

Originally Published: September 17, 2012
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

Davey JohnsonMitchell Layton/Getty ImagesIs this the look of a man who can win a title with the youngest team in baseball? You bet it is.

His is one of the great faces in baseball, as comfortable as a broken-in mitt. There are timelines on it dating back at least 50 years, crow's feet from 200,000 suns, wrinkles etched by the cost of victory and the acceptance of loss. The eyes belong to a 69-year-old maestro who has seen everything, but they twinkle like they did when he was a 19-year-old bonus baby seeing things for the first time. That flattened nose tells you he'll fight like hell, and the bright smile tells you he'll fight for you.

When the Nationals pulled that old glove down from the attic last year, people scratched their heads, wondering if the club had picked someone the game had passed by. As it turns out, they needn't have worried. Davey Johnson is right where he's always belonged, sitting on the bench of a dugout, managing a first-place club, bridging a generation gap and having the time of his Gumpian life.

[+] EnlargeDavey Johnson
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesEven after 16 years as a manager and 13 as a player, the wins are still worth celebrating for Davey Johnson.

As a player, he got the last hit off Sandy Koufax (1966), congratulated Hank Aaron at home plate after he broke Babe Ruth's career home run record ('74) and batted behind the man, Sadaharu Oh, who passed Aaron's record ('75-76). As a manager, he jumped for joy in the dugout when the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs ('86) and ran from the dugout in outrage when Jeffrey Maier turned Derek Jeter's fly out into a home run ('96).

Where was he when Washington general manager Mike Rizzo called his special advisor to ask him to replace Jim Riggleman, who quit after 75 games last year?

"I was on a fishing trip with John Havlicek on Martha's Vineyard," Johnson said.

It's not just that Johnson has been there, done that. He's been everywhere from Atlanta to Zuiderzee, and done everything from batboy for the old Washington Senators to skipper of the first baseball team to (likely) win anything in the capital since the Senators in 1933. Along the way, he had to pick up the poop that Schottzie left behind on the Riverfront Stadium turf, but that's another story.

"I'm a happy man," he said. "Happy to be involved in a game that I love, and lucky to be pretty good at what I do. Heck, I could've found a talent that wasn't so good for society, like robbing banks."

He's good at managing, all right. He's won with power teams, racehorse teams, old teams, young teams. He's won with lunatics in the clubhouse (Mets) and the owner's box (Marge Schott with the Reds, Peter Angelos with the Orioles).

"Oh, Marge was something," Johnson said. "I used to get these little notes from the St. Bernard before a game: 'Better pull this one out tonight -- Woofs and licks, Schottzie.' One night, she invited Sue and I up to her dining room for some wine -- screw-top Gallo, by the way. All of a sudden, the dog jumps on the table and starts licking the bowl of mayonnaise. Marge just says, 'Oh, that's OK,' and stirs the bowl up with a spoon as if nothing had happened."

This time around, Johnson loves working for the Nats' 86-year-old owner, Ted Lerner, alongside Rizzo -- "We're both second basemen, you know" -- and with the youngest team in baseball.

Despite his store of anecdotes, he is not a codger stuck in the past. In fact, the other day, Johnson mentioned on a radio show that 19-year-old Bryce Harper might be his favorite player … ever. (This is a guy who's managed five Hall of Famers -- six, counting Deion Sanders.) "He's a Pete Rose guy," he said about Harper on The Fan (106.7). "He's just a dandy. My guys love watching him play; and the umpires, and people around the league, they like to see it. This is old-time, hard-nosed baseball."

"That was very nice of him to say," Harper said. "He's been my only big league manager, so I can't tell you he's my favorite, but he's been perfect for me. I first met him when I was 14, and he came to speak at a showcase in St. Pete. You could just tell he loved the game. He brings a fire and a passion to the game that I really respect."

He also brings a résumé that the players respect.

[+] EnlargeIan Desmond, Davey Johnson
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesIan Desmond points to Johnson for helping him to his best year yet.

"I've Googled him," said shortstop Ian Desmond. "In 1973, he hit 43 homers, three more than his teammate, Hank Aaron."

A lot of pieces go into the making of a good manager, just as they do a baseball glove. For one thing, you have to be indefatigable; and if there are concerns that a 69-year-old body that has undergone life-saving heart and stomach surgeries might not be up to the task, Johnson alleviates them on a daily basis.

Take Sept. 11, the second day of the Nats' swing through New York to play the Mets last week. Early in the morning, Johnson and his wife Sue went down to the financial district to participate in Cantor Fitzgerald's Day For Charity -- Davey, along with such celebrities as Eli Manning and Mark Sanchez, manned the phones to trade bonds, with the profits going to Homes For Heroes. Then it was back to Citi Field by 3 p.m. to prepare for a game against 18-time winner R.A. Dickey that would last three-plus hours and push his bedtime into Sept. 12.

