Motivating the Nationals, for Johnson, began when he took over as manager in the middle of the 2011 season, and continues Sunday in St. Louis as he leads them into their first-ever postseason game. Win one for the Gipper? No thanks. Baseball is a gently floating leaf to football’s anvil from the sky. Johnson, 69, has pushed these Nationals in a fashion both definitive and subtle.
“He’s got that very grandfatherly way of putting his arm around you, even when he’s not physically putting his arm around you,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “And even when he’s telling you, ‘You screwed up here, you screwed up there,’ he has a way of communicating that to a player where it’s received as, ‘Yep, that’s right.’ ”
Johnson’s simple, stripped-down philosophy was formed during a playing career that featured four all-star game appearances, and a managing career that has been as successful as it has been contentious. But it isn’t necessarily just about baseball. Early in Johnson’s marriage to his wife Susan, she opened a high-end clothing boutique near their home in Winter Park, Fla. And there, inside a shop named Bella, was Davey Johnson, a weathered baseball man who has to be kept after to get a haircut, ready to dispense advice as to how to make it in the world of fashion.
“There are things that he says about management that are probably transferable skills,” Susan Johnson said. “He always reminds me that everybody should know exactly what their role is, know what success looks like and feels like. That’s what he said this spring: ‘I’ve got to teach these guys what it feels like to win, what it looks like.’ But, oh my goodness, how do you teach that?”
‘He knew I needed him’
Teaching these Nats, most of whom had known nothing but losing, began in bizarre circumstances. In late 2009, when Rizzo was named to his position permanently, he made Johnson his first hire, as a senior adviser. “I wanted to look smarter,” Rizzo said. But in June 2011, Jim Riggleman abruptly quit as Nationals manager, upset over the team’s refusal to commit to him long-term. The club was headed to Chicago that day.
Rizzo’s first call was to Johnson, who was wrapping up a fishing trip on Martha’s Vineyard with former basketball great John Havlicek. At that moment, he couldn’t have better fit the cliche of a successful, sated retiree.
“Caught four 40-pound striped bass,” Johnson said. “Great trip.”
Johnson, who won a World Series with the New York Mets in 1986 and managed both the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles to the postseason in the 1990s, hadn’t been in a major league dugout since the last day of the 2000 season, after which he was fired by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had endured unspeakable personal tragedy, losing his own daughter, Andrea, when she was 32 and Susan’s son Jake, who could not see or hear and died at 34. He had battled his own heath issues; indeed, an appendix problem almost killed him. But with Susan’s blessing, he accepted the managerial job with the Nationals.
“He knew the team,” Rizzo said. “And he knew I needed him.”
After taking the weekend to organize his thoughts and his life, Johnson met the team in Chicago. It was a Sunday night, and Johnson stood at the door of the team charter. As each player boarded, he stuck out his hand. He told them everything would be all right.
“That was the beginning,” said Harolyn Cardozo, a special assistant to Rizzo who flew with Johnson to Chicago that weekend and has a close relationship with him. “That’s really when things started to change.”
On that plane, Johnson laid the groundwork for how he would build confidence, how he would motivate. Roles would be defined, not always by conversation or memo, but by demonstration. On subsequent road trips, he began spending time at the back of the plane, often unwelcome territory for a manager.
“It’s a parting when your manager resigns or gets fired,” Johnson said. “There can be a lot of uneasiness, a lot of, ‘What now?’”
‘I’m an inquisitive mind’
Johnson knows something of this from the other side, the uneasiness of being let go. First was the Mets and New York, where his teams never finished worse than second but was fired a quarter of the way through the 1990 season. Next came the Reds and Cincinnati, where owner Marge Schott set an unpredictable tone for everyone involved and he was fired after a division championship. Next up: Baltimore, “where he thought he would finish his career,” Susan Johnson said. But after another division championship in 1997, owner Peter Angelos infamously fired him on the day he was named the American League’s manager of the year.
Now, he has managed 13 complete major league seasons and had a winning record in 12 of them. But he can’t keep a job?
“Sometimes people feel a little bit threatened by their employees,” said Pat Gillick, who played minor league ball with Johnson in the Orioles system and then served as his general manager in Baltimore. “I think the fact that he’s not only a smart guy, but he’s also got some imagination, I think at times that kind of scares people. Maybe they think he’s too smart for them.”
It is, in truth, an area with which Johnson is wholly comfortable: his own acumen.
“I’m pretty analytical,” he said. “I’m an inquisitive mind.”
