The Johnsons: Not Your Traditional Couple
By Frank Ahrens
"Mom, you seem to keep getting Davey fired from baseball in every city," Ellie told her. The conversation cast the events of the past few days years, even into ironic relief. Who knew 16-year-olds had such a finely honed sense of comic timing?
As manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Davey Johnson had taken his team to within a few games of the pinnacle of his sport, the World Series, in each of the past two seasons. Yet on Nov. 5 he faxed his resignation to Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos, who almost immediately faxed back his acceptance.
The nut of both missives: Johnson had fined one of his star players and directed him to pay the money to a charity that employed his wife. To Angelos, this was a grossly inappropriate action. And for Johnson, Angelos's reaction was a pretext. Since midsummer, the relationship between the two men had deteriorated to the point where the differences became irreconcilable.
But that happens all the time in baseball (see: "Steinbrenner, George").
What was different this time was that a baseball wife women who usually attract less attention than the guys who roll out the tarp during rain delays was at the center of the controversy.
The Johnsons, however, are no traditional baseball couple.
He is a Type A achiever, regarded as one of baseball's best brains. His knowledge of the sport and mathematician's mind enabled him to stay a step ahead in the endless statistical permutations that drive the game.
She is an energetic organizer and fund-raiser who has worked in politics and charities most of her adult life. She bore a deaf-blind child at 19 and, in the following years, taught him to communicate and helped raised millions for deaf-blind research.
This is a power couple, the kind the Washington area is lousy with. But in baseball a bastion of spitting, scratching maledom they are an anomaly. With the conflict over Susan Johnson's job, they have transcended the sometimes inbred world of sports to become a Public Couple (aĵ la Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver or Michael and Arianna Huffington).
Especially since the husband left a $750,000-a-year job, in part because of his wife. People wonder: How much influence does this strong-willed woman have on her very public husband? Has her independence been a liability in an arena where many wives slip quietly into an Ozzie-and-Harriet lifestyle?
Around the Johnson household, it's become the stuff of family jokes.
That would be Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, famous for her dog who has the run of the field and her laudatory comments about Nazi Germany, who publicly disapproved of the Johnsons' cohabitation before they were married. (They tied the knot at sunset on Jan. 15, 1994, on Islamorada in Davey's beloved Florida Keys.) Schott said it "bothered" her that the divorcees were living together without being married. Not long after, she fired Johnson as manager of the (winning) Reds. Cause and effect? With Schott, who can tell? The Cincinnati media agreed that she never liked Johnson. But the episode was Susan's first foray into the media storm. Last month, she was in the thick of it again.
After Davey Johnson fined second baseman Roberto Alomar $10,500 for missing a team banquet in April and an exhibition game in July, he told the player to write the check to the Carson Scholars Fund, named for Benjamin Carson, the Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon who established it. Susan is managing director of the fund. That night, the manager told his wife about the fine and she faxed Carson, telling him to expect some money soon.
But it never came. Alomar balked. Angelos, concerned about a conflict of interest, supported the second baseman and upbraided Johnson for not telling him about the fine.
Davey Johnson was in trouble again, the latest incident in a two-year series of head-butts with Angelos. And Susan was at least a partial scapegoat. Again.
"When she got dragged into it, that was the hardest blow of the whole year," Johnson says. "That was really hard for me to take."
Here in the screened-in back porch of their sizable one-story central Florida home they are at ease, one week into the ex-manager's unemployment. A lizard scuttles up the door as a neighbor's pet geese honk madly in the canal behind the house. There used to be one more goose, but a gator got him. The house is filled with black lacquered furniture and glass tables. Mirrors cover the walls. But don't blame Susan after her husband was fired as the Mets manager in 1990, he bought this house from two interior decorators, furniture included. A very guy-athlete thing to do. There's a pool in the back yard, and Susan has a potting shed for orchids. Spanish moss drapes an old live oak that has one foot on land, the other in the canal. The air is thick and scented with rain. Davey keeps looking at the sky, itching to get out to his country club and hit some golf balls. This is his home turf. Here, they can be Davey and Susan, not the baseball man and his high-profile wife. Here, Susan doesn't have to worry that she's hurting her husband's career.
Earlier in the week, Davey flew to Phoenix, where the major league general managers were meeting. He interviewed for the manager's job with the Toronto Blue Jays. Susan's first impulse was to go with her husband, but then she demurred.
"I didn't feel comfortable going," she says. "For one thing, it would have cost a small fortune. But also, I thought maybe it's better if I'm not there and we're not getting photographed together, like, 'Here he is dragging his wife around again.'"
