Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Nationals in midst of mental makeover under Davey Johnson

For many players, their first full year with Davey Johnson as manager is like a free pass out of jail, plus a ticket to a joy ride. If Johnson had to reduce winning baseball to one word, it might be “Relax.” Novel concept? You bet.

Right now, the Nationals are in the midst of that mental makeover, one that allowed three previous Johnson teams to achieve spectacular and immediate improvement. Short, focused practices, diverse personalities, inside-baseball seminars, high expectations and jokes, they’re all in. Tension and fear of failure are out. Baseball’s oldest skipper now runs one of the game’s youngest ships.

Video

Dave McConnnell dreamed of playing in the majors as a young kid. His dream of joining the majors came true, but in a different way: As the director of game day operations and stadium security at the Washington Nationals spring training camp in Viera, Fla.

Dave McConnnell dreamed of playing in the majors as a young kid. His dream of joining the majors came true, but in a different way: As the director of game day operations and stadium security at the Washington Nationals spring training camp in Viera, Fla.

Videos from Spring Training

Bold predictions for Giants-Royals Game 6, and maybe Game 7

Bold predictions for Giants-Royals Game 6, and maybe Game 7

The Post Sports Live crew predict whether the Kansas City Royals or the San Francisco Giants will win the World Series ahead of Tuesday night's Game 6.

Colt McCoy leads Redskins to win, college football playoff rankings, Wizards season preview

Colt McCoy leads Redskins to win, college football playoff rankings, Wizards season preview

The Washington Post's Jonathan Forsythe, Mike Wise, Keith McMillan and Neil Greenberg analyze Monday night's surprising Redskins win over the Cowboys, debate whether quarterback Robert Griffin III or Colt McCoy should start against the Vikings on Sunday, preview the Wizards season, which opens Wednesday night against Miami, and offer bold predictions for the final World Series games.

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.

Johnson’s calling card has been his ability to bring out the “gamer” in his players and release potential that few others suspected was there. Three times, with the Mets, Reds and Orioles, Johnson’s results have been the same: stunning quick success, with brash Davey predicting the improvement then pulling it off. His touch didn’t click with the Dodgers in 1999 and 2000. But three for four isn’t bad.

All his success was long ago. But what do he or the Nats have to lose? Johnson’s touch has always worked quickly or not at all. He has the third-best career record in 50 years. So, find out.

“We should make the playoffs this year. If we don’t, they can fire me,” he said, to boost his team’s confidence and put any onus on himself.

If a clean-cut look helps Ryan Zimmerman feel most comfortable and confident, that’s great. If Werth shows up with a mane and a foot-long beard, a dude’s got to be himself to produce. Drew Storen is half way to the wild animal look but “I’m not as ‘lionized’ as Werth,” he says.

At one level, Johnson plans strategic changes for the Nats. The little-ball style of ex-manager Jim Riggleman is dead, part of an ancient argument between the Cardinals and Orioles schools of thought on offense.

“With a 2-0, 3-1 count, we’re not going to try to draw a walk and steal second,” says Johnson tartly. “I’d just as soon they hit it off the fence and start out at second base.”

While theory of the game is great, and minute study of proper technique is a Johnson obsession, the manager’s central insight may be that talent wins in baseball far more often than tactics. Because he actually was a second-tier star player in his prime, he appreciates it. A team’s group psychology, its competitive disposition, may matter more than any hit-and-run if it helps promote each player’s ability to find a calm-but-focused place where peak performance can be achieved.

Johnson often praises his old manager Earl Weaver for his innovations or “competitive spirit.” But, like many who played for Weaver, he understands how hard it is for managers, especially who never played well, to release control, abandon their superstitions and trust their players.

“When Earl came up to Baltimore [from managing in AA], he fell into a gold mine,” said Johnson. “He’d be nervous and pacing. [Jim] Palmer used to tell him, ‘Just shut up, smoke another cigarette and let us play.’”

That’s close to Johnson’s own view of his role. Create a relaxed and playful, but studious and ultra-confident atmosphere in which players like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos can discover and fulfill their gifts.

Each day in Florida, the Nationals hear Johnson’s calming voice. “We don’t need any opening day snapdragons out there today,” he tells his pitchers, discouraging sharp curveballs to avoid injury.

“There are only three spots open on this [25-man] team,” he says. “A lot of guys don’t have to prove a lot to me. They’re not going to lose their job to somebody hitting .500 versus AAA pitching.” So, just improve, don’t fret.

Three of the four teams Johnson has managed have responded to this approach by developing individual confidence and a collective identity that allowed them to blow past almost every expectation — except their manager’s — and to do it quickly. Maybe those days are far in the past.

Or maybe not.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
boswell.

 
Read what others are saying