NEW YORK — It was an exchange and introduction never before experienced by these Nationals: Bryce Harper, in a dapper black tuxedo and slickly combed hair, walking to the microphone before hundreds at the New York Baseball Writers’ Association Dinner on Saturday night at the New York Hilton to accept his National League Rookie of the Year plaque. His presenter, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, also in a black tuxedo and minutes removed from accepting his own award, the National League Manager of the Year Award, was waiting to greet him.
Months ago, Johnson and Harper won their respective awards, further validation of the Nationals historic and magical 2012 season. They were here Saturday to receive them, with each of their families and General Manager Mike Rizzo in attendance. Two of the biggest reasons for the Nationals rise stood in front of many of baseball’s most important people to see.
“Well, I’m not really going to say anything good about him,” said Johnson, as he began his introduction of Harper, the young position player to ever claim the award. “His head is too big already. Nah, I’m just kidding.”
Harper, sandwiched between Giants catcher Buster Posey and Mets Manager Terry Collins at the guest-of-honor table on the stage at the front of the ballroom, hung his head and laughed.
At the microphone, with the large wooden and metal plaque in his hands and in front of his chest, Harper was appreciative and subdued. On the field, the 20-year-old plays with brash authority, diving after fly balls, smashing balls and bats and running ferociously on the basepaths. Harper shared laughs with Posey and Rays pitcher David Price as they ate a dinner of rigatoni, filet mignon, lasagna and spinach. He was at ease signing autographs for children from a hospital who attended as guests, and as other children from across the room flocked around him.
But before a room filled with some of the sport’s best players and team executives and some fans who bought tickets, Harper looked almost nervous.
“I don’t know what to say besides thank you to the Nationals and Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson and the Lerners for giving me the opportunity to play professional baseball,” he said. “It was always my dream. It was a dream come true to get to that level.
“And I was able to play against Chipper Jones and what a great person to be able to look at see how the game was played the right way. I was so lucky and humbled this whole year with a great team and great players. I owe it all to my family. My family is a huge in my whole life, especially now. I just want to say thank you for the writers for voting and it’s just a great opportunity to be up here. Thank you.”
With his usual style and jest, Johnson, 69, stood at the dais and poked fun at himself and Earl Weaver, his iconic manager in Baltimore who passed away on Friday. But he began with his division rivals.
“I want to thank Terry for that great introduction but more importantly I want to thank you for trading R.A. Dickey out of the National League East,” said Johnson, looking quickly to his left at Dickey, who was in attendance to receive his NL Cy Young Award and the “Toast of the Town” Award. “And I want to thank Chipper [Jones] for retiring.” Jones was seated just to Johnson’s right, on the stage to “Long and Meritorious Service” Award.
Johnson, who returned Thursday from his vacation touring Africa with his wife, credited the work of his young players and the Nationals organization, the real reason, he said, he won the second managerial award of his 16-year major league managing career. And he invoked the words of Weaver, who managed him from 1968 to 1972 in Baltimore.
“Earl Weaver used to say, ‘Players win games, managers lose them,’” Johnson said. “I always agreed with that. Weaver was a character. I’m going to really miss him…
“He as always confident no matter what the situation was. He knew we were going to win. Although, it did help that we always had the best pitching staff and the best fielders and best hitters in the league. But he was fun to play for. A great competitor and I’m going to really miss him.”
Johnson concluded his near-three minute speech with the same self-ridiculing joke he has often used to describe the award.
”It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve been in this game, this profession now. I guess most of you all know I’m the oldest manager in baseball. You can tell that by looking at me. But I’ve been in it for 51 years this year.”
The crowd applauded.
“And what’s really amazing about this is that as a player I was cut and traded twice. I was sold once. Released twice. And I couldn’t stick anywhere very long and I guess they got tired of me. And then I went into my managing career, the one league folded, the first one I managed. And then I got fired four times.”
Then Johnson, with the flair of an experienced comedian, raised his voice slightly to deliver his punch line, his boss seated at Table 19 in front of him.
“And so this is my last year, Mr. Rizzo. I promise you, I’m not going to give you a chance to fire me.”