With Davey Johnson back, Nationals will be fun and fascinating


Nationals GM Mike Rizzo says of Davey Johnson: “Davey may have mellowed a little, but he’s still ultra-competitive.” (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 31, 2011

On the great Orioles teams from 1966 to 1971, perhaps only Frank Robinson was ornerier or cockier than Davey Johnson. Even as a fan, you could feel it: He didn’t like your crummy team and he planned to beat ’em tomorrow, too.

In his 15 years as a manager, including two with Oriole teams that went to the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997, he hadn’t changed much. He didn’t think a whole lot of the owner and never spoke to him. He told Cal Ripken he’d lost a step at shortstop; say hello to third base. He told his slugger Bobby Bonilla he’d have to DH a couple of times a week because Davey couldn’t stand to watch him play the outfield every day. “I manage for the 25, not one,” he said.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The day he was named AL manager of the year in ’97, the owner pushed Johnson out the door — and has not had a winning year since then.

All those years, Johnson was a willing throwback to the days of grudges, insults and paybacks. Once, Manager Leo Durocher started riding Johnson by the batting cage. “You’re washed up, Leo. You’re finished,” Johnson shot back, in front of Durocher’s team. If Leo’d been close enough, Davey might have spit tobacco juice on his shoe, too.

“Of course, Leo had his pitcher drill me,” Johnson said, chuckling.

Davey loved to beat Earl Weaver at gin to make sure the Little Genius knew who might be smarter — maybe not a percentage play for a second baseman who was good but far from great. His first bad season, Johnson was traded.

Weaver always moaned that trading for catcher Earl Williams was a disaster. “Did Earl ever say who he traded for Williams?” Davey said. “Me.”

Johnson immediately got tips from Hank Aaron in Atlanta and hit 43 homers. Always keep score; always pay ’em back.

Highly competitive people who are also smart and opinionated have to ask themselves a question: Do you want to be right or do you want to win? Sometimes, you can’t have both. For Davey, it was a tough call. Candid to the point of being cavalier of consequences, he’d sometimes rather “be right” in the argument with a general manager or owner, even if he lost the job.

Often, the analysis of Johnson was that he might be the game’s smartest manager. If he could also pick his spots to take a stand but, sometimes, step aside when it was wise, he might also be the best manager.

In the 11 years Johnson wasn’t managing in the majors, we kept running into each other. Each time, I was certain he’d never manage again. Why? He was just so different from the old posse-on-his-trail Davey. Once, he’d come close to death. He’d had other family tragedies. Also, he and his wife were so happy in their home life that he seemed free of his obsession with baseball. Why would an older-but-wiser Davey jump back into the fire?

When Jim Riggleman took a stand and quit his job because he didn’t think his contract was being handled fairly, the Nats turned to Johnson to manage. It was beyond irony. Johnson was back because Riggleman pulled a Davey Johnson. Except without the .561 career winning percentage.

On Monday, the Nats, as everyone has assumed for two months, hired Johnson to continue as manager for ’12. No-brainer. Johnson is one of GM Mike Rizzo’s baseball heroes and was his first full-time hire when he became GM.

“We just seem to work well together,” Rizzo said Monday. I mentioned the Durocher story. “Okay, we might be a little alike, too,” said Rizzo. “Joe Torre told me I was the only GM ever to be suspended and fined for a confrontation with umpires after a game — up in New York this year. And it was a painful fine. Joe said I should know better because I’m an executive.”

The pair helped each other immediately. Johnson said he didn’t like the way the roster was constructed. “Davey is an innovator. He taught me a whole different way to think about relief pitching — the A and B bullpen,” said Rizzo. “He said, ‘How can you have long winning streaks if you have to go to the same relievers every night? You have to have two bullpens — A and B — and trust them both.’ And he also wants a right-handed and left-handed long man — but not ‘mop-up men.’ He uses them in big spots.”

For his part, Johnson ignored his personal win total and, instead, looked at the Nats from a team-development viewpoint. “It’s like he said, ‘Let me help you answer some questions,” said Rizzo. “He might have won another game or two if he’d used the veterans he had.”

Instead, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, Tom Milone and Brad Peacock got 27 starts. Chris Marrero (.576 OPS), Steve Lombardozzi and Brian Bixler all played, though none hit much. Johnson liked Ryan Matthues (35 games, 2.81 ERA) and expanded Henry Rodriguez’s role and confidence.

Rizzo goes through the players that he thinks Johnson “resurrected” during the season or changed in their batting approach or waited, in the case of Jayson Werth, until he came to him to share batting ideas.

“Davey may have mellowed a little, but he’s still ultra-competitive,” said Rizzo. “He has an uncanny ability to jump players without them taking it wrong. It’s like, ‘Dad just yelled at me and I think he’s right.’ ”

Johnson’s return will certainly be popular with a team that finished on a 14-4 run to reach 80-81, including four-game sweeps of the Mets and Phils on the road in September and a last-week two-of-three series that helped knock the Braves out of the playoffs.

“He was so different as a manager,” said reliever Drew Storen. “He really trusts us and our talents. If we struggle one game, he’s not going to panic and change. He sticks with guys. He was composed every day. There’s no panicking. Guys really like that there’s no panic mode for Davey.

“The biggest thing about him [is] he’s been around, [but] he’s not a guy who’s going to throw it in your face. He just acts like he’s another guy in the clubhouse. He’s a very low-key guy. He also gets fired up when he has to.”

With their announcement Monday, the Nationals have ensured that ’12 will be fun, as well as fascinating, because Johnson had a smile on his face from the moment he got back in the dugout until the season ended. Nobody ever missed managing more, whether he knew it or not. The same day Tony La Russa retired at 67, Davey Johnson re-upped for a year, maybe more, at 68.

Can you be a conspicuously undeniably happy manager? Is that compatible with being as exceptional at a tough job as Johnson once was?

Or is his joy at being back in the hot seat, plus some wisdom born of age and hardship, the quality that he lacked way back then?

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