Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Davey Johnson is certain to take the Nationals on a wild ride

The Nats don’t know what just hit them. Maybe GM Mike Rizzo doesn’t either. When you get Davey Johnson, you have your hands full — full of fun and knowledge, arrogance and a piratical glint. You get intelligence and compassion, insolence and a passion for victory that has set teams ablaze with his contagious confidence.

Also, at previous stops, but maybe not this time at age 68, you get a long fuse that, after many wins, tall tales and laughs, finally reaches the dynamite with Davey sitting atop it. Nobody else gets hurt. Just him. He’s a man made entirely of baseball scar tissue.

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Don’t worry. Davey doesn’t. Life? Let him at it. He’s back at the baseball feast. For three months or until there’s a Series in D.C.? Who knows? Just start the damn ride.

This is the good part, the first part, and the new beginning — the resurrection of what may be the best baseball mind of his time. Now, it’s hugs and hijinx and welcome home to baseball, Manager Johnson. After 11 years, Davey’s back.

“When I was 10 years old I was the batboy for the Washington Senators in Tinker Field in Orlando [in spring training]. They were my team a long time ago. That was the first major league clubhouse I was ever in,” Johnson said by telephone Monday. “And this is going to be my last stop. Whether it’s managing or not managing [next year], trust me, I’ll know. And I’ll do what’s best for the club.”

Really?

“I walked away from a million dollars in Baltimore because I didn’t want to be a detriment to the club because [team owner Peter] Angelos didn’t like me,” Johnson said of resigning the day he was named manager of the year in 1997.

Oh, Davey, back at it already.

“It was better that way. He’s not that fond of me.”

Nobody knows what the 2011 version of Johnson will be, not even Davey. But, if you remember the former version, you can’t wait to find out. With each team, Johnson looks for the unique ignition key that will turn over the engine. When he arrived in Baltimore in ’96, the atmosphere was so bland “it was like a used car lot,” Johnson said.

So, Johnson took over a talented, boring, uptight, nice-guy Orioles team and exploded the culture before spring training was over. Crank up the music. Cell phones in the clubhouse? Sure. Dress code? Yeah, it’d be good if you wore clothes. The training table had “chocolate doughnuts,” Johnson recalled, laughing.

For a coaching staff, he assembled every ex-Oriole who had ever frightened a state trooper. Let’s get some ego in this place. You can’t have too much to suit Davey as long as you play like a mad man. He managed Deion Sanders in Cincinnati: “Loved him!”

Davey probably thinks Bryce Harper’s a little meek.

“The No. 1 reason I took this job was the talent. They have a little more potential than at least half of my teams. Very athletic. The ‘makeup’ is off the chart,’ he said. “We’re not running on all cylinders yet. I love defense and pitching, but I’m an offensive manager. This is a lineup that ought to score. It can be a blend of three-run homers and speed” like his 1980s Mets.

“Every team is different. Figure out how to help ‘em be their best. The Reds were a race-track team. The Dodgers, oh, they were just all messed up. But this team is ready to go. I love the scouts and the last two drafts. It’s a happy efficient energetic front office,” Johnson said. “I’ve only met Ted Lerner one time. But I admire him.”

Good. Keep it that way. Davey in one zip code, Nationals team owner in another, with mutual admiration from afar.

Johnson’s defining qualities, at least in his halcyon hellion days, were a dazzling lack of accountability to any entity on earth except his players, and the most contagious, cocky self-confidence of any boss in baseball. He took “player’s manager” to a new level. In a tight spot, the organization, the owner, the GM, the media, the fans, could all take a flying leap if Johnson had to take a stand with his players. When the going was good, that was rocket fuel to his teams. When things went bad, Davey took the fall, usually alone.

How much of this Johnson as dynamo is actually coming to the Nats? And should they really want 100 percent of the old Johnson? Sometimes, his intensity was scary. A bit less might actually be good for everybody.

The older version of Johnson that now arrives in the Nats dugout may have lost some zip, as Joe Gibbs did after 11 years away from the NFL. That’s certainly possible. At the least, the Nats will have one of the game’s best thinkers in their clubhouse, analyzing and teaching, for three months.

But there’s a best-case scenario, too. After surgery in February for an irregular heartbeat, he was visibly revitalized in March in spring training. “I haven’t had this much energy in 20 years,” he said then. His reborn enthusiasm for managing has only grown.

“I’m not in playing shape yet. I want to throw BP and hit some wicked fungos,” he said. “I’m usually more prepared than this, but they caught me by surprise.”

It’s conceivable the final Johnson may be just as smart as the old one, but a bit wiser, too. Could he have even learned patience? “That remains to be seen,” he chuckled.

Will the final Davey, for as long as the Nats have him, be the best of them all?

 
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