The first thing his former players usually mention about Davey Johnson is his ability to fortify his teams and his players with confidence. He has been known as a “player’s manager” since before that phrase became cliché. He lets his players play, basically, but not before he tells them how much better they are than the other team so often that they believe it, whether it’s true or not, and they start to play like it.
When Johnson took over the Baltimore Orioles in the spring of 1996, Boz wrote a 7,000-word profile of him for the Post magazine. Here is how it begins:
Cal Ripken played for Davey Johnson once, 10 years ago. Johnson had just managed the New York Mets to the 1986 World Series title. So he was designated to lead a major league barnstorming team on a tour of Japan.
“We had every star you could think of,” recalls Ripken, who had to share shortstop with Ozzie Smith. “At the first team meeting, Davey said, Let’s go over the signs . . . Aw, the hell with it. Let’s not have any signs.’ “
“And no take’ signals, either.”
“On 3-0, you’re all swinging.”
“Anytime you want to steal, then steal.”
Plenty of baseball officials, up to the commissioner’s office, were worried, Ripken says. “They figured we weren’t taking it seriously enough. They were wrong. We played together great . . . Davey had jacked our confidence sky-high . . . On the whole tour I think we lost one game.”
“I also told ‘em, I’m not smart enough to figure out which of you guys should start and who should sit on the bench,’ “ says Johnson. “ So half of you will play the first 4 1/2 innings one day. The next day, the other guys will play the first half of the game.’ “
Johnson’s absence of strategy was really psychology. He’d played two years in Japan at the end of his career, and he’d observed that the utterly regimented Japanese were intimidated by the arrogance and spontaneity of ex-big leaguers. So, given a team of true superstars, Johnson cranked up their egos and their creativity to the max. Boys, let’s blast these guys into the Pacific. Do it loose, do it laughing, do it with no rules. Do it in defiance of all the Japanese manners and mores. It’ll just blow their minds.
And it did.
* * *
Saturday night, about 20 minutes after the Nationals’ 3-0 loss to the White Sox, Jayson Werth sat in the folding chair facing his locker, still dressed in full uniform. He had just gone 0 for 3 with a walk and two strikeouts. He held his head in both hands and stared the floor. He stood up and slowly walked to the trainers room. Werth wraps his left knee and his right shoulder in ice after most every game.
His teammates and a stretch of 13 wins in 15 games have masked Werth’s struggles, but in June he has hit .167/.308/.310 with two home runs. He is hitting .228 this season and his OPS+ is 103 – a tick above league average. Against the White Sox, he struck out in eight of 14 at-bats. He has made six errors this season, second most in the National League. The last two have come when he tried to field the ball with his bare hand.
It is dangerous to guess a player’s mental state, but slumps in baseball, no matter the player or the circumstance, attack a player’s belief. Sunday afternoon, Sean Burnett was asked about Adam Dunn, his buddy and former teammate who had just wrapped a series in which he went 2 for 14 and struck out nine times. “It’s confidence,” Burnett said.
Dunn and Werth have both fallen prey to a common problem for big-ticket free agents, falling flat in their first months with a new team. “He left his comfort zone,” interim manager John McLaren said Sunday morning. Back in May, Werth admitted his new surroundings and the pressures that came with that had affected him. “I think I may have got caught up in trying to do too much,” Werth said at the time. “I think that’s probably human nature a little bit.”
Werth had seemingly overcome that. In the final three weeks of May, he hit .299 with an .894 OPS and four homers in 77 at-bats. A week later, Manager Jim Riggleman moved him to leadoff. It may have been a coincidence – Werth insisted he didn’t care where he hit – but Werth has not hit the same since.
Johnson’s Job No. 1 as Nationals manager, then, is to help extricate Werth from his funk, to ensure the Nationals’ highest-paid player begins playing like it. Werth was one of the 10 or so most valuable players in the National League last year. He’s at an age, 32, when the vast majority of players are coming out of their peak. But someone with his skill set does not drop so drastically.
Riggleman’s tack with Werth had been to avoid Werth, let him go about his business with minimal interaction. Johnson will let Werth play, but Werth’s slump will be a barometer for Johnson’s ability to bring the best out of his best talent.
The Nationals have surged in the standings without one of their presumed best bats adding much of anything. For the Nationals to seize the opportunity they’ve given themselves, that’ll have to change. Johnson can make that change.
Don’t worry about the contract, the new setting, the recent slump, Johnson might tell Werth. Just play. The hell with it.