Retirement will not come for Davey Johnson until after this year, not until late October if his Washington Nationals match the blustering expectations he set for them. Wednesday afternoon, though, as he sauntered into the home dugout at Space Coast Stadium, Johnson looked the part. Dressed in a blue tracksuit, tanned by the Florida sun and two weeks clear of his 70th birthday, Johnson could have fit in at any early bird special.
The appearance, of course, only deceived. Johnson is not even ready to think about what lies ahead, or to reflect on what it means to be in his position, the last of his kind in what he says will be his last spring training as a major league manager. As the Nationals prepared for Thursday’s initial full workout for pitchers and catchers, Johnson instead doubled down on his belief that his team has the talent to win a World Series, further fueling the raised hopes that will define spring for the Nationals.
“Heck, I thought last year was going to be my last year,” Johnson said. “I take it one day at a time, like I say, and I’m really looking forward to this ballclub. The job that they did last year and playing up to their potential and with the experience under their belt from being in postseason, I like our prospects coming in this year, I like the additions that we made. I just think it’s going to be an awful exciting year.”
More than any outside force, Johnson has ratcheted the standard for the Nationals, coming off a 98-win season and equipped with a new closer (Rafael Soriano), a new center fielder (Denard Span) and an extra year of experience for their youthful roster. Wednesday, Johnson compared the Nationals to his 1986 New York Mets, who captured 108 wins and took the World Series.
Johnson has won six division titles and the one World Series, but he said these Nationals are “unequivocally” the best defensive team he has managed. He added they can also match any of his previous bullpens, starting rotations or benches.
“First of all, if you don’t think you’re going to win, you’ve got no chance,” Johnson said. “My guys felt that way last year, and I think they’re going to feel even more like it this year. . . . I’m going to take the heat if we don’t play well. And they can have all of the trophies when they do play well. I have high expectations and I know everybody in that room has high expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a great feeling.”
Johnson’s confidence has seeped into the clubhouse, where players have embraced their newfound status as a favorite.
“Nobody wants to come in second,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Yeah, World Series or bust. I’m right there with him.”
Johnson succeeds, in part, by handing power over to the players. Desmond said Johnson’s penchant for sticking with players through slumps has been crucial. After the Nationals acquired Span, moving Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth to the corner outfield spots, Johnson simply asked Werth, the veteran, if he wanted to play left or right. He puts expectations on his players, but tries to direct pressure to himself.
“I’m very comfortable with the talent on this ballclub, top to bottom, 1 through 25,” Johnson said. “I’m going to try my damndest not to mess it up.”
Said General Manager Mike Rizzo: “The players respect him, he gets the most out of them, and that’s a big reason we’re where we’re at.”
Johnson, at times, will show how age has mellowed him. His wife, Susan, convinced him last year to take an African safari, which they went on in January. When he was younger, Johnson would have found an excuse not to go.
“It was a great trip,” Johnson said. “I like Africa. I didn’t get eaten by any lions or leopards. I thought at one time I was going to get run over by a bull elephant. We were within 10 feet of animals in a big land rover. I took the highest seat. I figured they’d eat the people down below me before they’d get to me.”
Johnson ticked off the highlights from his trip. He watched a lion eat a warthog. He spotted three white rhinos. He survived a herd of water buffalo. One day, he and Susan went fishing. They caught a tuna, and that night they took it home and cooked it for dinner.
“Seventy is just a number for him,” reliever Drew Storen said.
Johnson refuses to dwell on this being final year. The Nationals and Johnson agreed, in writing, early in the offseason that he would manage in 2013 and then step into a consultant role. Still, his grand presence makes it hard for some players to believe he will leave the dugout.
“He’ll be back next year,” Desmond said. “It’s hard to walk away from baseball. As you can see, especially for him.”
Johnson will leave that for another day. For now, he will watch pitchers and catchers prepare for a season unlike any since baseball returned to Washington.
“It’s one thing trying to climb the hill,” Johnson said. “It’s another thing when you actually have that X on your back. But it just makes it more fun.”