Some of his players, shortstop Ian Desmond among them, do not really believe Johnson will stop managing them after this season — the one that begins Monday afternoon at Nationals Park, the hugely anticipated campaign Johnson has branded with the slogan “World Series or Bust.” Maybe they do not want to believe it.
At 70, Johnson remains his spitfire self. He may be a touch mellower than he was when he won his first World Series title, with the New York Mets in 1986. He will still tell you how good his team is before he beats you with it. He will still share with his players’ secrets, from Hank Aaron or Jim Palmer. He is every bit as sharp.
“He’s perfect,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “Without him, I don’t believe we would be in this situation, at least not this quickly. Maybe not ever. You could argue that the talent would have taken over. If we would have kept going the direction we were going when I got here, we definitely wouldn’t be in this spot. I don’t care how much talent we have.”
Johnson’s greatest strength lies in figuring out his own players, and how to draw the best out of them. His philosophy hinges on the player — extract the potential of every individual, and the whole will reach its full potential.
In school, Johnson preferred the sciences. In history and English, he could only study and memorize. Logic prevailed in math and science — you could ask “Why?” and there would be an answer. Johnson wants to know the “Why?” for all his players.
“Whether you’re a player, a coach, or whatever, you have to be a good listener,” Johnson said. “It’s all part of the learning process, I guess.” He spit another stream of tobacco on the dugout floor. “To be able to coach, you have to know where a person is coming from. What were the circumstances now and in the past that got them to this point in their life? It’s always a learning experience. That’s life. I guess I’ve always been curious, you know, about things.”
There is a reason everyone does everything, Johnson believes. Where they came from and how they view the world will allow him to show them where to go next.
“Davey sees things that other people don’t see,” front office assistant Harolyn Cardozo said. “Whatever those glasses are he wears during the game, they’re special.”
‘I never had any regrets’
Johnson came here to carry the Nationals from disarray to the top of baseball. After the 2011 season, he contractually became an adviser to General Manager Mike Rizzo, with the role of choosing the next manager. Davey Johnson recommended Davey Johnson. He felt like he should be the one to lift the Nationals.
Less than two years later, he has. The job, no matter if this season ends with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue or not, is done.
“As far as this organization and where they needed to be, I wanted to take them to that next step,” Johnson said. “But I think I’ve done all that was required. Any idiot could do it from here. If you’ve had enough of me, fine with me. A lot of the questions were answered the way they should have been answered. I think I brought a little sanity here. So, fine.”
Johnson kicked the air — someone booting him out — and grinned.
“I’ve always felt like, wherever I was at, as long as I left it better off . . . never in my whole life have I wished I had done something differently,” Johnson said. “It was always about, wherever I had been, I wanted to be everything I can to make the situation I was in better, when I was a player or managing. I wanted, wherever I was at, to do what’s best for the organization. I understood first what was best for the player. If I did what was best for the player, it was best for the organization. I never had any time, whether I was fired or resigned, that I would have done something different. I had no regrets. I never had any regrets.”
Johnson has built a bond, with this team and with this city. How many area fans rooted harder for the Nationals because they remember Johnson’s work with the Baltimore Orioles?
He just moved into his home for the season — Sean Burnett’s old place in Old Town Alexandria. He can see his wife Susan all the time, never more than a week apart no matter the Nationals’ schedule.
“I think if it was just up to him, he would probably manage forever,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s got a family. He’s been in baseball for a long time. He loves baseball, and I think he’ll be involved somehow. I think he’ll definitely have some part, or something where he’s still part and helps or influences what’s done.”
Johnson will not manage forever, at least not with the Nationals. A World Series title this year, along with his seventh division title, would possibly secure a Hall of Fame legacy. He does not care for that, either.
“I don’t think there’s any sentiment,” Johnson said. “Maybe there is. I started with the Washington Senators [in Little League] when I was 9. I was back at it 61 years later managing them. Did I plan on doing that? Hell, no. Is that a full circle? Yeah. Maybe that’s the last opportunity I’ll have with a major league club. I have no idea. I’m not thinking about it.”
Wait. No idea? If he’ll manage another major league team? Could he really picture himself sitting in another dugout — maybe managing against the Nationals?
“I don’t rule anything out,” Johnson said. “I don’t try to make friends outside of my work environment. A lot of people, they go to the winter meetings, they socialize with everybody. I know a lot of people in other organizations, through the past. Do I have a working relationship, a friendship? No. I try not to be in cahoots with the enemy at any time.
“That’s something I have no control over. If an opportunity came along, I would logically look at it and say, ‘Am I a fit? Can I be an asset here? Can I make it better? Is it going to be challenging enough for me?’ I think that’s not just me. That’s pretty much everybody. I have no idea.”
The notion is not far-fetched. Teams have already started to poke around on Johnson’s availability next season, calling the Nationals with informal queries about his plans for 2014.
As for Johnson’s heir apparent, the Nationals have a list of names with both external and internal candidates. Johnson would like the Nationals’ next manager to come from within the team’s current staff. Many of his players hope, against the odds, it’s Johnson again.
“I guess it depends on, if he does pack it in after this year, who do we get?” Werth said. “It’s going to take a special person to replace him in that role.”
‘A step, twp steps ahead’
It would perhaps be impossible to find a man with Johnson’s touch, his blend of managerial skill and personal feel. When he lapses into a story, it is hard not to marvel at the memories his mind traps. He was halfway through his 12-year-old Little League season in Winter Park, Fla. when his father, an Army man, was transferred to Houston. Some six decades later, these are some details he remembers: He wanted to stay because the team he played for was 9-0 and called the Giants, and he wanted the Giants to win the pennant for the first time. He had hit nine home runs. Once he left, the Giants lost their remaining nine games. A pitcher on the Pirates named Jack Billingham hit nine homers in the full 18-game season, and the Little League awarded him the Triple Crown. Johnson always thought he was better than Billingham, who one day pitched in the majors.
“I owned him in Little League and the National League,” Johnson said.
Let the record show: Davey Johnson hit .316 with two home runs in 19 at-bats against Jack Billingham, the tall right-hander from Orlando.
“Davey is usually a step, two steps ahead of the game,” said first base coach Tony Tarasco, who played for Johnson in the mid-90s. “Something that he might ask you to work on is something that he’s not really planning for that day. It’s something that he’s thinking about in September. He’s very good at building for the end of the year as opposed to auditioning for the day.”
Watching a pitcher, Johnson may ask, “Why is his arm dropping?” — and only then will the other coaches realize, yes, his arm slot is lower by an inch. He asked bench coach Randy Knorr this spring why a catcher kept lining up inside when a pitcher threw a pickoff to first. Knorr wondered how Johnson knew that.
“He’s a pain,” Knorr said. “He’s particular about things. I’d like to get to that point someday. I had a conversation with him the other day. I said, ‘You see a lot of stuff I don’t quite see.’ I feel like I see a lot of things. He’ll see some stuff. He’ll talk out loud so I can see it. I don’t know if he does it on purpose, or if that’s the way he is. He’ll say things I think he’s hoping that I pick up on. He’s so far ahead of the guy in the other dugout.”
So, starting Monday, cherish Johnson’s last season in the Nationals’ dugout. No matter what comes next, he will be fine. He has some ideas — he has already planted seeds to work with Major League Baseball on opening an Urban Youth Academy in Orlando. He commits himself to nothing, but remains open for anything. He does not think much about what comes next, but whatever it may be, you know he will see it coming.