Originally published in Washington Post Magazine, March 31, 1996

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.’ “

Smiles.

“And no take’ signals, either.”

Chuckles.

“On 3-0, you’re all swinging.”

Laughter.

“Anytime you want to steal, then steal.”

Cheers.

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.

Davey Johnson is everything the Baltimore Orioles have not had in a manager in the 1990s. Thank God. The days of paralyzing anxiety and terminal niceness are over at last. Johnson is as cocky as Johnny Oates was humble; he’s as salty and up to speed as Phil Regan was grandfatherly and out to lunch.

In the Orioles clubhouse this spring, the rock-and-roll is turned up loud. The training table includes chocolate doughnuts. Last season, Johnson’s Reds often had a pregame feast of Popeye’s fried chicken with beans and rice. But they won their division, didn’t they? Card games and cellular phones are okay, too. Dress code? Yeah, sure, it would be a good idea to be dressed. Johnson’s view of managing Deion Sanders? “Loved him.” In February, the Birds worked hard and fast, then skedaddled to the golf course and beach.

Life’s too short for Davey Johnson to waste time running some dang six-hour workout in February just to prove he can punch a time clock. He might want to fly his plane; he’s a licensed pilot. He might want to scuba dive; he’s a licensed instructor. He might want to sell some Florida real estate; he has his license for that, too, and made his first million -- long ago -- from land deals, not baseball. He might want to check out a new computer; he has a degree in mathematics from Trinity University in Texas and knows Laplace transformations as well as earned run averages. This guy attended Johns Hopkins in the off-season . . . well . . . just to learn. Why, Davey might even want to play golf; a couple of years ago, his handicap got to plus three, which means his average score was three under par. PGA Senior Tour material? Maybe.

Some people say that Davey Johnson has too many outside interests. Some say he runs a loose ship. Some say that, stressed out by the Mets’ front office madhouse in the late ‘80s, he used to drink a little too hard. Some say he’s stubborn and thinks he knows more than anybody else. Some say all of that combined is why -- for three years, from ‘90 to ‘93 -- nobody in baseball would hire him. Even though he had a better career record than any active manager.

Other people say the Orioles should get down on their knees and give thanks that their former second baseman -- who made four all-star teams and played on four pennant winners -- has come back to help the franchise to another Series.

The Orioles espouse this latter view. Of course, the season hasn’t started yet. That helps. Still, Johnson has been a huge hit with his new team -- partly because he’s such a blessed contrast to his predecessors.

Oates and Regan were responsible, adult organization men. Johnson is a leader. His former players call him “a players’ manager” -- a high compliment. If forced to it, Davey will takes his players’ side against the owner, the front office, fans, media, umpires, the other team -- hell, the whole world.

For example, last season in Cincinnati, Johnson asked Reds owner Marge Schott if he could call up minor-league coach John Stearns to his big-league staff in mid-season. She said, “No.” Might cost a penny. So Johnson gave Stearns a uniform with no name on the back. Stearns got months of experience in the bigs. Reds players and reporters kept the secret. Schott never noticed.

Stearns is an Orioles coach now. Maybe someday he’ll be a manager. You can be sure that he’ll retell that story. Any manager who’ll stick his neck out for the lowest man in the organization is going to get respect. In return, Johnson expects his players to spit fire on the field; if they don’t, he’ll be in their face. As Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks says, “There was never an Oriole player who was more intense. And he played a little bit dirty, too.”

Don’t forget insubordinate. Davey is famous for that. He’s a pup out of Philip Marlowe, Jim Rockford and Travis McGee. As a young player, Johnson gave Earl Weaver computer printouts to show the Li’l Genius how he could improve his managing. Once, when Leo Durocher gave Johnson some lip by the batting cage, Davey shot back, “Leo, you’re washed up. You won’t even be in baseball next year.” Naturally, Durocher had Johnson drilled with a fastball that night. The resultant shoulder injury, Johnson still believes, cost him his only shot at a home run title. He lost by one dinger. Still, he’d never take the words back, even now. After all, Durocher insulted him first. Says Johnson, “I figure, let ‘em do whatever they want. I’ll do what I want.”

