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Jim Tracy on Davey Johnson: ‘This man is brilliant’

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Sometime late Friday afternoon at Nationals Park, the opposing managers plan to chat while the Washington Nationals and Colorado Rockies begin their work.

Rockies Manager Jim Tracy enjoys baseball’s longtime pre-series tradition, and he’s especially eager to catch up with Davey Johnson, the Nationals’ new manager and Tracy’s longtime mentor.

Johnson played a key role in Tracy becoming a manager, and Tracy remains appreciative of the help, relying on much of what Johnson taught him long ago during their frequent conversations about the game. Johnson is among the best people to have in the dugout if winning is the goal, Tracy believes, and the Nationals chose well in persuading him to lead them.

For the first time, Tracy will compete against Johnson in the teams’ final series before the all-star break, “and you know you’ve got to be prepared against this man because this man is brilliant,” Tracy said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“Okay? Do you understand what I am saying? It’s not that this man is smart, that he knows a few things about this game. This man is a brilliant man. When you sit with this man and watch what he does in a game. . . . I know he’s brilliant because I’ve seen it.”

During the 1999 and 2000 seasons, Tracy and Johnson worked together with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Johnson managed the ballclub and Tracy was the bench coach, essentially the No. 2 man on the coaching staff.

The bench coach is supposed to be the manager’s most trusted adviser. His main job is to provide wise counsel on strategy and in-game decisions. The best bench coaches succeed because they’ve had long relationships with managers.

Problem was, Johnson and Tracy had no past together. Someone else in the organization pushed Tracy for the position, and Tracy knew Johnson “would test me. I knew he needed to see if I would be worth anything to him as far as someone he could trust and rely on. In 1999, I was only a name to him. The man had never met me.”

A demanding but fair boss, Johnson gave Tracy small tasks to handle, which he performed well, so his duties gradually increased. Late in the 2000 season, when it became clear Johnson probably would be fired, he asked Tracy to sit next to him on the team charter after a road series.

Johnson told Tracy how much he had grown to trust him, respect him as a baseball man and as a person in general, both men recalled. Confident that Tracy was ready to manage, Johnson strongly endorsed Tracy to Dodgers officials after Johnson was informed he would not return for the final year of his three-year contract.

The Dodgers hired Tracy, who led the team to the 2004 National League West title. Tracy managed the Dodgers for five years and Pittsburgh for two.

Before the 2009 season, Tracy joined the Rockies as the bench coach. He became the interim manager during the season and wound up being selected as the NL manager of the year after guiding the team to a 74-42 record (.638) and a postseason berth.

Although Tracy may have become a manager at some point without Johnson’s support, “the fact that he was a big sponsor of mine, obviously, meant a lot. When you talk about this man, you’re talking about a man who has won every place he has ever been, and people understand what he has accomplished.”

Which is why Tracy remembers smiling a “wry smile in the corner of my mouth” late last month when he learned Johnson had been lured out of semi-retirement to manage the Nationals after Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned in frustration over management’s unwillingness to discuss his contract status.

Coincidentally, Riggleman succeeded Tracy as the Dodgers’ bench coach after Tracy replaced Johnson. Tracy respects Riggleman and appreciates his efforts for him in L.A., but he’s pleased Johnson received another opportunity after his managing career appeared to end on a bad note almost 11 years ago.

“What the Washington Nationals have in Davey Johnson is a man who knows how to win, what it takes to win, in the game of baseball,” Tracy said. “And knowing Davey, I will say this: If he did not feel like he was sharp enough to be able to do the things that he did back in the day, he would not have come back. He’s much smarter than to put himself in a vulnerable position.

“If he didn’t feel like everything was completely intact to be the same astute guy that he has been for a number of years — when he eventually led the New York Mets to the 1986 World Series and when he won in Cincinnati and Baltimore — then he would not be doing what he’s doing today. Also, knowing the man the way I do, he must feel very good about the organization and what they’re doing.”

After briefly reminiscing with his friend and former teacher, Tracy will quickly refocus on his goal: doing everything he can to outwit Johnson and help the Rockies defeat the Nationals. From first-hand experience, he knows it won’t be easy.

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