Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson remembers “fun journey” after final game

Christian Petersen/Getty Images - Nationals Manager Davey Johnson waves to the crowd in Phoenix before his finale.

PHOENIX — A few minutes after 10 a.m. Sunday, Davey Johnson sat in the black leather chair behind his desk and fiddled with a remote control. “What the [heck] is this thing doing?” he said. He watched the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays on the television in the corner. The detritus from the baseball season spread on his desk: a tin of Copenhagen, his Washington Nationals cap, a bottle of red wine, a toiletry bag and Saturday night’s lineup card.

The uniform hung on a wire hanger behind him on the doorknob to the bathroom in his office, “JOHNSON” across the shoulders and “5” in the middle. Johnson first pulled on a major league uniform some 60 years ago at Tinker Field in Orlando as the Washington Senators’ bat boy. He decided then that was his dream: a life in baseball. He would pull that uniform on one more time, and then that life would end.

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“Felt funny waking up,” Johnson said. “Felt funny for a while.”

Game 162 for the Nationals, a 3-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks populated by rookies, call-ups and reserves, served as Game 2,445 for Johnson. He made all-star teams, won World Series, protected players and clashed with owners. He assumed control of the Nationals 21 / 2 years ago and viewed himself as a problem solver. He shepherded baseball in Washington to heights unseen in 79 years.

In Johnson’s last season, a year he branded “World Series or Bust,” the Nationals finished 86-76 and second in NL East. Their late-season surge ultimately marooned them four wins shy of the postseason. Johnson departed after a season of unmet expectations but still steadfast he left the franchise in better condition than he found it. On Sunday, not before scheduling a Wednesday tee time, he bid farewell.

“It’s kind of like birthdays,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “I don’t really like them. Holidays, the end of stuff — I try not to think about it. Did you see that clip of Mariano [Rivera]? That was just devastating. That hurt. I hate the end of stuff.”

The day’s emotion pulled on everyone, but Johnson tried not to allow it to drag on him. He talked about managing in the Florida Collegiate Summer League next summer and a trip to Bora Bora and coaching baseball in Australia. Johnson does not see the end. He sees what will come next.

“It’s not like I’m dying tomorrow,” Johnson said. “Good lord. There’ll be something I can do.”

Johnson’s final act came in the eighth inning, when he took the ball from reliever Ryan Mattheus after Arizona’s two-run rally. Tanner Roark had put the Nationals in position with seven one-run innings, a cap to his sensational first two months in the majors.

“Time to go home,” Johnson said afterward. “Put me out to pasture.”

The Diamondbacks recognized Johnson before the first pitch with a list of his achievements, which someday may land him in the Hall of Fame. He won division titles with four different teams, and he finished his managerial career 1,372-1,071 — a .562 winning percentage, highest of any living manager.

After the public address announcer quieted, the crowd rose and cheered. Johnson waved his hand, danced a jig and scampered back into the dugout.

“The organization’s going to miss him,” right-hander Dan Haren said. “I’m going to miss him. . . . He’s meant a lot to the game of baseball.”

Johnson felt grateful for his time in baseball, and for the cosmic set of circumstances that pulled him back to the dugout. In 2011, Johnson was serving as a consultant to General Manager Mike Rizzo. In June, he went on a fishing trip with John Havlicek, the basketball legend. He had an Alaskan vacation planned for later in the summer with his wife, Susan.

On June 23, Laynce Nix hit a walk-off sacrifice fly that ran the Nationals’ streak to 11 wins in 12 games under Manager Jim Riggleman, who had been annoyed at his contract terms. Loud music pulsed through the home clubhouse at Nationals Park. Rizzo entered the room, and the music stopped. “We accepted Jim’s resignation,” Rizzo announced.

“I remember the feeling of, we should be celebrating right now,” Werth said. “It was such a buzzkill. We were hot. It was like somebody pulled the rug from beneath you. That was rough.”

The Nationals called Johnson. He had not managed since 2000, and a series of health scares and personal tragedies had kept him on baseball’s periphery, coaching international teams and small colleges. Now, a heart operation had rejuvenated him. The death of beloved son-in-law, Jake Allen, at 34, had rocked him. But Allen required special needs, and Johnson suddenly had time.

Johnson took the job. He guided the Nationals for the final three months and showed up next spring training boasting that the Nationals could fire him if the Nationals didn’t win the division. They did, and there was postseason baseball in Washington for the first time since 1933.

“I got to give it to him,” Werth said. “We were pretty desperate when he took the job. I don’t think we could have found a better guy. It was like a match made in heaven.”

“He was uncanny in showing confidence in his guys,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “And it never wavered.”

Johnson will remain with the Nationals as a senior advisor, but his presence will diminish. He said he would avoid Viera, Fla., during spring training “out of respect to” the next manager. He also has no plans to manage again.

“I wouldn’t know the talent level, wouldn’t know the organization,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be a good fit. I think those are the things you have to, you have to know the talent there. That would be something, I’m always open. I never say never to anything. I’m always open for new challenges. But I don’t see that as being a challenge that would get my motor really revved up.”

Johnson’s grinning bravado lasted until the end. He said he would not offer an opinion to Rizzo about his successor. No need. “Well, the last manager he hired did a good job,” Johnson said. “So he’s got pretty good judgment.”

Johnson swatted away questions about superlatives. He does not think about his best team, his fondest memory, his toughest loss. “Where do you guys come up with the stuff?” he said. He keeps his focus on today, right now. He knows he’s playing golf Wednesday.

Sunday afternoon, he took his uniform off.

“I felt really lucky to have had the big league experiences I’ve had as a player and as a manager,” Johnson said. “When you love a game as much as I love this game and like the competition, you just enjoy it. I don’t worry about what happened or what I did or where I was at. Those are experiences that hopefully make you smarter and hopefully you can pass that on to some other players or managers and give something back. It’s been quite a journey. A fun journey.”

 
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