As might be expected, the contrast between Regan’s coaching staff and Johnson’s is a wonder to behold. Phil had soft-spoken students of the game -- and nothing else. In Florida this spring it looked as though Johnson had assembled every ex-Oriole who ever frightened a state trooper.

Could that be -- why, yes, it is -- coach Moe Drabowsky, who once picked up the bullpen phone, dialed up the opposing bullpen and ordered a relief pitcher to warm up immediately. Next to him sits coach Ross Grimsley, who cheated so flagrantly that Billy Martin once said you’d need a dipstick to measure all the grease in Grimsley’s hair. The new pitching coach is Pat Dobson, the product of a rougher era when amphetamines were left in a clubhouse cereal bowl; Jim Palmer remembers Dobson’s refrain: “I was never outpitched, just outgreenied.” As for Andy Etchebarren, his face could have been the original model for the Incredible Hulk’s.

Last season, in victory or defeat, you could hear a pin drop in the Orioles’ clubhouse. A library was louder. You could have measured the club’s joy with a teaspoon and its suffering with an eye dropper. The record (71-73) matched the mood. Call ‘em the Flatliners.

Where there’s no exceptional talent, who cares if there isn’t exceptional commitment? Decent people make a passable effort and get serviceable results; the world keeps turning. But watching a gifted team with a $43 million payroll sleepwalk for weeks at a time is a disgusting sight. In 1995, the Orioles even nauseated themselves.

“We had real nice guys last season . . . But it was like a morgue. In the clubhouse, out of the clubhouse, on the field,” says reliever Jesse Orosco, who was Johnson’s closer on the ‘86 Mets. “Everybody knows that you can’t throw strikes while you’re giggling, or hit with a mask on your face. But camaraderie, pranks, having fun, becoming friends -- it’s really important . . . We had that with the Mets when Davey was there and we had it with the Dodgers the years that we won.”

The Orioles had it, too, in the Earl Weaver era, when characters like Stan the Man Unusual, Brother Lo and the Demper (Don Stanhouse, John Lowenstein and Rick Dempsey) were considered crucial to chemistry. Maybe that’s why the ‘96 Orioles brought back Billy Ripken.

Someone greets Billy by the batting cage, saying, “It’s nice to hear your foul mouth around here again.”

“Thank you,” he replies, pleased to be appreciated.

“We’ve had plenty of problems around here, but none of ‘em was bigger than self-confidence . . . Sometimes, there’s this much difference between believing in yourself and disbelieving,” says catcher Chris Hoiles, holding his fingers an inch apart. “Last season, our manager was a rookie and it showed. Deep down inside, it didn’t seem like he really had confidence in himself or in us. I felt sorry for Phil. He came in blind and never caught up.

“Johnson’s just the guy we’re looking for,” Hoiles continues. “The difference is night and day. Davey’s like Cal -- seen and done everything. He just knows. With him, you feel like, Even if it’s wrong, it’s not wrong.’ He had a good reason. And he’s not afraid to answer questions.”

Where Regan filled the team with rookies who’d played for him in the minors or winter ball, Johnson has purged the kiddies. “This is an all veteran team. You’ve got guys yellin’ and screamin’ in here now,” says Hoiles. “We have no excuses not to win . . . We shouldn’t be over our heads in any situation . . .

“Davey has created a happy-go-lucky feeling. It’s like, Give 110 percent and leave the rest to me.’”

Johnson has had three major traumas in his baseball life: getting beaned as a minor-leaguer, getting traded by the Orioles and getting fired by the Mets. Each has defined him while also revealing him. Each time, so far, he’s fought back to the top.

Ballplayers talk about beanball injuries with a kind of grisly awe. Those who saw Johnson get it, back in 1963, have never forgotten it.

“My first memory of Davey is in Elmira in AA,” says Baltimore General Manager Pat Gillick, who was then a bush league Orioles pitcher. “He really got gonged good. It was bad. I never saw a guy who wanted to get back in the fire that fast. It really spoke to the competitor in him.”

