A farewell to Davey Johnson that didn’t have layers of complexity and unresolved questions just wouldn’t be worthy of one of the smartest and most stubborn, loyal and insubordinate, independent and opinionated, honest and funny, patient and multifaceted men that baseball has ever seen.
For example, the Washington Nationals are giving him an appreciation night Saturday, and if he had a choice, he might refuse the darn thing. “It’s not my cup of tea. When they start giving you accolades it means you’re just about finished,” he says, joking that he’s threatened to have his “back go out and check myself into the hospital” if a big-screen tribute passes “five minutes.”
Davey won’t walk out, but you could imagine him doing it. Johnson considered quitting in July when his hitting coach got fired.
“I waited an extra week to do it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “so I wouldn’t lose my manager.”
If you see that video Saturday, you can be sure of several things. Almost all his players like and admire him. And some come close to adoring him, as much as you can a manager. For months, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond refused to believe he was actually leaving because they couldn’t understand why any team would let him go, much less grease the skids.
“The biggest thing I’ll remember is that when he took over this team, this place was going in the wrong direction,” Jayson Werth said. “He had the [guts] to turn the ship around and get it going in the right direction.
“And it still is. Davey leaves us far better than when he took the job.”
Some, like Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Desmond and Werth also volunteer that he helped change the arc of their careers for the better. The core of their Davey memories will not be his Texas twang, his tales of what Aaron, Oh, Mazeroski or Ted Williams taught him. They shake their heads that one man has a college math degree, a pilot’s license, a real estate license and a scratch handicap; speaks passable Japanese; teaches scuba diving; and was a computer geek since the ’70s. Their link with him, maybe more than last season’s NL East title, will just be gratitude. Davey changes baseball lives.
Johnson told Desmond two years ago that he should become an extra-base hitter, not a slap hitter. Then he showed him how. This year, Werth credits Johnson’s discussions of “angle to the ball” with “getting me back on top of the ball like I was in Philly. I’ve never hit this well. We have differences in hitting philosophy. Not much, but enough. But ‘experience plays.’ When older people speak, I tend to listen. He helped me get back to the type of player I had been and can be. I owe him that.”
Johnson doesn’t just manage today’s game. He manages the career path, baseball education and maturation of each player in the context of that next game, next month, next season. At exactly the time when Washington needed that orientation, with the arrival of Harper at 19 and the return of Strasburg from elbow surgery, the Nats suddenly had an iconic leader.
“I remember him from our time in Beiijing, how down-to-earth he was even then. He really took care of me,” Strasburg said of Johnson managing the 2008 U.S Olympic team. “Then I become a pro, and he’s my manager. Baseball’s so small. It’s a testament to the type of person he is that no matter how bad it gets, he’s always in your corner, always got your back.”
Though Strasburg and Harper are opposite personality types, both were exposed to Johnson before any other big league manager. In the majors, both have played exclusively for Johnson, except for a dozen Strasburg starts for Jim Riggleman.
“Strasburg and Harper are going to have a reference point for what a manager should be like,” Nats veteran Chad Tracy said. “They’re going to expect greatness in any manager.”
Both grasp that a turbulent period, full of harsh headlines, social media and saturation scrutiny, when they might have soured on some aspect of the sport, or had trouble finding their bearings, turned out positively — both all-stars, both acclimated to the big leagues, no big damage done — under Davey.
“With all the pressure and hype around me and Stras, and some of the things that happened with us, it was great to have him. I’m more than thankful that he was my first manager,” Harper said. “He always had faith in me. I was in Triple-A, hitting a buck-fifty with one homer and two RBI, and he said, ‘Call him up.’ I’ll never forget how he believed in me when it mattered.”
But because Davey is Davey, you can be sure that those above him in the food chain have gotten a glimpse of why he left the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers with varying degrees of hurt feelings and grudges. Johnson is one of Rizzo’s baseball heroes, and they still talk “from five to 45 minutes” after every game. “But he can be a handful,” Rizzo said.
“Davey is the ultimate players’ manager,” Werth said.
That means he is never going to be the ultimate GM or owner’s manager because he gives about two cents for their opinions if they contradict his baseball view. One Johnson bias is a lust for fast April starts; too many hours of spring training drudgery can dull a team when it should be fresh and freewheeling out of the gate. That’s worked many times. This year, it didn’t. A season of poor fundamentals followed. The next manager will make March tougher.
“I’m a stubborn Swede, like my father,” Johnson said. He never forgets the details of his exoduses, such as the “second-rate gopher” who fired him or the GM who “wouldn’t stand up for me when things turned into a debacle.”
Johnson doesn’t lose many anecdotes, if he gets to tell them. In recent weeks, he’s revisited his “World Series or bust” quote, implying that he wasn’t quite provided with the team he thought he was getting. Davey and Mike can discuss that team-building process over hot chocolate and cookies some decade hence. Just say that they remember it differently.
Even Johnson leaving the Nats is murky. Everybody smooths over his departure, nobody’s mad and the hugs will be real. But it was never Johnson’s choice. Davey says he understands the Lerners might not want a manager “on social security.” Weeks ago, he said, “The way things have gone this year, maybe, if they asked me, I’d say, ‘Go with somebody else.’ ”
Sometimes, it seems Johnson burns bridges to make himself find a new road. “I never felt I was retired or banished,” he says of the 11 years he was out of MLB before the Nats, in a lurch, hired him. “I love challenges. I ended up [managing] in the Netherlands, Taiwan, Cuba, China and back in Viera. . . . I’m always open for what’s going to happen. I look at it as an opportunity.”
The Nats players will mostly see his leaving as a loss. Nine managers since World War II who are, or will be, in the Hall of Fame have lower winning percentages than Johnson, who after Friday night’s win is 303 games over .500 in 17 seasons.
This was the year when a second trip to the World Series, to bookend with his ’86 Mets, would have iced Johnson’s place in the Hall. It didn’t happen. He’s lost many nights’ sleep blaming himself. “Players win games. Managers lose them,” he says. “Blame me.”
Cooperstown? No lost sleep there. To Davey, that’s a lot like farewell tributes when “we’re not eliminated. We got a game to win that night.”
Pirates don’t need plaques.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell .