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.”
Rizzo reveres Johnson. It’s apparent on Rizzo’s face whenever he speaks about his partner in transforming the franchise from a national punch line into a contender.
“Davey has told me many times he would have only gotten back into this with one guy, and it’s very complimentary for me to hear that,” Rizzo said. “Even more than that, it’s humbling for me because I feel the game needs managers like Davey. There have been a lot of managers who have won with different teams, and Davey is showing again that he’s right there” with the best of them.
Although Billy Martin brawled with players (literally) he managed throughout his career, he quickly turned around many teams while producing championship results. Likewise, Dick Williams had a golden touch in winning World Series titles, pennants and reaching the playoffs with several clubs. Tony La Russa won everywhere he managed.
Johnson is in that club. In case anyone had forgotten during Johnson’s time in L.A., he’s providing a daily reminder. Johnson led the New York Mets to a World Series title. The Cincinnati Reds and Orioles reached the playoffs with Johnson making decisions in the dugout.
Still a players’ manager, Johnson has earned high marks in the Nationals’ clubhouse for being a straight shooter.
He tells players exactly where they stand with him and sticks to his word, “which means a lot to every guy in here,” relief pitcher Tyler Clippard said. “When we know that he has the confidence in us, and that he’s not going to panic if you have a bad game or a couple of stretches that are bad, it just helps us mentally to be in a good spot when we’re struggling. . . This game is tough enough as it is, without having to worry about whether your manager is going to like you or trust you.”
Johnson’s winning style was evident in how he skillfully handled middle infielders Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa. In spring training, Johnson essentially told the talented-but-unproven players he would stick with them this season no matter what happened. Believing Desmond and Espinosa possess the talent to become standouts, Johnson figured he had to prove it by his actions.
Desmond was selected as a first-time all-star. After struggling earlier in the season, Espinosa has been among the Nationals’ most productive hitters in the second half.
“He doesn’t try to group us all into one and say, ‘I have to handle every single guy the same way.’ He handles everyone differently and lets us be us,” Espinosa said. “He managed in the ’80s and ’90s. He played in the ’60s. He understands what he has to do to help us do our jobs. . . . He’s just a great manager.”
And one who’s likely on the verge of winning another prestigious award. Whether he wants it or not.
For previous Jason Reid columns, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.