Johnson hasn’t forgotten anything about that evening. The game was in Binghamton, N.Y. The sun was setting. The pitcher was a Kansas City farmhand with a big curve and a fastball in the low 90s. Earl Weaver was the Elmira manager and Johnson was his hot star, hitting .330 with 13 homers in 60 games. The Binghamton manager was also the team’s catcher. And Johnson had been wearing his pitchers out. Johnson should have known what was coming. But he was only 20.

“I missed two curveballs to fall in a hole,” he recalls. “I thought he’d throw another one and I remember telling myself, Don’t budge, Davey, and you’ll just kill it.’ “

Instead, Johnson never saw the fastball until it was a foot from his nose. “I saw it here,” he says, holding his hand in front of his face. “I knew I was going to eat it. Broke my nose and a couple of teeth. The ball went all the way back over the pitcher’s head. Somebody on the bench yelled, Run.’ They thought it must have hit my bat from the sound and where the ball went.

“Unfortunately, I never passed out. At the hospital, the nurse looked at me -- my nose spread all over my face -- and said, Where did it hit you?’ “

The next day, after morning surgery, Johnson was back in the dugout, his nose full of silver stuffing and his brain full of codeine to kill the pain. In the late innings, with the bases loaded, Johnson told Weaver, “I’m ready to play.”

Weaver, always old school, thought the best time to get back on a bucking horse was immediately. The pitcher was a junkballer named Grilli. “He threw me three big slow curves and I swung at ‘em after they were already in the catcher’s glove,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know that the pain pills had slowed down my reflexes. All I remember that night was crying. I thought that was my career. Now I can’t even hit a slow curve with the bases loaded.’ I’d be the guy they pointed out who’d lost his nerve after getting hit in the head.”

The next day, informed that the codeine had probably caused his problem, he begged Weaver to let him back into the lineup, though he was still a gruesome sight. And he began to hit again. But for a year and a half, “I could be walking down the street and see a ball coming at my face. I’d throw up my hands and dive out of the way.”

If he was with teammates when he had his flashbacks, Johnson would just grin and say, “I had to dodge that thing. Didn’t you see it?”

Eventually the nightmares disappeared. And the rest, as they say, is history: 13 years in the big leagues, four all-star teams, three gold gloves and, hard as it is to believe, a tie with Rogers Hornsby for the most home runs ever hit in a season as a second baseman.

Baseball is a long road, constantly doubling back on itself. Johnson always wondered, and never knew, if that veteran manager-catcher had called for a beanball. But he never forgot. And he always had his suspicions.

The Binghamton catcher was John McNamara, whose place in history will be as the manager of the 1986 Red Sox. They, of course, suffered perhaps the most devasting World Series loss of them all -- at the hands of Johnson’s Mets.

Often, we don’t truly know where we got the qualities that most define us. Johnson does. He’s his father’s son.

“My father was a tough Swede. He had pneumonia at an early age and weighed about 90 pounds. But he took that famous Charles Atlas course,” says Johnson. “I remember him doing chin-ups with one arm.

“He worked his way through college catching crabs and, later, became a tax assessor. In your formative years, you learn the basic things that carry you through. For me, what I learned from my parents is that anything’s possible. If you want something, you can get it. By the time I was 9 years old, I had a paper route, sold potholders that I made and had a root beer stand after school.”

That’s a nice riff, Davey. But glib, right? Is anything really possible?

“My father was in the Army tank command in North Africa in World War II,” says Johnson, who was an infant at the time. “He was captured by the Germans. It took him a long time to talk about it, but he finally did. Before he was captured, he knew he’d be strip-searched. So he took out his Army knife.”

Johnson holds his fingers about six inches apart to indicate the length of the knife. He’s walking down the left field foul line in a pristine little Florida grapefruit league park as he speaks. It’s the most beautiful spring afternoon that God ever made. “My father stuck the knife up his ass,” says Johnson. “After they put the prisoners on a train -- it was a famous train, they made a movie about it, I think, prisoners in some cars and {looted} Italian paintings in other ones -- my father cut himself loose and escaped.

