Davey Johnson, 68, was getting back in the game, back in the uniform, back in the dugout, back in the major leagues. He will begin managing the Nationals on Monday in Anaheim, Calif., as an almost cosmic confluence of life-changes and unexpected opportunity lured him out of the comfort of semi-retirement, nearly 11 years after he last managed in the majors.
“It’s almost shocking to me,” Susan Johnson said in a telephone interview from Winter Park. “It’s not where we thought we’d be on June 24, to say the least.”
For the Nationals, what a stroke of good fortune: At a time of wild upheaval — Riggleman’s resignation over his contract situation came on a landmark day for the franchise, as the Nationals had just risen above .500 as late as June for the first time in six years — they had in their ranks a former managing star such as Johnson.
A four-time all-star second baseman as a player, he was perhaps even more accomplished as a manager. He is a former American League manager of the year (1997, with the Baltimore Orioles). He won a World Series title (1986, with the New York Mets), and four division titles. He has never finished worse than third in a full season as manager. The moment he sets foot in the dugout Monday at Angel Stadium, he becomes the second-winningest active manager in the game, in terms of winning percentage (.564), behind only the New York Yankees’ Joe Girardi (.565).
“The guy’s a fantastic manager,” said Rick Dempsey, who served as Johnson’s bullpen coach in Los Angeles and now works as an Orioles broadcaster. “Watch and see. Not that Riggleman didn’t do a great job, but they’ll take off with Davey. There’s something special about him. He has an intuition that not too many managers have, when to be creative and when to go against the book. He has a strength about him.”
“He’s very smart; he was always a step ahead of everyone else,” said Pat Gillick, who was the Orioles’ general manager during Johnson’s tenure in Baltimore. “And above all, the man can run a pitching staff. There’s nobody better.”
But the Nationals’ fortune, in having Johnson at the ready, was almost certainly more than dumb luck. When Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo brought him on board as a special assistant in Nov. 2009, not long after Riggleman had been made the full-time manager, Rizzo’s respect and affection for Johnson was obvious.
Hiring Johnson, Rizzo said at the time, “is huge for me. He has a brilliant baseball mind.” Whether it was ever said or not, it was understood: If the Nationals ever got in a bind, they might be able to turn to Johnson.
The biggest question with Johnson was whether he wanted to manage in the big leagues again. In the years since his firing from the Dodgers, he had turned down several offers to be a bench coach, and several opportunities to interview for managing jobs. He was occasionally quoted in the media as saying he had no more aspirations to manage in the majors again. He admitted to a case of burnout.
He seemed content managing in smaller doses — a wood-bat collegiate summer league in Florida, the Netherlands team in the world championships in 2003, Team USA in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (where one of his pitchers was Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg) — and living the domestic family life.
“For the first time, we were really part of a community, here in Winter Park,” Susan Johnson said. “We had both assumed we’d probably never go back [to managing], and we were fine with that. We were very happy here.”
Davey Johnson had also had some health scares, including a ruptured appendix in 2005 that nearly killed him after it went untreated for months, having walled itself off in his midsection. Doctors had to drain the infection for three months before they could even operate.
This spring, on Valentine’s Day, Johnson underwent cardiac ablation — in which a catheter is inserted through a vein to the heart — to correct an arrhythmic heartbeat. It was within weeks of that procedure, as Johnson headed over to Viera, Fla., to join the Nationals at spring training, that people who knew him well began to sense something:
He had more energy. He had that old Davey Johnson edge about him.
“When he showed up in camp, coming off the surgery, he just had that fire again,” said Tony Tarasco, who played for Johnson with the Orioles and is now a roving outfield instructor for the Nationals. “He seemed curious about what was going on. He was getting more involved. It was just a sixth sense I had. I always felt like he was going to get back in, but now it just seemed like he wants it. He was ready.”
Susan Johnson sensed it, too. “This spring,” she said, “you could tell he really enjoyed being around the young players. It energized him.”
There was still one more thing tethering Davey Johnson to home. His stepson, Jake, was a special-needs person who had been born blind and deaf, and Davey was both emotionally invested in Jake’s life and an active part of his care. In May, Jake passed away at the age of 34 from pneumonia, with his family at his side. It was the second time Johnson had lost a child; his daughter, Andrea, a former world-class surfer, died in 2005 of septic shock at age 32.
“I didn’t think [Davey] would ever say yes [to a managing job] and go back on the road, because he had made such a commitment to Jake,” Susan Johnson said. “Then, all of a sudden life changed so drastically. It’s as if God just kind of sorted it all out.”
If Davey Johnson returns as the same manager he was in 2000, the Nationals are getting someone with a reputation as a master tactician, someone who made his name in taking over teams on the verge of contention and getting them to the promised land of the playoffs. This, in particular, is of interest to the Nationals, who may be on that verge themselves. Maybe these Nationals are like Johnson’s 1984 Mets, full of exceptional young players about to bust loose.
“Davey is a very good fit in Washington,” said Ed Lynch, who pitched for Johnson with the Mets in the mid-’80s and who later, as a scouting consultant for USA Baseball, helped procure players for Johnson’s 2008 Olympic team. “With that young group of pitchers, there’s no one better. He gets it. For a guy who was such a good offensive player, he has a great feel for pitching.”
Johnson also earned a reputation as a player’s manager — “The thing about Davey that all of us loved was the fact he let us play,” Tarasco said — whose big personality frequently clashed with ownership (as it did in Baltimore) or his GM (as it did in Los Angeles).
“I might be stubborn, and not as outgoing as most people. Yet owners shouldn’t want me to be wishy-washy,” Johnson told Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1999. “They’re entrusting me to lead, and the essence of leadership is to get guys to overcome their fears. The only way to do that is to constantly build them up, sticking by them, even if that means a difference of opinion with an owner, and putting yourself in the line of fire.”
In the nearly 11 years since Johnson last managed in the majors, the game has changed some, veering from the steroids-fueled offensive game of the late 1990s and early 2000s to the more pitching-dominated game of today. The sabermetric revolution and the Internet age subject managers to even more scrutiny. Umpires now review home runs with instant replay. Johnson will have to prove he can adapt to the times.
On Oct. 1, 2000, the Dodgers concluded their season in San Diego, and in what would be the last game of his managerial career until now, Johnson was ejected in the second inning for arguing a balk call. In the stands, Susan Johnson watched him walk back to the dugout and disappear into the tunnel.
“I couldn’t believe this was going to be the last day I see him on a big league field,” she recalled. “It took a toll on him, that life and that job. But I guess he’s had a pretty good breather.”