There's the patience piece, and Johnson is right up there with Job. Said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who is having one of the best seasons of his nine-year career (30 homers, 94 RBIs): "He is a true player's manager. He puts us in a position to succeed, and there's something about his wisdom and patience that makes us believe in ourselves."

His lineup for that 9/11 game is a good example. Harper had gone for 0-for-10 in three games against Dickey this season, and another manager might have chosen to give the kid the night off. But Johnson put him in his usual second spot in the order, telling reporters, "He swings hard enough -- maybe he'll find the ball with one of them." Harper responded with three hits off Dickey and four for the night to raise his average to .265. That made him the first teen with a four-hit game since Andruw Jones in 1996.

[+] EnlargeDavey Johnson
Bruce Bennet/Getty ImagesAs Hank Aaron's teammate in the '70s, he saw his fair share of big moments, including Aaron's record-breaking home run.

Johnson also carries a certain perspective that comes down to what he recently told Paul White of USA Today: "I manage the way I live: today with an eye on tomorrow." That comes in handy when, say, Stephen Strasburg has to be shut down. While the fans and the media are second-guessing the Nats for putting a halt to the phenom's season on the eve of the playoffs, Johnson and Rizzo have been steadfast and of one mind in their decision. Indeed, the kid's velocity and ERA had been going in the wrong direction in his last few starts, and they are not willing to jeopardize his career for the short-term gratification of the fans. Besides, John Lannan, the pitcher who took Strasburg's spot in the rotation on Sept. 12, got the win in a 2-0 victory over the Mets.

Johnson's eye for today is still as sharp as ever. "He doesn't miss a thing," said Desmond, who has come into his own (23 HRs, .847 OPS) under Johnson. "If I go oh-for-two or oh-for-three, I'll wander over to him in the dugout and ask him, 'What do you see, skip?' Even though he's got a game to manage, he'll still give me just the right batting tip."

No one has ever questioned Johnson's intelligence -- at least since his playing days in Baltimore, where he won two World Series rings. A math major in college, he was a numbers and computer geek long before sabermetrics, a disciple of Earnshaw Cook, the author of the seminal "Percentage Baseball." When he was a young second baseman for the Orioles, he would tell pitchers like Jim Palmer and Dave McNally that they were in an "unfavorable chance deviation," and as such, they were better off throwing for the heart of the plate rather than the corners because the ball would hit the corner anyway. Which is how he earned the name "Dum Dum." Similarly, he would offer Earl Weaver printouts entitled "Optimize the Orioles Lineup," proving that Johnson should bat fourth, and "Earl would throw them in the garbage."

Howie Rose, the Mets' radio play-by-play man, worked with Johnson closely when Davey was managing at Shea, and Rose said, "[Johnson] was my baseball professor. Every day we would do a pregame show, and I would pick his brain. I learned so much about the game from those sessions that I can actually say I wouldn't be where I am today without his help."

Rizzo thinks of Johnson as his own mentor. "I've been in the game 30 years," said the GM, "and he's taught me so much. Just as a for instance, Davey has what we call an A/B bullpen. Instead of being locked into one guy as your closer, or your seventh- or eighth-inning guy, he makes sure he has a B guy who can step into that role in case the A guy can't go. He combines new-school, out-of-the-box thinking with old-school values."

[+] EnlargeDavey Johnson
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyJohnson's presence for the O's in Game 1 of the '96 ALCS ended prematurely when he protested the Jeffrey Maier play a little too vociferously.

It's a long season, so it also helps to have a manager who's enthusiastic. When a Nats player goes deep, Johnson will often greet him with "Wack-o!" a word that has become something of a rallying cry for the club. It all started when Johnson was demonstrating to the players how to turn on a pitch -- Wack-o! -- because he thought they had been trying to go the other way too much.

When asked the biggest difference between managing in 2012 and managing in his previous stints, Johnson said, "Social media. Word gets out so quickly now that you don't have a chance to properly inform a player of a decision. You don't want him hearing of a move before he hears it from you."

As for the regular media, Johnson has always been adept at handling us. It's another prerequisite for the modern manager -- ask the Red Sox. Johnson is honest and sociable and quotable. And it doesn't take much to get him going on a long story. The other day, he was shown a stat sheet from his very first minor league team, the 1962 Stockton Ports of the California League, which at the time was Class C. He had joined them in June of that year after one year at Texas A&M. "I signed for $25,000, which I used to buy a waterfront lot, a new car and a new set of Haig golf clubs -- I was set for life at 19," he said. "Hey, is Bill St. Peter on that sheet? He is. OK, here's a story.

