Perceptions do not bother Johnson, and losses do not change him. At 70 and facing the end, the Nationals’ manager knows that might not be true of everyone around him. On Saturday afternoon, Johnson approached Jayson Werth before the Nationals played the Philadelphia Phillies. Johnson grinned and asked the right fielder, “Are you going to be able to put up with me for the next two months?” Werth laughed.
Forty-five games remain in Johnson’s tenure, the last month and a half of what he called a “trying” season. His final season had the makings of a sendoff, a strong chance to win his second championship, one last ride for an original baseball character. The season he branded “World Series or bust” has seen the Nationals settle at 57-60. He sometimes has disagreed with management, his players sometimes have disagreed with him, and his back hurts.
Still, his players say Johnson remains the same man who helmed a 98-win powerhouse last season. He views his role as a problem solver, and the problems have stacked higher than solutions.
On Monday afternoon, Johnson received an epidural injection to ease pain in his back. Four days earlier, he played golf in the Lerner family’s annual tournament. Before he let his playing partner, Stephen Strasburg, hit his ball for the final five holes, Johnson was landing 275-yard drives in the fairway. “I know how to deal with the pain,” he said.
He read an article last week that called for him to resign and let one of his coaches take over as a rehearsal for next year. In an intermittent, three-decade managerial career, Johnson has been fired four times. Now? He says if the Nationals do not improve in the next month and they believe it would be in their best interest to proceed without him, he would accept it.
“I never wanted to ever get terminated before,” Johnson said. “But if there’s a couple guys in-house and they want to see how they run a club, if these guys don’t respond and start doing the things I know we’re capable of doing, I don’t have a problem.
“I think no matter what transpires here, the future is really bright here. But I want these guys to do the things I know they’re capable of — for their sake. Not for mine. I mean, hell, I shouldn’t even be considered in the equation. You know what I mean?”
The love of the game
Johnson’s point should not be misunderstood. He thinks it is in the Nationals’ best interest for him to stay. He still loves coming to the park every day at 11:30 a.m. He says he still has the same drive as ever.
If Johnson knew the Nationals would be here, three games under .500 in mid-August, he still would have returned for one last season. He loves baseball. He likes management, appreciates the owners and finds joy in watching his players unlock their talent.
“I guess I am showing my age,” Johnson said. “Because I even like the umpires.”
“He’s been the same exact person,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “When you’ve been in the game as long as Davey has and get to the age that he is, I really don’t think you change too much for anyone. You are who you are.”
Johnson’s handle on some corners of the clubhouse has wavered. Many players have chafed at Johnson’s propensity to share sensitive (and sometimes inaccurate) information about their injuries with the media. Privately, they have questioned tactical decisions, such as bullpen usage. One player declined to comment for this story, not wanting to say anything inflammatory.
But support still seems to outweigh resentment. Shortstop Ian Desmond called his time playing for Johnson “a pleasure.” As some — both inside and outside the Nationals’ clubhouse — insist Johnson demand more discipline, the manager allows his players a wide berth.
Johnson has called one team meeting all season, and it lasted five minutes; players said the term “meeting” was too formal. Players take infield and outfield practice on their own in the manner they choose. On weekends, batting practice on the field is optional. The Nationals respect him for it.
“He understands. He played,” Werth said. “He knows everyone is going to do what they need specifically to be ready to play. He believes that’s going to happen, and he believes in his players. It’s really refreshing.”
Before Johnson’s first year in Baltimore in the mid-1990s, Orioles management floated the idea of shrinking the physical space of the clubhouse to eliminate cliques. “That don’t mean” anything, Johnson told them.
“The clubhouse, to me, that’s their home,” he said. “They need to feel very comfortable there. They don’t need to feel in any way intimidated by coaches or managers.
“Everybody deals with adversity differently,” Johnson added. “I keep it inside. Of all the traits I have, some would say it’s a sensible trait, and others would say it’s a bad trait. Get it out. Yell and scream and embarrass . . .somebody. But I’ve never seen the positive side of it.”
The losses have worn on him, though none stung as much as the firing of his friend and hitting coach Rick Eckstein. “That weighs more heavily on me than if it was me that was fired,” Johnson said.
He wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about what he could have done differently or what he could change now. “Maybe I was at fault saying, ‘World Series or bust,’ ” Johnson said. But that was how he felt back in December.
By February, though, he anticipated some of the Nationals’ problems. In December, he still thought they were going re-sign Tom Gorzelanny or Sean Burnett to give left-handed balance to the bullpen. He thought they would add another veteran to the bench. They did not, and sure enough, woeful production from the bench and a mismatched bullpen contributed to the Nationals’ underachievement.
Johnson shared his opinion with General Manager Mike Rizzo, he said, but he still blames himself for not making the roster work.
“To see guys struggle and not do the things [they are capable of], I always feel like it’s my fault,” Johnson said.
What the future holds
He will not miss every part of the job. The plate of salad and pasta from a clubhouse spread, scarfed down before an hour-long bus trip to the airport. Standing all game as his back stiffens and aches. The time not spent with his grandchildren.
Johnson misses Savannah, his German short-haired pointer. She’s 13 and looks older than him. Her little white paws have turned gray. “She does okay,” Johnson said. “She needs more rest. I need more rest.”
Johnson believes people should work until they die. Once he finishes managing, he wants to create an Urban Youth Academy in Orlando; he has the money and knows the right people. He wants to travel to Australia and learn about its baseball culture.
“I figure I got another 10 years shooting in the 70s,” Johnson said. “Another 20 years screwing around with some baseball talent.”
First, another 45 games managing the Nationals. On Saturday, Johnson sat in the dugout and peered at the empty field. The grounds crew erected the batting cage. Bats rattled as clubbies filled the rack.
Bench coach Randy Knorr poked his head around a corner. It is his job to write out Johnson’s lineup card, and he needed to know what to write.
“Same?” Knorr asked.
“Yeah, unless you got any other great ideas,” Johnson said.
“We scored nine runs last night.”
“That’s what I mean. I got to get confirmation.”
“That’s fine with me.”
Knorr turned around and walked down the tunnel so he could post the lineup.
“My left-handers got to start hitting left-handers sooner or later,” Johnson said aloud to no one in particular. He had another day and another problem to solve.