“He lived in Italy for five months before they caught him again.”

Did he ever say anything else about those times?

“Well,” says Johnson, “he couldn’t go into a dentist’s office. He said it reminded him of how the Germans pulled out prisoners’ teeth without anesthetic. I’m not too good in the dentist’s chair, either.”

Not surprisingly, the level of courage required in baseball has never really seemed that high to Johnson.

His father’s determination was an example to him, Johnson says, but he didn’t get a lot of strokes. “My mother was the caring one. I knew how my dad felt. He was busting with pride when he watched me. He just couldn’t express it. With him, gruff was affection and a whack on the rear end was a sign of love.”

During his career, Johnson has sometimes seemed almost incomprehensibly stubborn to his employers. Less so with the years. But the trait is still there. It’s in his genes. “My dad always smoked and he got cancer {in 1984}. The doctors told him how many more years he might live with chemotherapy. But he had to breathe through an oxygen tube.

“He took the oxygen out,” says Johnson. “If he couldn’t live and breathe on his own, he didn’t want to live at all.”

The Orioles might want to remember that while Davey Johnson is funny and smart and friendly -- a player’s manager, in fact -- it might not be wise to read a soft center into those chocolate doughnuts.

The Orioles could have hired Johnson a year earlier, and might have saved their 1995 season. But they were scared off by his reputation. Regan was a pussycat. With Johnson, you never know what you’ll get. Sometimes he’ll even tell the bare-faced dead-flat God’s-honest truth.

To this day, Johnson doesn’t quite understand why some in baseball view him as a 53-year-old potential problem child. Which is kind of neat, because obliviousness on that scale is something you don’t run into every day. Perhaps Davey should listen to his own anecdotes. For example, My Life With Earl.

“Weaver would never listen to me,” says Johnson, who wasn’t shy with his advice and loved to beat Earl at gin to prove who was smarter. “In ‘72, he played Booger {Powell} and Brooks {Robinson} every day. But nobody else ever knew when they’d be in the lineup. One day I said, too vocally, Bleep, it’s like coming to the park and opening up a box of Crackerjacks. You never know what the bleep you’re gonna get.’ A newspaper man picked it up.

“Next day, we had a closed-door meeting. Earl talked for about 15 minutes. He just said, You bleeps’ -- and he just looked at me. He said, You got one thing to do’ -- he walked around the room, just looking at me the whole bleepin’ time -- Come to the ballpark ready to bleepin’ play, that’s all I ask you to do. Now just come prepared to bleepin’ play. Every bleepin’ day.’ And this went on for bleepin’ 15 minutes and he never looked at anybody but me.”

Everything about Johnson’s exodus from Baltimore was pure complex Davey. He seriously injured his left shoulder in ‘71 by trying to bowl over Red Sox catcher Duane Josephson, not once, but twice, on consecutive trips around the bases.

“Nobody was tougher than Davey. He never hit a single that he didn’t think he was going to stretch into a double until the defense forced him to go back to first base,” recalls Hendricks. “On the bench we’d say, Oh, no, there he goes again.’ But he’d dive in headfirst and beat the tag.”

What happened if you tried the same trick against Johnson when he was playing second base? “If he knew you liked to come in headfirst,” Hendricks says, “he’d drop his knee down in front of the bag.” Be out or risk a concussion.

After his shoulder injury, Johnson’s average fell radically from his usual .280 with extra-base power. After a winter of rehabilitation, his arm still collapsed every time he tried to extend it fully. “I’d tell Earl, I can’t do this. I’m trying, but I can’t. I’m hurt . . . Play [Mark] Belanger. Play [Bobby] Grich. Maybe I’ll heal up,’ “ says Johnson. “But Earl’d say, No, you’re not hurt. I need you. And you hit this guy good.’ “

“Earl needed Davey’s brains to run the infield,” says Hendricks. “He didn’t trust any of the young kids.”

Still and all, when you’ve got a sassy mouth, a .221 batting average, a bum shoulder and you’re about to turn 30, you’re gone.

