Davey Johnson: At 70, Nats manager enters one final glory year

Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 22, 2013

Every day the Washington Nationals are reminded of the baseball treasure they still have in their midst but will be losing at the end of this season. Each week brings new Davey Johnson quips and batting tips, old stories and fresh theories — where does he come up with them all? — on seemingly everything.

All of these moments form a portrait of how kind baseball can be to a 70-year-old. Some of us wondered whether Johnson, after 101 / 2 years away from managing in the majors, would have the same good-but-no-longer-great experience as Joe Gibbs after 11 years retired from the NFL. Now we know.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Gibbs went from 140-65 (counting the playoffs) to 31-36 and had to hire new coordinators to get him up to speed. Davey went from a .564 career percentage to .563 so far with the Nats and was named the National League manager of the year last season. In the Washington clubhouse, everyone lines up to learn from Davey while there is still time. No one doubts that the best baseball mind in the room is the manager.

So, Davey, did you talk to Rafael Soriano in Spanish or English?

“Oh, he speaks good English,” Johnson said. “I grew up in San Antonio where a lot of Spanish is spoken. My brother is fluent. But I understand it better than I speak it. Sometimes I get my Spanish mixed up with my Japanese. . . . I speak in one [language] and think in the other.”

After winning the NL East in 2012, the Washington Nationals are coming into the year with a cacophony of hype. But Thomas Boswell says focusing on this year’s potential is missing the point. (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)

Hold on just a second, Davey. You speak Japanese, too, along with the pilot’s license, the scuba instructor stuff, the scratch-golfer bit, the poisonous snakes killed in mid-air with a two-iron, the made-my-first-million selling real estate, the degree in math, the recent offseason safari (“I like Africa. I didn’t get eaten”), the computer geek skills, the oldster communicating by iPad with his players and the sabermetric studies with Prof. Earnshaw Cook of Johns Hopkins as far back as the ’60s — and you speak Japanese, too?

“When I played in Japan [two years as a Yomiuri Giant and teammate of Sadaharu Oh], I had a translator who couldn’t speak English. They all called him ‘Rich boy.’ So I had to learn to speak Japanese,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I try to speak to the Japanese reporters in Japanese.”

Okay, how good is Chad Tracy’s Japanese after he played in Japan?

“Pretty weak,” Johnson said. “I asked him to say something. He said ‘salutations.’ What’s that [good for]? How about, ‘You’re good-looking.’ ”

So, if any Nat wants to learn a pickup line in any language where baseball is played, just ask Davey.

As Danny Espinosa said, “Seventy is only a number to him.” Who has known Bryce Harper since he was 15 and probably gets him better than anyone? Yes, the guy 50 years older. One second Davey’s almost installed Harper in the superstar No. 3 spot in the batting order, but with the next, he’s consigning him to left field, saying in his Texas twang, “He ain’t hit a cutoff man since he’s been here.”

Washington’s recent experience of Gibbs II and Davey V (he’s been fired four times) probably says more about the nature of their sports than about the two men’s adaptability with age. Both left their sports as men with an edge: Johnson’s tongue got him in trouble, and Gibbs could chill a veteran with one cold look and, along with all his virtues, was part NFL shark.

Both came back as grandfathers, unthreatening, funny at times, self-deprecating and maybe wiser. How would that work?

Apparently, baseball is kinder and less changing than football. Johnson may now be a different man and manager in subtle ways, but overall he is as good as or maybe slightly better than ever.

In baseball, change in techniques and theories are always built on the same base of fundamentals. In the NFL, not only do new formations and systems arrive in a constantly shifting continuum, but the rules change, too, forcing adaptation. You almost have to live the evolution of the sport to be completely up to speed. For example, when the NFL cut the play clock to 35 seconds, some of Gibbs’s innovative multi-package, motion-and-shift-based offense of the ’80s was impractical. It just took too much time.

Baseball changes, too, but not in the same whiplash way. When the Nats hired Rick Eckstein as hitting coach, he was state-of-the 21st-century art, both technically and in film study. Yet his theories clashed with minor league instructors (now gone) and even some in the big league clubhouse. Johnson quickly saw Eckstein as a modern continuation of classic methods.

The team’s hitting has steadily improved as Eckstein and Johnson complement each other. For example, Eckstein studied Denard Span game films from 2009 to help the Nats’ new center fielder get back to his best self this spring. Johnson watched batting practice and told Span to stop pointing his front foot at the pitcher and, instead to keep his front side closed to handle outside pitches better.

That Davey pointer was true when he was young and obsessively picking the brains of Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Oh and Frank Robinson. It was true when he managed Hall of Famers such as Gary Carter, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken and Barry Larkin. That “offensive theory” never changes.

All in all, Johnson is now so attuned to players’ needs, so intuitive after 51 years of pro experience and so good at masking his managing as mere casual conversation that it seems likely he’s never been so fine a manager. You can’t grade gravitas but, after decades of playing the smart aleck, he has it, though not the way anyone would want to get it after the death of his daughter, a stepson and his own near death from a stomach infection.

If Johnson has a flaw now, his in-game sense of flow may not be as good as when I covered his ’96-97 Orioles. I can’t prove it, and I may just be wrong. But the Nats wasted an 8-0 lead after four innings in 2011 and a 9-0 squander after five in 2012. Both times, the Nats’ odds of winning (per baseball-reference.com) rounded off to 100 percent. That can’t happen. And it may have planted doubt for Game 5 against the Cardinals. Johnson made no outright blunders that night, just hard justifiable decisions, but both he and the Nats may have questions to answer to themselves about “finishing.”

If Davey is as good as, or better than, ever, how can he retire? He has roots throughout baseball. Come on, Jack McKeon came out of retirement at 72 to win the ’03 World Series. Teams will try to hire Johnson for several years.

“I know it,” Johnson said.

The British writer E.C. Bentley once wrote of a financial buccaneer who aged into a Wall Street eminence: “Now and then the pirate would suddenly glare out, the knife in his teeth and the sulfur matches sputtering in his hatband.”

Will Davey be tempted back by another team for more spoils of the Main?

“This is it,” Johnson said. “Most people believe in destiny or whatever. I really did start off [as a batboy] for the old Senators in spring training. It all seems so much like a ‘full circle.’

“This feels like fate.”

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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