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.