“They traded me for Earl Williams,” says Johnson. His face beams with delight. Of all the players Weaver ever managed, only one drove him so crazy, made him so mad that he still cussed him 15 years later. Yes, Earl Williams.

You put a curse on the trade, Davey?

“Yup,” he says, laughing.

To make matters more embarrassing, Johnson’s new team, the Braves, immediately found out that his injury had been misdiagnosed. A simple isometric exercise restored what is called a “subluxed” shoulder. Johnson, fiercely determined to vindicate himself, exacted his revenge. Always a plate crowder who loved to hit the inside fastball, Johnson moved almost completely on top of the plate and changed himself into a power pull hitter. He dared the league to throw at him.

“After I hit about my 30th homer,” he says, “they started putting ‘em up on that Fan-O-Gram scoreboard in Memorial Stadium. Johnson just hit his 40th.’ That used to piss everybody off.” Which didn’t bother Davey a lot. You play every day for four pennant winners. Then you have one bad season because you’re playing with an arm you can’t lift over your head. And they quit on you? Serves ‘em right.

Johnson keeps score. Not bitterly, like Billy Martin. But he grew up in Texas, still has a twang, and, like the song says, he knows who done him wrong. For instance, the Mets. You may, perhaps, have noticed that the Mets have gone to hell since the day they fired Johnson in 1990.

The year before Johnson arrived, the Mets were 68-94. Under him, they ripped off 90, 98, 108, 92, 100 and 87 wins in his six full seasons. Since then, straight into the dumpster. Probably just a coincidence.

How could a team fire a manager with such a record, especially one who’d also rung up three minor-league titles in three managerial seasons? Well, that was part of the magic of Davey back in the ‘80s. Oh, he’s a semi-changed man now. But back then, even he describes himself as “maniacal.” The National League hated the Mets for their undisguised arrogance. Johnson loved it. He’d call for stolen bases when he was five runs ahead, and he didn’t care whether you liked it or not.

When Johnson and his arch rival, Whitey Herzog of the Cardinals, locked horns, it was the NL equivalent of Earl against Billy. One ballpark wasn’t big enough for the both of ‘em. They dreamed about dueling each other.

“I’d tell [Mets General Manager] Frank Cashen, I need a right-handed bat at second base to platoon with [Wally] Backman ‘cause he can’t hit his way out of a paper bag. I don’t want to fall prey to Herzog bringing in a left-hander to face Backman, who’ll hit a weak right-handed ground ball to short. Get me Tim Teufel, who’s liable to take him out of the yard. Then when Whitey goes check, I go mate.’ “

Back in those honeymoon days, when Johnson asked for a Teufel, he got him. But marriages sour. Johnson’s own first marriage ended during those New York days. And Johnson’s relations with the increasingly complex Mets front office -- which ended up with three quasi-general managers vying for authority -- went straight downhill, too.

In hindsight, the Mets were probably in the wrong. But Davey, in his blunt way, definitely lit the fuse to the dynamite. And he was sitting on it at the time.

After the 1986 season, the Mets’ heads were as big as the Manhattan skyline. It was easy to get self-infatuated. And maybe everybody did. Johnson had negotiated a special Lou Piniella clause in his contract, saying that he had to make as much money as the Yankee manager. Johnson had been in town longer. He’d won more games. It was fair. Still, it was an ego deal.

Piniella got a big raise. Davey called Lou, got the exact dollar figure and then started reminding Cashen of the clause. Maybe Cashen was slow. Maybe he wanted to renege. Maybe he had a million things on his mind and a more patient manager would have waited his turn for the spoils of victory.

One day, on a golf course, a TV camera crew caught up with Johnson and asked him if he was excited about going to the winter meetings.

“I said, I ain’t goin’. I don’t have a contract,’ “ Johnson recalls. “ I have a clause that voids my contract because Lou Piniella is making more than me and I have a parity clause.’ “

Usually, you don’t blow the organization sky-high on the evening news. It tends to get remembered. Forever.

“I got chastised from top to bottom. That’s where I got on the wrong foot. And I don’t think I ever recovered from it,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t have an agent to hammer away at ‘em.”

