Johnson Remains Orioles' Unforgettable Fire

Davey Johnson, shown in 1997, came back to visit the Orioles.
Davey Johnson, shown in 1997, came back to visit the Orioles. "I couldn't wait to ask him things," current Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo said. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Boswell
Friday, March 24, 2006


Nothing has been the same for the Orioles since the day Davey Johnson left. Thursday, he came back. Once more, he was perched on the Baltimore bench although, ironically, it was in the spring training home of the Nationals, the least favorite team of Peter Angelos. With Davey, you always have to make sure the olive branch isn't really poison ivy. Still, maybe it's a sign.

For eight losing seasons, ever since Johnson was "given my walking papers" the same day he was named AL manager of the year in 1997, everything has gone wrong for Baltimore. Did Davey, caustic, stubborn and proud, put a curse on 'em?

Maybe Johnson, 63, hasn't entirely forgiven and he certainly hasn't forgotten. But he's over it. The anger is gone. So is the "ill will" and "animosity" that he says he carried for years toward Angelos. Partly, the change of perspective is probably because Johnson almost died in late 2004 with a medical condition that withered his frame by 70 pounds and had doctors at the Mayo Clinic repeatedly "asking me if I had a living will." He's recovered now, looking fitter than when he left Baltimore. But he's lost some of the edge that made him famous or, perhaps, he's simply replaced it with the acceptance and grace of age.

Partly, his return to visit the Orioles, the team he played for, managed and still follows with affection, is the result of the flowers that Angelos sent to the funeral of Johnson's daughter, Andrea. That gesture snapped something in their clenched-jawed ill will.

True to the silliness of feuds in baseball, it also helped that Angelos funded a Greek team in the '04 Olympics and Davey, managing a group of comparably inept Dutch men, beat the Angelos-backed bunch. "They were terrible. They couldn't get it out of the [batting] cage," grinned Johnson, tale-spinning in his Texas twang. "I don't know what they'd have been like if Peter hadn't helped them out. So, that eased the animosity. That and the flowers."

"That and the flowers." In Johnson's face, it's hard to say how many emotions are at play in a man so smart he has an advanced degree in mathematics, was 15 years ahead of the curve in using exotic statistics devised by a Johns Hopkins professor in his strategy and made his first million in real estate in the 1960s long before he became an all-star with the Orioles.

Davey still gives you "aw, shucks" and spits tobacco on the dugout concrete. It's easy to forget he flies planes and played scratch golf. And that, when he played for Earl Weaver, he loved to take the manager's money at gin -- just to show Earl who was smarter. Not the best idea? Some percentages Davey never could play, especially the ones that told you when to back off from the boss and when to confront him. Johnson's gears didn't include reverse.

Now, part of that person, who led the Mets to the '86 World Series crown but also got fired everywhere he managed, has definitely mellowed. Walking around with a burst appendix for a year -- and not knowing what's wrong with you -- will do that to you. Especially when doctors says that, by 60, your appendix has either been removed or else it's never going to burst.

"That's just like my whole life," said Johnson. "Typical of me to have something nobody's supposed to have at that age."

Johnson's high threshold for pain didn't help the doctors get the right diagnosis either. "I never liked to admit I was hurt," he said. "I survived 40 years of baseball without an ulcer and this gets me.

In 2004, "they thought I had [acute] pancreatitis, which can be lethal. Every time I went in the hospital, they asked if I had a living will. I told them: 'My wife Susan has the right to pull the plug on me. But exhaust all avenues, will ya, 'cause she'll do it.' "

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company