Davey Johnson is a career baseball man. He was a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and a few other teams during 13 years in the bigs. As a manager, he's won everywhere he's been. Also, he's lost every managing job he's had. He managed the New York Mets to a World Series title in 1986 and was fired four years later. He took over a losing Cincinnati Reds team partway through 1993. The following year, the Reds finished first in their division. Schott told Johnson the next season would be his last. Despite that, he nearly took his Reds to the 1995 World Series. The same was true of his Orioles teams over the past two seasons. Nevertheless, here he is again, out of a job. This level of turnover isn't altogether uncommon in pro sports. But the spousal connection is definitely unusual.
Both he and his wife seem genuinely mystified.
He wonders: Do I have to do more than just win? After the 1996 season, Johnson says, Angelos wrote him a letter, asking him to quit his lifelong chewing tobacco habit. He complied. It still didn't help matters with the boss. The logical man with the math degree who so cherishes mathematics because there is a precise answer to every problem was adrift in the sea of human vagaries.
"I ask myself, you know, what's wrong with me?" he says, rubbing his head. "You ask yourself that."
"What puzzles me is there are managers in cities for years and they never win and David wins and bam!, he's out," Susan says.
Susan Johnson is not a career baseball wife. When she met Davey in 1993, while organizing a Winter Park golf tournament for her deaf-blind son's learning center, she didn't know the difference between softball and baseball. Johnson was just one of the golfers. When she asked him what he did for a living, he said, "I play golf." Despite (or maybe because of) that, she liked him. The day after they met, he called her at her office and sang the Beatles love song "Something." Two months later they were dating. Perhaps the thing that made Davey most attractive to Susan was his acceptance of and patience with her disabled son, Jake.
He was hired by the Reds that May. They had talked about marriage, but the baseball man knew how tough it is to be a major league wife your husband is gone six months a year. There is boredom, isolation. They decided to live together first to see if she could stand the lifestyle.
One evening after they arrived in Cincinnati, they were driving to the city's best steakhouse. En route, they passed through a poor neighborhood. Susan saw young girls playing four-square. Nearby were their babies in carriages.
Soon after, she says, she organized the Reds wives, and they swept into the neighborhood, reopening a shuttered playground, teaching swimming and art, raising money for day care. She formed Women in the Major Leagues, a fund-raising and support network for the players' wives.
"There were all of these women who have nothing to do," she says. "They have lots of talent and expendable income."
Soon after the couple arrived in Baltimore for the 1996 season, people started hitting them up for Opening Day tickets. Susan told her husband: "We'll kill two birds with one stone." She organized a $1,000-per-plate dinner pay a grand, get some tickets. The dinner raised $10,000 the first year, $30,000 last year; both amounts were donated to Hopkins, Davey says.
Will Susan Johnson get involved with Toronto charities if her husband gets the job there?
Absolutely, she says.
"I have a completely clear conscience in anything I've done" in Baltimore, she says.
He drives to his local country club and Susan follows in her white Mercedes SL320 convertible. The Orlando suburb of Winter Park, a resort for monied Easterners established at the turn of the century, is now home to several wealthy professional athletes. The town's main street is choked with BMWs and Benzes. It is a golf-and-cigar culture. There are more cell phones here than at Camden Yards.
Davey is already headed toward the first tee when Susan pulls in. She is greeted by name by caddies and attendants and waiters.
"Hello, Mrs. Johnson."
"Mr. Johnson's over there, Mrs. Johnson."
At lunch on the terrace of the club's restaurant, overlooking a perfect greensward and a blue lake, Susan tells stories of baseball life with Davey. Typically, he tries to keep baseball and his marriage separate. But in spite of his efforts, they overlap.
One February day, during the three years between the Mets and Reds when he wasn't managing, he came home from a golf match grumbling. She thought he'd played a bad round.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Today's the day pitchers and catchers report," he groused. The first day of baseball's spring training. And he wasn't there.
Another time, when he was managing the Reds, he picked her up after she'd spent a day at an art exhibit. She gave a detailed description of what she'd seen. He was silent. Finally, he said: "Jerome Walton's not concentrating." He had been thinking of one of his players and hadn't heard a word she'd said. This makes her laugh.
Back at their house, when Davey was asked what he would do if he didn't get a managing job for the 1998 season, Susan laughs, as if to say, "Let's not even think about that." For her part, she could return to political fund-raising or local charitable work.
"What would I do," wonders Davey. "Well, I've got a real estate license, I'm a broker . . . ummm . . ." He looks at his wife.
"You'd compete in golf," she says.
"I'd compete in golf, sell a little real estate, go back to motivational speaking . . ." Then he pauses for dramatic effect and overemphasizes the next sentence: "Lead a normal life."
Again, Susan laughs. She isn't buying it, either.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company