Davey Johnson functions in a way that seems to make him immune from things the rest of are not, and time is one of them. It drags everyone else, and it hovers around him. He marks his life by experiences, not hours, and the milestones that seem obvious to the people around him sneak up on him. He is too busy getting on with his life. Or fishing.
Fifteen years. It had been 15 years, before Thursday night, since Johnson managed a major league team to the playoffs. “Has it been that long?” Johnson said. “Don’t the Olympics count or something?” They do not, but chances are Johnson would find a way to be as happy as he is now if he had stayed in the Florida Collegiate Summer League. He planned to get his on-field fix there in 2011. Then Jim Riggleman resigned and Johnson emerged, skinnier and more wrinkled than before and every damn bit as sharp.
He would have been happy without this year, yes, but it has made him awfully happy. It was a perfect team for him, packed with youth and power, a few veterans and plenty of swagger. It was bursting with talent, the way he sees it, and he knew enough not to get in the way.
“I enjoy seeing a team get better,” Johnson said. “That’s the joy of managing. The wins and losses are important. It’s just seeing all the players do the things you know they’re capable of doing. When that happens, that makes me feel good, like I haven’t hindered their progress. But it is a good feeling to know we’re back in.”
Johnson took over the Nationals in June, 2011. He hadn’t managed in the majors since 2000, and he had not been to the playoffs since 1997, when he went wire-to-wire with the Orioles. He joined the Nationals after they played three games in Chicago, and he flew with them to Anaheim. “It was like a healing,” one Nationals coach said when they arrived, sitting in the Angels Stadium.
“There’s a lot of people you can point fingers to around here that had a lot to do with the changing of direction and everything that goes into that,” Jayson Werth said. “None maybe bigger than Davey. When I got here last year, this place was a mess, just upside-down. We had a lot of work to do. At times, it felt like we would never get to this moment.
“When Davey took over the middle of the season and kind of did things his own way, and went about business the way Davey goes about business, you could start to sense and see the ship was turning around. I give him a lot of credit. I couldn’t be happier. I’m really excited. I got to give a lot of thanks and praise to Davey.”
Johnson this season aimed not to have the Nats ride the wave that a baseball season presents, to stay on even keel, to not take the losses too hard and not to feel too good about the wins.
“You’re only as good as your leader, right?” closer Drew Storen said. “He’s been great. He doesn’t ride that roller coaster. There’s no highs, and there’s no lows. It’s just business as usual, every day. You got a guy that’s got your back, no matter what. There’s so many good things about him as a manager. It’s been nothing but a pleasure playing for him.”
Johnson wanted them to feel invincible. He said they had as much talent as his 1986 World Series team in New York. He said the rotation had better stuff than the Phillies. He said they could fire him if he didn’t make the playoffs.
“I said they could fire me if we don’t win our division,” Johnson corrected. “Maybe this counts partial. I’m still on the hot seat. But maybe I get some votes.”
What about manager of the year, Davey?
“That’s a bad sign,” Johnson said. “I’ve been there and done that. My vote is for [Dusty] Baker.”
On the day he won the award in 1997, Baltimore owner Peter Angelos fired him. He hasn’t managed a playoff team since then.
Thursday night, he was saying goodbye to his wife in his office. A few players dragged him into the clubhouse, where they had set up a Champagne toast. He lifted his flute of Korbel, an old man leading a group of young men. He walked down the hall into his news conference, sat down behind a table and grinned from ear-to-ear.
“What’s the big deal?” he said.