Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

Mike Wise: Davey Johnson, wrapping up his run on his own terms

Davey Johnson is asked whether this will be the first stop in his major league managerial career where he won’t wear out his welcome.

The lifer cups his chin, thinks about all those former pain-in-the-rear owners he worked for over the years. Eight seconds later, he nods.

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“Probably,” the Washington Nationals’ skipper said. “Yeah.”

He adds, somewhat cryptically, “I know for sure the Lerners are going to be very happy that it’s my last year.”

Half a season down after Sunday, 81 games to go — Davey-being-Davey’s last season in the majors.

That’s 3,799 games and counting as either a manager or a player. That’s almost six decades that began with his April 1965 debut with the Baltimore Orioles.

He’s been National League comeback player of the year. He’s been AL and NL manager of the year. And if there were an award for NL comeback manager of the year, he’d really covet that plaque too.

“Any time guys don’t play up to their potential, I’m not handling them right,” he said recently. “Maybe I’m not puttin’ enough pressure on them, maybe I’m not giving them enough opportunity.

“I pride myself on not making a whole lot of mistakes. As far as when I start dealing with players’ psyches, I don’t want them to think I don’t have confidence in them. But I also want to go with the best chance to help us be successful that day.”

Davey knows this hasn’t been his best year so far. He occasionally uses the term “failure” to describe the job he’s doing with a middling, maddening ballclub that can’t seem to build off any big win.

“If you don’t look in the mirror, and you don’t constantly try to think of things you could do to make it easier for everybody to succeed, you are a failure,” he says.

In what feels like a blink, the most overachieving team in baseball in 2012 has already become 2013’s overhyped underachievers, their health and starting pitching of a year ago unable to carry their anemic bats the first three months of this season.

“A lot of the philosophy in hitting approach changes,” he says of an offense that Saturday scored two runs or fewer for the 35th time in 80 games in a 5-1 loss to the Mets. “And some of the thought processes you try to get across and your hitting coach tries to get across, sometimes it takes a little while to get across — you know what I’m sayin’?

“Offensively, we haven’t done the things I feel we need to do. Last year the young guys came in and did a great job right out of the chute. We haven’t made the adjustments to continue having that success. But it’s not only been the young guys, it’s been some of the veterans in the same way.

“But when they don’t play up to potential, that’s where I feel I’ve failed. Because all my clubs play up to their potential.”

Like his hitters, Davey has been guessing too much. He gave Danny Espinosa too long a leash, stubbornly believing he would turn it around. He’s played Steve Lombardozzi in the outfield too much. Early on he played musical chairs with the bullpen and especially Drew Storen, making the club’s former closer guess when and if he would be pitching, mistakenly opting twice in big spots for Fernando Abad instead.

“I think the Lerners are comfortable that my work here is gonna be done after this year,” he reiterates again, never going further than that.

The “World Series or bust” line was no more than a routine Davey boast. But he has tweaked the clubhouse and beyond by mentioning specific injuries of his players or disagreeing with their assessments — including his young stars. The latest was Bryce Harper’s minor-league rehabilitation for his knee, which Harper thought should last longer and start later than his manager.

“When a player starts playing, it’s really up to me, what I think they need,” he said at the time. “Not up to the player.”

General Manager Mike Rizzo says his first hire in 2009 has always been a manager who “tells it like it is,” adding that he’s not worried about any organizational friction because of Davey’s penchant for flapping his gums.

“I can attest, as the general manager, the manager has not worn out his welcome,” Rizzo says. “The truth is, I think Davey is as dumb as a fox. He’s an intelligent baseball man, who knows the things to say and do to motivate guys. He’s still the ultimate players’ manager.”

He’s won 98 games in Washington and Baltimore, quitting the Orioles hours after he was voted the AL manager of the year in 1997. Peter Angelos ticked him off. Damn owner. Again.

“But, you know, whatever place I went to, no matter how it ended, I always felt like I left the organization in better shape than when I got there,” Johnson said. Davey isn’t growing wistful or nostalgic. At 70, he said he’s not done even after his final season with the Nationals ends.

“I might manage in that Florida Collegiate summer league again,” he says. “I like to travel. I’ve been in every baseball community in the Far East and Europe. I’m in for maybe doin’ something in Australia. I like the fishin’ down there and you got some good baseball players coming out of there.”

Asked finally if he keeps hinting that he really wants to come back for another season and ownership simply won’t let him, he smiles and shakes his head, no.

“My idea is to help develop this talent for the long haul,” Davey says. “I’m good at that. And I think, you know, I don’t want to wear out my welcome either.”

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

 
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