The change in the Nats’ spring training camp from last year is as stark as you’ll ever see. In February, before exhibition play began, practice time was almost chopped in half to two hours. The Nats hit the field at 10 a.m., not 8:30 a.m. But their focus seemed more intense and their spring pace went from a walk to a jog. Many managers want to put in lots of time so a bad April isn’t blamed on them. Davey lets ’em hit the golf course.
Yet most don’t go. So many Nats stick around to lift weights and train that Johnson calls the Nats “a workaholic team. There are no ‘laurel-sitters’ here.” By offering flexibility, he lets them have full credit for initiative. Or lack of it. If you cut out fast after every brisk practice, your teammates notice. Besides, Johnson is in there lifting weights beside them. He wants to take some grounders at second base soon and, at 69, batting practice, too.
“I’m not even sure most of ’em know I ever played,” says Johnson, who started in three World Series, made four all-star teams, won four Gold Gloves and once hit 43 homers — seven more than any of his players.
Johnson doesn’t just have an open-door policy; he walks up and starts chatting, needling or telling stories. If you don’t love baseball and want to study every nuance, stay away from him so the guys who want to learn can join his non-stop seminar. Be on time, don’t embarrass the club, play smart and relaxed, with confidence and attitude, that’s all he asks. And have fun.
Johnson sums up his goal for the ’12 Nationals in six words: “Play smart and be more relaxed.” If you want to read a critique of his predecessor into that, you may miss his point. Johnson thinks most teams in his 51 years around the game have played tight, dumb and insecure. “The joy in managing is helping a person release their potential,” said Johnson.
“You have to be able to relax and concentrate — both at once. Robin Roberts and Stan Musial taught me that,” he says. “Relax, relax, relax, throw the hell out of the ball. Relax, relax, relax, hit the hell out of the ball.”
It’s a mystery, this sport where too much intensity is your enemy, but so is too little focus. The archetypal “gamer,” the ideal player who is in sync with his sport, is like a tuning fork that achieves perfect pitch; the gamer seems to vibrate with the proper frequency for each specific day — bringing more intensity to a boring hot July night, more calm to an October crisis.