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.”