"My girlfriend came in from Houston to stay with me. When she shows up, she tells me she wants to get engaged, so I take one of my roommates, Darold Knowles, to a jewelry store because his father was a jeweler. Turned out Darold didn't know anything about jewels -- he held that eyeglass upside down. Anyway, I buy a ring for $100. But then I find out that Bill St. Peter, one of our pitchers, had been hitting on her down by the pool. Now I have to fight him, he's trying to steal my fiancée, right? Before we square off, though, Bill says, 'Davey, I was only trying to see if she really loved you.' And I go, 'Oh.' Well, she took the bus back to Houston, broke up with me and I never got the ring back."

Johnson didn't fight then, but he's not one to back down. He's certainly not afraid to challenge authority. "One of the very first shows I did with him in '87," Howie Rose said, "he wasn't happy about the way Frank Cashen, the general manager, had dealt with an injury to pitcher Roger McDowell. So right there, he says, 'And Frank Cashen did a dumb thing today.' At the end of the interview, I ask him if he wants to take it back, and he says, 'Hell, no, I said it for a f------ reason.'"

[+] EnlargeDavey Johnson, Mike Rizzo
G Fiume/Getty ImagesJohnson worked for Marge Schott and Peter Angelos. He can surely handle one little shouting match with Nats GM Mike Rizzo.

That combativeness would cost him in New York (fired after 42 games in '90), Cincinnati (Schott told him in the middle of the '95 season, when the Reds won the NL Central title, that he wouldn't be coming back), Baltimore (Angelos fired him on the day he won the '97 AL Manager of the Year award) and Los Angeles (fired by GM Kevin Malone, with whom he did not get along, after finishing second in 2000). Nationals bullpen coach Jim Lett, who was the Reds' minor league field coordinator when Johnson was the major league manager in Cincinnati, says, "Davey's mellowed … a little."

Earlier this season, he got Rays pitcher Joel Peralta ejected for having too much pine tar on his glove and called manager Joe Maddon "a weird wuss." On Aug. 23, after a fourth consecutive Nationals loss, reporters overheard Johnson shouting on the phone at Rizzo, "Why don't you come down here and manage this team!" Said Rizzo, "Forgotten right away. Just two honest guys talking to one another after being swept."

The Nats have been in first place of the NL East since May 22, and despite being swept by the second-place Braves over the weekend, their lead is at five-and-a-half games games and their magic number for clinching the division, which Johnson has begun to watch, is down to 11. Even without Strasburg, their rotation is set up well for the postseason with 19-game winner Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. The bullpen is deep, their lineup is strong and their manager, well, he's been there and done that -- only one living manager with at least 1,000 wins has a better winning percentage than Johnson, and that's his old skipper, Earl Weaver. Johnson doesn't really want to think about it, but this is the season that might put him in the company of his contemporaries who are already in the Hall of Fame, namely Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams, Tommy Lasorda and Whitey Herzog.

"I've worked with some great managers," said Rick Eckstein, the Nationals' batting coach. "Tom Kelly, Tony LaRussa. But Davey is truly the best. He knows pitching, he knows hitting, he knows fielding, he manages a game brilliantly and a season wisely. Even after 50 years, he's got so much to offer."

[+] EnlargeDavey Johnson
AP Photo/Paul BenoitIn '86 with the Mets, Johnson brought a World Series title to New York.

If Eckstein, the older brother of infielder Dave, sounds effusive in his praise, well, he and Johnson have shared a lot over the past decade. He was with Johnson in the wilderness of international baseball, first when Davey managed the Dutch national team in 2003 and later the U.S. national team (2005 and 2008). They've both seen the inside of an operating room: Johnson had to have five stomach surgeries after a ruptured appendix went undiagnosed in 2004, and a heart operation in early 2011, while Eckstein donated a kidney to his other brother Ken. He's known the pain Johnson suffered, first when his 32-year-old daughter, surfing champion Andrea Lyn Johnson, died in 2005 from complications during her treatment for schizophrenia, and then last year, when his blind and deaf stepson Jake succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 34.

"You know what really makes Davey a great manager?" Eckstein asked. "It's that he cares. He cares about his players, about his coaches, about baseball, about people."

In the dugout where he belongs, before the last game in New York last week, Johnson repeated a question: "What do I see when I look in the mirror? First of all, I'm shocked. Some part of me still thinks I'm 19. How did I get to be so old? But I see a happy man. Not happy like when we won the World Series in 1966 -- that was all about me. Happy like I was in '86, when we brought joy to a city. It's much better when you share it."

Left unsaid was the thought that he could do the same for Washington in 2012. "Have to go do my job now," he said, excusing himself. But just as he hit the top step, he turned around.

"One more story," he said. "Offseason after 1987, I think. Whitey Herzog, Mel Stottlemyre and I had gone in on this fish camp near Cape Canaveral. One morning, Whitey and I are in a boat, being filmed for an outdoor show, when all of a sudden, one of those huge rockets takes off from the Cape. Whitey and I look at it, and he says, 'You know, come July or August, a lot of people are gonna wish we were on that son of a b----.'

"Gotta go."

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer