ANAHEIM, Calif. – Sunday afternoon, the Washington Nationals’ team bus pulled up to its chartered plane at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, the players and coaches inside still beaming from their victory, still a little confused from what had happened the past four days. As they boarded the flight, a fresh-yet-familiar figure stood at the top of the steps. Davey Johnson, their new manager, greeted them and shook hands, one by one.
“There was something to be gained from that flight,” one Nationals official said. “It was like a healing. It felt like a family.”
On that flight, Johnson mingled with the players in the back of the plane, and some of them walked back to speak with him. Livan Hernandez told Johnson, once a better-than-scratch golfer, he would not be giving him any strokes the next time they teed it up. “Yeah, you are,” Johnson replied.
The plane landed around sunset in Los Angeles, and by 11 a.m. Monday, Johnson had walked into visiting manager’s office at Angels Stadium, back into the major leagues after 11 years away as a manager, back to the grind. He walked away from family life — from trips with his wife, Susan, to Alaska and Paris this summer. “How ’bout D.C. instead?” he asked her.
Since he last managed in the majors, Johnson had come to miss the pressure, living out of hotels and eating clubhouse spreads — all of it. He came out of major league managerial retirement out of admiration for General Manager Mike Rizzo and because he believes in these Nationals players, their makeup — “off the charts,” he said — and their talent. He trusts owner Ted Lerner, who he has met just once. Most of all, he missed the thrill.
“I kind of like the stress, unbelievably so,” Johnson said. “I like the challenge of it. I’ve watched a lot of those games that we’ve won lately. Those are tough games, but that’s the way I like them. It was not a tough decision for me.”
Johnson, taking a team that has won 13 of 15 to vault to 31 / 2 games out of the National League wild-card lead entering Monday, will not temper expectations. He was asked if the Nationals could make the playoffs.
“Most definitely,” he said.
Johnson sent Jim Riggleman — “a good baseball man,” he said — a text message: “I look forward to continuing what you had going here.”
Johnson signed a contract that guarantees he will manage for the remainder of 2011 and will stay with the organization as a consultant for at least two more seasons. The contract has an option for the club to name him the manager in 2012. He has not thought that far ahead, but said he has not committed to manage beyond this season.
“At the end of this season, I hope I’ll be able to voice an opinion,” Johnson said. “But what I want is what’s best for the Nationals. I want this club to win a pennant. I want it to win a World Series. I like the direction. I think it has a good chance. The future is real bright. If the end of the season, the organization wants me to continue on, that’d be something we’d talk about.”
When Johnson last managed, in 2000 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, baseball had become a game fueled by home runs and offensive totals ballooning because of performance-enhancing drugs. He is 68 now. Players make more money. Whatever, he says. For Johnson, though, the inherent nature of the sport has not changed.
“Baseball’s the same,” Johnson said. “Probably the only difference is, they have a chef now in the clubhouse. Other than that, ballplayers are the same the world over. They all want to be successful, there’s peer pressure, sometimes they try too hard, sometimes they don’t try hard enough. Everybody has a little different button to push. But no, the game’s the same.”
Johnson adapts his strategy for each team. In the early ’90s, he managed the Cincinnati Reds – “a racehorse,” he said. In 1996 and 1997, he managed the Baltimore Orioles – “kind of like a used car lot,” he said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of speed, and we tried to hit home runs all the time.”
These Nationals he will figure out as he goes along, but he has ideas. First, he wants to have a consistent batting order, never a staple under Riggleman. (“I think players, as well as managers, they like consistency,” Johnson said.) Johnson is a proponent of big innings, but also wants to utilize Washington’s athleticism.
“This ballclub here is very intriguing to me, because it has a lot of speed — we’ve done very good stealing bases,” Johnson said. “Everybody in the lineup can actually go deep. There’s getting to know exactly how I play it. I definitely think this club has been an underachiever offensively. I don’t like to give up outs. I’ll bunt when I have to. I’ll hit and run when I feel like it. I think this club hasn’t quite come into it’s own. It doesn’t really know how good an offensive club it can be. It definitely has a chance to be a good one.”
Johnson already has garnered support from his players — four of them were not born when he won the 1986 World Series with the New York Mets. Monday afternoon, he stood behind the batting cage and watched a handful of players, including Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, take early batting practice.
“His presence,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “His presence more so demands respect than him saying, ‘Hey, listen to me.’ ”
The command started taking hold on the flight here. If there was any question about the togetherness of the Nationals following the bizarre past few days, they are gone.
“The best flight I’ve been on,” a Nationals coach said. “Unification would be understating it.”
Johnson will make one change to the coaching staff, bringing on former major league manager Pat Corrales on as his bench coach. Johnson has spent the last two spring trainings driving around a golf cart with Corrales, helping instruct Nationals players. Johnson called Corrales over the weekend.
“I said, ‘You know why I want you, don’t you?’ ” Johnson said. “And he said, ‘No, why do you want me?’ And I said, ‘Because you’re older than me and I won’t be the oldest guy on the staff.’ ”