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.