It shows up in all sorts of ways. He is, in almost every instance, unable to bend what he perceives as the truth. It might be about a player. It might be about a coach. It might be, as it was earlier this year, about an opponent such as Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon, whom Johnson referred to as a “weird wuss” following an on-field controversy between their teams. Whoever. Johnson’s belief in himself, in his own analysis, often leaves all the laundry on the line, hanging there for everyone to see.
“He’s got no filter, as far as his comments after the game,” said Mark DeRosa, a veteran reserve player for the Nationals. “You know exactly how he’s feeling. There’s no mystery with him, and there hasn’t been from Day One.”
Which is how Johnson established himself, beginning that night on the airplane. It wasn’t with his résumé or the tales of the two World Series he won as the Orioles’ second baseman. It was by what he did — with them and to them.
“When you manage them, you need to be right all the time,” Johnson said. “It’s not what I’ve done in the past. It’s every day.”
In this regard, Johnson calls himself “the problem solver.” He wants his players to perceive him as someone whom they can come to him with their issues, hitting or home life — and who can fix them. His victims, then, can be his coaching staff. Johnson can wear them out, in part because he is constantly thinking two or three days ahead.
“It’s Monday, and he’s on Wednesday,” Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr said. “And I’ve got to bring him back to the moment. I’m like, ‘Skip, who’s hitting? Who’s hitting right now?’ ”
In early September, the Chicago Cubs visited Nationals Park. Johnson turned to Knorr and said, “Who’s their hitting coach?” Knorr’s response: “I don’t know. We play them twice a year.”
“Well, don’t you think that’s something you should know?” Johnson said. Another coach scrambled to track down the answer. Why Johnson wanted it hardly mattered.
“I’m observant, and I care,” Johnson said. “I want to put our best foot forward. I don’t want to miss any details. And if I’m critical, I only mean it to be positive criticism. And the criticisms are few and far between — though I guess, probably, the frequency level is greater than I think it is.”
His coaches, like the players, therefore understand the expectations. And as his mind works through a game — an inning from now, two innings from now, on to how he’ll use pitchers later in the week — they try to catch up with him.
“He says things at times where you’re like, ‘Man. What?’ ” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “And two days later, you’re like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God! I get it.’ There’s just a confidence that you feel when you’re with him, because you know that he has your best interest at heart.”
‘He believes in me’
All of this is part of Johnson’s information-gathering process. He admits, even after a season-and-a-half back in the majors, he is still learning the tendencies and idiosyncrasies of all the Nationals’ opponents. He will use his players, his coaches, the stats — whatever he can get his hands on — to draw his conclusions. But once he does, they’re his conclusions. He will share them. He won’t change them.
“He can be hard-headed,” said Ray Knight, a third baseman on Johnson’s Mets teams and a coach for him in Cincinnati, who serves as an analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which carries Nationals games. “Once he’s convinced in what he thinks is right, you couldn’t take a Mack truck and pull it out of his brain. He’s going to go with that.”
In the waning days of the race to clinch the division title, Johnson sat second baseman Danny Espinosa for a game in Philadelphia. “Go ask him the reasoning,” Espinosa told inquisitive reporters. “I’d like to know, too.”
Twenty-nine of the 30 major league managers likely would have said something akin to, “Just wanted to get another player a chance” or “Just a night off.” Johnson’s answer: “I think he’s been pressing a little bit lately.”
By the sixth inning that night, Espinosa was back in. The next night, he started, his role restored. It is typical Johnson. Last summer, some forces both inside and outside the organization thought it might be best to trade shortstop Ian Desmond. Johnson’s response was to tell Desmond: “You’re going to go out there, and you’re going to play.”
“That kind of took the weight off my shoulders a little bit,” Desmond said. “. . . I felt like the audition was over. I’m not going out trying to prove to people I can play at this level. I’m not going out trying to prove to people I can hit at this level. I’m just going out there, and I’m the guy, regardless of what happens.”
This season, Desmond smacked 25 homers and became an all-star. “He believes in me,” he said of Johnson.
He believes, too, in himself, and in his Nationals team as a whole. On mornings this summer when the team was home, Davey and Susan Johnson would wake up in their brownstone in Old Town Alexandria and walk along the Potomac. They could talk about anything, because Davey knew his team — the group that finished the regular season with the best record in baseball — gave him little about which to worry. That kind of confidence, for a baseball player or baseball team, can be all the motivation necessary.
“I’ve got to gain their respect and trust, and it goes both ways,” Johnson said. “Every day, they’ve got to gain my respect and trust. And that’s a very healthy relationship. It works not just in baseball. It works, to me, in life.”