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/