So do-it-yourself Davey, who’d been a roofer and tiler along the way in addition to all his other skills, paid a high price for proving he could be his own agent.

“I don’t have a mean bone in my body. I don’t buck authority. I was raised an Army brat, the son of a military officer. I had to respect the chain of command. Only that one time did I really feel I did anything detrimental.

“I loved Frank,” says Johnson, who may never completely digest this period in his life. “But he has a tremendous ego and if he perceives you at any time to cross him, he can make you pay. The Piniella clause was where I alienated him . . . I tried to apologize for years: Frank, I’m sorry, forgive me. I shouldn’t have done that.’ “

But Davey, being Davey, has to add, even after all these years, “I don’t really feel I did anything wrong.”

He probably didn’t. But baseball isn’t a college course in ethics. There was more contract friction over the years. Johnson always expected the ax. But he managed so brilliantly that public opinion, and common sense, forced the Mets to rehire him. Finally, in 1990, the Mets started off 20-22.

That was enough.

“I’m at home and NBC and ABC all have my picture up there: Fired From the Mets.’ And I said, Man, the years I’ve had and I get fired on the TV.’ “

Rip the club on TV, get fired on TV.

At their last meeting, Johnson says, he told Cashen, “ It’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed the run. Thanks for the opportunity, blah, blah, blah. What do you want me to do to make it easy for you?’

“He said, We’d like you to leave out the back door. We’ve got a car to take you to the airport. Don’t say anything to the players, the coaches, the media or anybody.’

“That was terrible . . . It made an easier transition for {new manager} Buddy Harrelson. So I did it. But that crushed me. Nine years and I got to sneak out the back door and go. I can’t tell you how much that hurt.

“That’s baseball.”

You know, the idyllic pastoral summer game.

That’s also just Davey’s side of the story. You don’t think, even after all these years, that Johnson and the Mets agree on this stuff, do you? Cashen, now retired as a general manager, completely reverses Johnson’s account.

“We wanted him to leave with as much grace and class as possible,” Cashen recalls. “But Davey said, I just want to get the hell out of here.’ Later, maybe he had second thoughts about the way he left. He started to tell it the other way. If you tell a story enough, you begin to believe it yourself.”

Baseball’s favorite back-of-the-bus game has always been liar’s poker. Sooooo, let me look at my dollar bill here. I say I’ve got five sevens. You gonna call me a liar?

Johnson waited for the phone to ring. For three years. The first season or two wasn’t so bad. The Mets were still paying him. But, by the third year, when he’d only had two penny-ante offers -- as a part-time scout or consultant -- he was confused and worried. He took both $1,000 jobs. Although financially set for life, Johnson took work that paid less, per hour, than flipping burgers at a fast food joint.

“That period I was down, I really didn’t understand it. I began to wonder if the baseball gods didn’t like me,” he says. “Possibly the people who fired me had some not too complimentary things to say about me.”

Like what?

“People think because I’m pretty decisive that I’m stubborn and uncoachable. I call bull bleep’ on that. I’m open to anything.”

Well, that sounds pretty open. Give or take an expletive.

“In New York, any little innuendo can be blown out of proportion.” Like a manager on the hot seat having a few drinks in public?

“In New York, you do things to a little more extreme than you would in any other scenario. It’s maybe a bad way to deal with stress. I don’t condone it. I don’t deny it. But did I take it to an extreme? No possibility.”

The Davey Johnson of the late ‘80s was a man in visible torment. Old friends were shocked at how dispirited he sometimes looked. Davey in the doldrums? Anything’s possible, given enough front office intrigue, tabloid warfare and a clubhouse rife with prima donnas as well as drug-addicted stars.

“They did autopsies on those astronauts who were killed and found that the stress {in the space program} had aged them prematurely. I think New York does that, too,” says Johnson with a sardonic laugh.

“I always thought stress was self-imposed. As a player, I reveled in pressure situations. I thought you could always find a way to get a shield up. But a pressure cooker like {the Mets situation} can age you. It can make your personality change. It can make you do things differently from the way you know you should do them. You fight it . . .

