The one-sided conversation lasted just long enough for Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson to deliver his message with the subtlety of a hammer striking a nail. Shortstop and leadoff batter Ian Desmond nodded attentively while bringing to mind the image of a wet carpet, a puppy and a rolled-up newspaper.
Entering spring training, Desmond altered his batting stance after Johnson and hitting coach Rick Eckstein essentially provided him with around-the-clock help late last season to develop an approach they all liked. The changes jumped out at Johnson as quickly as Philadelphia Phillies fans reveal their lack of maturity.
Frustrated that Desmond deviated from the script, Johnson — who plans his day in an attempt to eliminate surprises on the field — could have initiated an immediate in-your-face confrontation. With many managers, a batting-cage showdown would have occurred. Instead, Johnson did what he has throughout a managerial career that has been as successful as his all-star one as a player: He put the player first.
No sense in embarrassing a young player working hard to improve, Johnson thought to himself, so he let Desmond go his own way for a couple of days. Then he told him to get back to what they agreed on (an attack-minded stance). Desmond did.
Desmond’s fire-engine-red start this season was further proof Johnson knows best. Not that Desmond and the Nationals needed more.
“He’s definitely well respected by me and the rest of the ballclub,” said Desmond.
“If Davey has a piece of advice for me, if there’s something he wants me to do a certain way, I’m gonna be 100 percent open ears. I’m definitely gonna try to do whatever he says, knowing that it’s coming from a place where I should listen. I don’t think anyone in here looks at it any other way.”
The surprising National League East leaders are built on a strong-armed foundation of young pitching. Rookie outfielder Bryce Harper is Major League Baseball’s most intriguing superstar-in-training. And General Manager Mike Rizzo has built a top-notch farm system atop the rubble he inherited.
A seen-it-all players’ manager, however, is the driving force behind a group that suddenly seems very comfortable no longer being at the bottom of the standings and the butt of jokes. With straightforward talk and a door that’s always opened, Johnson has inspired the Nationals, who have overcome injuries to key players in making an early jump among the big league’s best.
The Nationals are improving their image despite an offense that’s as productive as the New York Knicks are once the calendar changes to May. For the Nationals, it starts in the dugout with Johnson, whose World Series-winning résumé discourages anyone from challenging authority.
Johnson’s effective late-game chess moves have shown players he still has “it.” The Nationals also respect Johnson for the personal connection he seems to make with every member of the 25-man roster, which is simply the way he has always rolled.
Knowing the right approach to take with Desmond wasn’t Johnson at his best. It was Johnson doing what he does each day.
Striving for fewer strikeouts, Desmond spread his legs more and raised his hands higher in the batting stance he unveiled after reporting in February to the club’s complex in Viera, Fla. “Just trying to make contact more,” Desmond said in explaining his thinking months ago.
“The strikeouts . . . they had to be addressed. I was trying to get better.”
Johnson isn’t as worried about Desmond’s strikeouts — providing Desmond steadily develops into the No. 3-type hitter Johnson believes he possesses the potential to eventually become. Desmond’s opening stance in the spring may have reduced his strikeouts at the expense of his power.
“He was so spread out, his hips were locked,” Rizzo said. “He couldn’t turn on the ball. Davey couldn’t let that happen.”
Nothing in sports is more difficult than hitting a baseball. Former all-star outfielder Gary Sheffield (he won a batting championship and was a five-time Silver Slugger winner) once told me hitting was so difficult at times it was like trying to catch the wind in your hands. “And when you going bad,” Sheffield continued, “it’s real windy out there.”
When players are trying to become established, they’ll try anything to gain an edge at the plate. Extra film sessions, bringing in their feet in the batter’s box, spreading them apart, adjusting the positioning of their hands — the tinkering can be endless.
“They all do that,” Johnson said. “They’re impressionable. Anybody could say something to a young player that makes ’em think: ‘Lemme give that a shot. Maybe it’ll make me better.’ Know what I mean?”
Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. After so many years dealing with players, he should have an honorary PhD in psychology. He’s as skilled at handling them as Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld is at persuading team owner Ted Leonsis to stay the course.
“I told him, ‘I don’t know what Cracker Jack box you pulled that out of, but we’re gonna get back to being Ian Desmond,’ ” Johnson said. “He was thinking about getting on base . . . having a higher on-base percentage.
“I knew he was trying to do it for the right reasons. But if he just attacks the ball the way he’s capable of, and does what he’s capable of doing, he’ll get on base. You just have to talk to ’em and let ’em know. And they gotta believe ya.”
The Nationals do. And Johnson it making it easy for them to buy in completely.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.
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