Mike Rizzo-Davey Johnson spat: Only mistake was letting people hear it

Thomas Boswell
Columnist August 28, 2012

Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo often comes to Manager Davey Johnson’s office after games to talk baseball, kick around ideas and even blow off steam. Rizzo’s admiration for Johnson often borders on hero worship.

However, a smart baseball man once told Rizzo, “It’s the general manager’s job to manage the manager.” Actually, that smart man was Davey Johnson himself. So, after the Phillies swept the Nats on Sunday, Rizzo figured he should do some manager managing: bad idea and really bad timing.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Perhaps a better plan for Rizzo, after a weekend of fuming at the mental mistakes of his Nats, would have been a cool beverage upstairs, a day to chill out and a chat with Johnson on Monday.

“That would have been the prudent management strategy,” Rizzo said dryly Tuesday. “Not the best timing on the part of the general manager.”

Instead, Rizzo followed his impulse, something he’s prone to doing. What followed was one of baseball’s more familiar — but seldom-seen — events: two intense competitors, who respect each other, blowing a fuse.

“You come down and manage the club,” reporters heard Johnson say. Or maybe that quote should be in all capital letters.

“Davey and I are two passionate baseball guys,” Rizzo said ruefully Tuesday. “We spar and discuss and fight. We do that all the time. I love the guy. The only thing we did wrong was we didn’t close the door.”

However, as wrong things go, this wasn’t a small one. When you have the best record in baseball, a five-game lead in your division but, also, four sloppy losses in a row hanging over your head, you want outward calm.

The Johnson-Rizzo relationship has been rock-solid even since Rizzo hired him as a consultant “to make me look smarter” three years ago. There’s more than respect between them, there’s gratitude aplenty. Rizzo brought Johnson back after 11 years away from managing. A former AL GM said last weekend, “It’s hard to believe that just three years ago nobody would touch Davey.”

Johnson’s experience and credibility were a godsend to Rizzo. After team president Stan Kasten, a mentor, quit near the end of the 2010 season, Rizzo’s plate was full to overflowing. When Jim Riggleman angrily quit as manager in a contract dispute with Rizzo last June, the GM needed not only a fine manager but a friend and sounding board. They semi-saved each other.

But the pressure of a pennant race can produce combustibility, especially if you assume you’re on such firm ground little can go wrong. If Rizzo and Johnson weren’t tight, they wouldn’t have been in the same room after such a tough series. If they weren’t confident they could speak freely, the sparks wouldn’t have flown. And then lit dynamite, if only for a minute.

With the Nats already under scrutiny for Rizzo’s decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg, no new fuel was needed for more fires. Rizzo has had plenty of e-mails from baseball lifers he respects, saying they understand what happened and how little weight it probably carries in the Nats’ clubhouse. Some also add, “But that can’t happen.”

The phrase “that can’t happen” is usually reserved for mental errors. When Danny Espinosa was thrown out stealing with no outs in the ninth with the Nats behind 4-2 on Saturday, you say, “That can’t happen.” When Sean Burnett, in a one-run game, gave up steals of second, then third base, that can’t happen either.

When Bryce Harper taps back to the mound, then slow trots to first base, allowing Cliff Lee to expose his lack of hustle by walking over to tag him, that shouldn’t happen. When vets Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth go into their home run trots on what turns out to be a double off the top of the wall (with LaRoche tagged out), that’s bizarre; but it still can’t happen.

So add Rizzo and, to a lesser degree, Johnson to the naughty list from the weekend’s Philly fiasco. “Davey protected his players. He did his job perfectly,” Rizzo said. “He deflected criticism from them.”

Of course, galling mistakes (that “can’t happen”) keep occurring all the time in baseball. Then you play again the next day. The game doesn’t create good mental health; but it certainly selects for those who are resilient and can reboot their psyches the next day. “Bull Durham” almost had it right: Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose; sometimes it rains. Sometimes you just have to cuss till you feel better. But with the door closed.

The atmosphere of the current Nats is reminiscent of the old First Amendment Orioles under Earl Weaver where Johnson broke into the big leagues. There, freedom of speech was the rule. When Mike Cuellar complained about being taken out of the rotation, Weaver said, “I gave Cuellar more chances than my first wife.” When Jim Palmer got grumpy, Weaver said, “I’m going to send [pitching coach] Ray Miller out to the mound to bring Palmer back in by his diapers.”

Now that the Nats are a good team, awful things will happen to them. Or at least they will feel awful. Good teams, and their fans, suffer more.

Behavioral psychologists have experimented to measure how people react to winning or losing money. Even when the subjects are “spotted” the cash, so that they can’t really lose, they still have much more powerful emotional reactions to losing than to winning — about two-to-one.

The Nats, and their fans, are going to go through something similar. They’ll visit every emotional purgatory, this year, for several years. On the way to winning under pressure, a learning curve is required. They call it that because it sounds mean to call it what it really is: a suffering curve.

“The defeats are much more difficult to accept now when you’re good than when you were bad,” Rizzo said. “That’s another reason it’s so good to have Davey. He’s smooth and steady.” (Hold that thought.)

What is a proper baseline for measuring baseball exasperation? So far, the Nats have had seven “losing streaks” of at least three games. The worst has been 0-5. In those skids, combined, they are 0-26. How bad is that?

In 50 years in baseball, Johnson has endured everything. He breathes “context.” His first full year in the majors, his team had nine losing streaks that totaled 0-31. Those were the ’66 Orioles. They won the World Series. In ’96, when he managed the Orioles, they had eight slumps that totaled 0-32. They reached the AL Championship Series. The manageable bumps the Nats have suffered this year actually suggest an excellent team, not a weak one.

There’s a small chance this skid becomes a slide that turns into a full-blown slump that mutates into a collapse. But that takes weeks, not days. And it’s unlikely, in part because the Nats themselves know how close — and unfiltered — Rizzo and Johnson have always been.

Two days after the fuss, how are things now?

“We’re beautiful,” Rizzo said.

We’ll see.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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