“Finally, you learn that your health is the most important thing you have. You can’t let worry or fear of failure send your health to hell in a handbasket. You gotta learn to enjoy it -- no matter how bad it is. Your mind needs to be fresh and full of life, so it can rub off [on the team].”

Those words are, largely, the wisdom of hindsight, exile and his three years of successes in Cincinnati. By the end in New York, he was too stubborn to quit and too battered to win.

“When I got fired,” he says, “in a lot of ways I was relieved.”

So were the Mets. Cashen recalls that, by the end, everybody was exhausted. “Davey will frustrate you at times, and he will say some [controversial] things,” says Cashen. “But he is an excellent baseball man. In New York, I thought he’d lost the fire in his belly. Now he’s got it back . . . This guy is a sheer winner -- everywhere he’s ever been.

“Look, Earl Weaver was no choirboy.”

Of all the big leaguers of his generation, Johnson was considered one of the least likely to manage in the first place or to suffer withdrawal pangs when fired. In contrast to many players, he had the real world skills of a dozen normal men. In years of off-season college courses at Trinity and Hopkins, he’d studied everything from oceanography to veterinary medicine. He had credits in so many fields, from computers to home building, that when he finally decided “isn’t it time to get a degree in something,” Johnson realized he was already on the verge of fulfilling the Trinity mathematics requirement.

From ‘90 to ‘93, Johnson discovered that airplanes and scuba diving, real estate and even a fishing camp weren’t nearly sufficient to occupy such an obsessively active mind. So he fixated on golf, playing something called the Celebrity Golf Tour. In a couple of years, he won $75,000. But that wasn’t enough. He was going to take out his frustration at being blackballed, if that’s what it was, on the golf ball. “In ‘93, I figured I could make about $100,000. I was pumped up. I had a treadmill and bicycle, didn’t chew tobacco, didn’t drink -- nothin’. I mean I was primed.”

So the phone finally rang.

Everybody in baseball knew that Johnson could manage with the best. As a lineup builder, he blended speed with power, believing that neither was sufficient in itself. Pitching was his forte. “I’ve always admired how he handled a staff,” says Gillick. “He picked up a lot from Earl.” Absolutely nobody was better at creating a bullpen out of castoffs and kids. “The key with relief pitchers,” Johnson says, “is to figure out which ones have guts.”

No, the questions about Johnson weren’t about managing his team. Could he manage the politics of the sport? For that, Cincinnati was an ideal test. If he could hold his tongue and mend fences there, he could do it anywhere.

The Reds’ owner, Marge Schott, is a triple threat: cheap, mean and stupid. To this day, he hasn’t bad-mouthed her. Of course, he’d have to stand in line.

Johnson’s general manager, Jim Bowden, was 18 years his junior, but every bit as opinionated. The pair of supposed know-it-alls got along fine, even on a limited budget. “I had no problem with Bowden,” says Johnson. “He will tell you exactly what he’s thinking on every little issue. You knew exactly where you stood. That made it easy.”

Ultimately, Johnson even proved he could take an unjust firing with grace.

In 1994, the Reds finished first in the strike-shortened season. To some, it was a meaningless year. To Johnson, managing a team back to first place, even by half a game, was “my greatest vindication.” Better than coming back from his beaning. Better than proving the Orioles shouldn’t have traded him.

Yet, even while Johnson was concentrating on winning games, one of his coaches, Ray Knight, was gaining popularity with Schott. Long before the 1995 season, the Reds announced that Knight would be their manager for the 1996 season! Only in Schottsville. Johnson spent last year grooming the man whom some believe tunneled under him.

“I’ve never been afraid to hire a coach who might end up getting my job,” Johnson says.

Others have a less generous view of Knight, who’s never managed anywhere. This spring, Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox was asked about Johnson’s handling of the Reds last year. Cox blew a fuse. “Ask Ray Knight. He’s got all the bleepin’ answers . . . South Georgia boy, too, I hate to say. He’s ripped Davey like hell. That’s ridiculous,” said Cox. “Every time Knight opens his mouth, he says, We’re gonna do this’ or, We’re gonna {change} that. We’re not going to be card players. We’re going to be ready to play.’

