The year was 1997. Johnson resigned from managing the Baltimore Orioles (he was at odds with owner Peter Angelos over, well, just about everything) on the same day he was named as the American League’s top manager. Given Johnson’s history with the award, his aversion to winning another is understandable.
But he’ll just have to deal with it.
Johnson is the obvious choice in the NL as he continues to guide the Nationals to Major League Baseball’s best record. One individual honor, however, isn’t enough to signify what Johnson will have accomplished once the Nationals clinch the playoff berth they’ve been speeding toward all season. Fact is, Johnson is close to completing one of the greatest comebacks in managerial history.
The Los Angeles Dodgers foolishly dumped Johnson at the end of the 2000 season. Team ownership decided Johnson — then baseball’s winningest active manager — lacked the energy required for the position, failed to relate well to players and seemed uninterested in trying new approaches. The Dodgers thought Johnson had “lost it.”
Nearly 12 years later, with the Nationals 77-46 after Tuesday’s victory, that decision is not looking any better.
The Nationals now have a seven-game lead in the NL East. From all appearances, the Nationals are built to win today and tomorrow. And a supposedly washed-up manager, who clearly still has a winning touch, is leading them superbly.
Now 69, Johnson didn’t need to change a thing about his approach. He just had to find the right team again.
After Johnson’s brief experience (he was fired after only two seasons) in Los Angeles, he only wanted to return to the majors as a manager if he could work for a general manager he respected. Johnson’s feud with onetime Dodgers GM Kevin Malone was among the worst kept secrets in Los Angeles.
Malone reveled in making splashy moves. In 1998, he gave free agent pitcher Kevin Brown a record seven-year, $105 million contract that included the use of a private jet to transport Brown’s family. Johnson favored a more traditional approach to roster construction. “Hey, let’s spread it [money] around a little,” Johnson would often say.
For a manager, having an enemy in the general manger’s office is like having a cleanup batter who can’t hit: Neither helps your job security. Now, Johnson has an ally in Nationals GM Mike Rizzo.
They see the game similarly “in terms of building from the bottom up and staying with the program,” Johnson said of Rizzo. After thinking for a moment, Johnson added that the support for him starts at the top. “The Lerners have been real good with that, too; sticking with what Riz wants to do,” Johnson said. “When you have owners who understand what you’re trying to do, that’s what any manager wants.”