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.