Retaining Davey Johnson next season as Nationals manager is Mike Rizzo’s only viable option


Mike Rizzo must bring Davey Johnson back next season, even though there’s no guarantee that everyone in the Nationals’ clubhouse will mesh with him. (LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS)
Jason Reid
Columnist June 28, 2011

The hero’s welcome new Manager Davey Johnson has received from the Washington Nationals is appropriate under the circumstances.

In agreeing to come out of semi-retirement, Johnson has bailed out General Manager Mike Rizzo, staggered last week by Jim Riggleman’s haymaker resignation. The Nationals’ front-office crisis ended quickly because of Johnson’s credibility, and they have to stick with Johnson beyond this season even if the excitement fades quickly.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Regardless of how the team fares for the remainder of 2011, Rizzo still must bring him back in the lead role next season. If Johnson fails to display the championship touch he previously did in New York, Cincinnati and Baltimore, Rizzo will have to overlook his rustiness while exercising the ballclub’s 2012 option to retain Johnson as manager.

Despite potential personality conflicts that could arise between Johnson and players — and some probably will because that’s just the way it usually works in a clubhouse full of egos — moving forward with Johnson in the dugout is the only viable option. That’s the situation Rizzo has created.

“We’re just not really looking at that [next year] right now, it’s not the focus,” Johnson said Sunday in a phone interview. “I’m just looking forward to getting to know all the players better.”

With a reputation for being a player’s manager, Johnson, in his first 14 seasons, was as good as it got at handling any type of roster.

He led the Mets’ young, talented group of the 1980s to a World Series title. The veteran Reds and Orioles also responded well to his style.

If anything, Johnson’s critics contend, he was too easygoing. The Mets probably would have won more World Series championships, they say, if Johnson had reined in that hard-charging group.

Johnson has always prided himself on supporting players. It’s among the reasons so many played hard for him over such a long time, he believes.

 There are no guarantees, though, that everyone in the Nationals’ clubhouse will mesh with Johnson. Frustration rises when teams struggle, and the Nationals, obviously, will not remain as hot as they have been recently.

All it takes is for one comment to be made in anger. One thinly veiled criticism is enough to ignite controversy.

Although it’s doubtful players would challenge the authority of Johnson, who has top-notch credentials as a manager and former all-star player, as they occasionally did with Riggleman, surprising stuff sometimes happens.

Starter Jason Marquis probably would think twice about going nose to nose with Johnson, who has the backing of Rizzo and the Lerners that Riggleman lacked. Outfielder Jayson Werth surely would keep his thoughts to himself during a rough stretch for the club, or after he failed again with runners in scoring position. But it’s impossible to imagine every scenario in which trouble could occur.

And then there’s the issue of whether Johnson can still manage effectively after nearly an 11-year break.

When he last managed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2000, Johnson still saw all the angles. He’s 68 now.

Johnson has forgotten more than some current managers have ever known, and he stayed in the game in various capacities during his long layoff, but that’s not the same as playing chess against Tony La Russa in the late innings with the score tied. Johnson has to prove he can still do it.

The Lerners gave Johnson a new three-year contract to persuade him to increase his efforts for them, and Rizzo recently said Johnson is “part of the furniture.”  He will be a leading candidate during the upcoming managerial search mandated by Major League Baseball or play a key part in selecting the next manager, remaining with the Nationals in an expanded advisory role through at least 2013.

It would be ludicrous to have Johnson occupying a powerful position within the organization and expect a new manager to function confidently.

The next guy would constantly look over his shoulder. Every questionable managerial move, clubhouse problem or losing streak would stir speculation in the organization and media about Johnson’s possible return.

After joining Rizzo’s staff prior to the 2010 season, Johnson repeatedly told reporters he had no interest in resuming his managerial career. His thinking quickly changed after Riggleman’s stunner. Rizzo was in a jam and Johnson wanted to help.

If Johnson moved back upstairs again and claimed to be done, well, let’s just say there would be doubters. The Nationals need to avoid more potential internal conflict. Finding new ways to fuel drama isn’t the right move.

Surely, Rizzo and Johnson understood the consequences of taking this route. Johnson was the solution to Rizzo’s problem resulting from Riggleman’s double-bird departure, and there is no solid Plan B with Johnson having such significant standing in the organization now.

“If they want me to be a part of it next year” as the manager, Johnson said, “then that’s fine, too.”

The Nationals will assemble a pool of qualified applicants for manager. They’ll interview a minority candidate as required. Rizzo will do everything he must for appearance’s sake before announcing he already had the best man in place. He’ll just have to hope the right people feel similarly after actually watching Johnson work.

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