“He’s made Davey look like he wasn’t doing anything. It’s awful.”

Johnson may finally have learned that, if you’re in the right, others will eventually come to your defense. Especially if you take the high silent road.

These days, Johnson has to pinch himself to believe it’s all real.

“Pat Gillick asks me how I’m doing all the time. I say, I’m on Cloud Nine,’ “ he says.

And well he should be. After the stress of New York, the depression of exile and the penance of Cincinnati, Johnson is back with the team that has always been his emotional home. He spent his first 11 pro years in the Baltimore organization. That’s his foundation. “I still believe the old fundamentals which were drummed into us in the minors by Billy Hunter and Cal Ripken Sr. -- are the right way to play this game.” Now, he’s completed the circle. “We’re going back to the Oriole Way, starting now.”

The baseball gods are smiling again. Johnson has an owner who will spend, a general manager who won back-to-back world titles in Toronto in ‘92-’93 and a team with a ton of talent. Perhaps just as important, Johnson also may have a one-year grace period in Camden Yards to get his new machine tuned.

Cleveland played .694 ball in ‘95, the Orioles .493. The conventional wisdom maintains the Orioles are still a starting pitcher shy of being a true power. Nobody in his right mind would make the Orioles a favorite to win the ‘96 American League pennant, no matter how many sweet steals Gillick has pulled.

The Orioles have a narrow window to revisit the World Series in the Ripken Era. But it’s not tiny. Maybe three or four years, rather than one or two. True, seven regulars are past 30 years old: Hoiles, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla, Brady Anderson, Mike Devereaux, B.J. Surhoff and Ripken. But only Ripken (35) and Jesse Orosco (38) are past 33.

Johnson loves veteran teams, which have the maturity to run their fastest under his combination of loose reins plus an occasional crack of the confidence-boosting whip.

“Weaver said it was his job to manage the guys who were not named Robinson,” says Johnson, who has half a dozen established stars. “When you’ve got veteran leadership on the field, like we do, the manager’s job is to get on the same wavelength with them in case they need something.”

Few managers have the confidence to imply that the team belongs to the players while the manager serves as their facilitator. Weaver usually did. Johnson may, too. “Everything is smoooooth with Davey,” says Palmeiro.

“We have no excuses,” says Hoiles. “The owner and the GM have done their part. We’ve got the right manager. It’s time for the players to perform. Nobody should feel pressured. We don’t have to play over our heads.”

Outside the clubhouse, in the hot Florida sun, an unusual sound is filling the air. The Orioles, the polite and boring Orioles of the ‘90s, are actually making noise. As Cal Ripken takes batting practice, he carries on a loud running banter with the Fort Lauderdale Stadium crowd.

“I’m practicing the hit-and-run,” he yells to them after a couple of pathetic swings produce dribblers to the right side of the infield.

“I can hit a home run if I want to,” he says. “Maybe not on this pitch.”

But, on the next pitch, he does launch one over the wall.

“Told ya,” he says.

The whole team gathers for base-running drills with a coach at every base critiquing the footwork, even of veterans, as they “cut the base” at the perfect Oriole Way angle. A dozen players at a time are circling the sacks simultaneously, like a crazy merry-go-round, with the fast teasing the slow and the air full of noise. Somebody could step on somebody’s ankle and get hurt. The manager who ordered such a wild-and-woolly drill could get in trouble. But it’s fun. It’s got swagger. It’s full of big-league confidence.

“Look at this chemistry,” bellows Bonilla, turning to the crowd and waving his arm toward all his sprinting teammates. “Out STAND ing. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Davey Johnson watches. He’s inherited the team with the worst ratio of heart-to-talent in the majors. His job is to bring it to life. Will his methods make his men mesh, or merely create a mess?

“I’ve never thought I was smart. But I love to figure out problems,” he says. “Through my stubbornness and relentlessness, I get to the end.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist.
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