The Nationals this morning formally announced Davey Johnson as their manager for the 2012 season, exercising an option in his contract and continuing a tenure that began last season amidst upheaval and concluded with one of the most promising stretches since baseball returned to Washington.
“It really feels great,” Johnson said. “It’s such a great organization, such a great bunch of kids. We didn’t come close to the ceiling this year. I really feel like I’m kind of their father figure. I think they respect me, and I feel like I’m the guy to steer them along their path.”
Johnson, 68, moved from a front office role to the dugout last season on June 27, days after Jim Riggleman’s sudden resignation. He went 40-43, which included a finishing kick of 14-4. He gained the trust and support of players, most of whom had met Johnson while he worked in his front office position.
Johnson reworked the pitching staff to include more long relievers and added offensive pop to the bench. As the Nationals took shape in his image over the final two or three weeks of the season, Johnson decided he wanted to remain in the dugout.
“Seeing when I had more of the mixture of talent that I wanted on the ball club, seeing how they all worked together, that was when I really thought, ‘There’s so much we could do here, and I need to be here to help see it along,’ ” Johnson said.
General Manager Mike Rizzo interviewed multiple candidates to become the Nationals’ manager in 2012, including Nationals third base coach Bo Porter. But bringing Johnson back, he said, was “an easy decision.” Rizzo feels a distinct comfort with Johnson. When Rizzo became the Nationals’ interim general manager in 2009, he immediately added Johnson as a special assistant.
This June, when Jim Riggleman suddenly resigned and left the Nationals without a manager, Rizzo thought first of Johnson, who had last managed in the majors in 2000 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the night of June 23, after Riggleman resigned, Rizzo had dinner with Johnson at a Washington hotel.
“The only question I had about Davey taking over was, did he want to do it?” Rizzo said. “Was his energy level and his focus going to be there?”
And so, the basis of Johnson’s appointment for 2012 arrived well before the opportunity arose, all the way back in last spring training. Johnson arrived last February with more energy than he had felt in years, thanks to an ablation doctors at the Mayo Clinic performed on his heart over the winter. He pounded groundballs and moved briskly from field to field.
“He had an energy about him,” Rizzo said. “I thought to myself, ‘Davey is really into it and really fired up for the season.’ ”
Johnson, who turns 69 in January, will be the oldest manager in the major leagues – he’s a year older than Tony La Russa, who announced his retirement today, days after his St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series. Age, though, does not seem to be an issue for Johnson, even after a series of health scares.
“He seems younger to me now than he did with the Dodgers,” his wife, Susan Johnson, said.
Johnson will become the third different Nationals manager to begin a season in the past four seasons. Having managed 2,121 games during 15 years as a major league manager, Johnson has a .561 winning percentage with five different teams. His greatest triumph came in 1986, when his 108-win New York Mets won the World Series.
The Nationals, like this offseason, also have an option for the 2013 season of Johnson’s contract. They can either make him the manager for next season, too, or they can make him an influential front office consultant. Johnson, keeping to his personal mantra, has not considered his long-term status.
“I look at things today with an eye on tomorrow,” Johnson said. “My wife is the one who thinks about what we’re doing two weeks from now.
“I really like where I’m at in my life. Managing the Nationals this year was a lot of fun for me. It’s serious business, but I love the game of baseball. I love the way we came along and we progressed as a team. That was fun for me.”
●Johnson savors the present day (Sept. 2011)
●Sheinin: Time was right for Johnson’s return (June 2011)
●Johnson to take over as manager (June 2011)