Davey Johnson had been out of major league baseball for more than 11 years when the Washington Nationals, stunned and desperate, summoned him in June 2011 from his managerial post in the Florida Collegiate Summer League. Johnson was pushing 70. In his decade out of major league dugouts, he had overcome health scares and personal tragedy. He had changed, the sport had evolved and a question hung in the air: Had the game passed him by?
The answer surfaced shortly after Johnson emerged, and it kept repeating itself for the next 15 months. Passed him by? Heck, the game has still not caught up to David Allen Johnson.
On Tuesday night, Johnson convincingly won the National League Manager of the Year award presented by the Baseball Writers Association of America. In balloting done before the start of the playoffs, he beat out finalists Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy, whom he once instructed in the minor leagues. Johnson guided the Nationals to their first winning season since baseball returned to Washington and surpassed their 2011 victory by 18 games en route to 98 victories.
“Individual awards don’t mean a whole lot to me,” Johnson said. “But you like to see players get recognized when they do something good. Guys really didn’t overachieve. They played up to their potential. And there’s still a higher ceiling there for a lot of the players.”
Johnson received 23 out of 32 first-place votes and scored 131 total votes, winning handily over Baker (77) and Bochy (61). Fredi Gonzalez, Bud Black and Mike Matheny rounded out the managers who received votes.
Oakland’s Bob Melvin won American League Manager of the Year.
Johnson joins Jim Leyland, Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Lou Piniella and Melvin as the only managers to win the award in both leagues. Johnson won his first Manager of the Year in 1997 with the Baltimore Orioles. On the day they announced the winner that year, Johnson resigned over a quarrel with owner Peter Angelos.
“There’s two ways I could have got fired,” Johnson said Tuesday night. “One, if I don’t win the pennant. Two, if I win manager of the year. I can relax until spring. I haven’t got any immediate calls from the ownership that they don’t want me back.”
Fifteen years later, Johnson won the award again. In 1997, the wild card had been implemented in three postseasons, Albert Pujols was three seasons away from his major league debut and Eddie Murray was still active.
Johnson, who will turn 70 in January, was the oldest manager in the majors last year. It did not keep him from being the sharpest. On the hectic weekend Johnson replaced Jim Riggleman following Riggleman’s contract dispute, Johnson emerged from a decade out of the majors with his same swagger, his same aptitude for motivation and his same big, cocksure grin that makes you think he knows something the rest don’t.
This year, Johnson guided a team that had never been any good to the best record in baseball. A manager’s importance can be debated. It can be argued it’s the players who govern improvement or regression, triumph or a long September. In Johnson’s case, there is little room for debate. He mattered. He was an ideal manager for this particular Nationals team. He gave confidence to youth and lent experience to a callow roster.
He raised expectations. In a spring training interview, Johnson said the Nationals could fire him if they did not make the playoffs. From the start of the season, Johnson’s Nationals believed they were better than the league. Johnson made the team everyone used to beat act like the team to beat.
The manager of the year award goes, it typically goes to the team that most exceeded external predictions. Johnson beat out his peers there, too. The Nationals won 18 more games in 2012 than in 2011. The Reds did, too, but they did with it a roster that loosely resembled the 2010 NL Central champions. The Nationals were expected to improve. Some predicted them to contend. No one thought they would win 98 games.
The season provided unique challenges, and Johnson met them all. He coaxed a historic season out of Bryce Harper, at once unleashing Harper’s unbridled confidence and making him comfortable in the majors at 19. He unlocked something in Ian Desmond’s swing, and Desmond became perhaps the most valuable shortstop in the majors and won a Silver Slugger.
“That’s the title of my job: Giving them an opportunity to succeed,” Johnson said. “That’s baseball. That’s life.”
At various points, the Nationals played without their starting third baseman, catcher, closer, left fielder, shortstop and right fielder. Johnson never let the Nationals fall into a significant slump. They never lost more than five games in a row.
“There’s a lot of people you can point fingers to around here that had a lot to do with the changing of direction and everything that goes into that,” Jayson Werth said on the night the Nationals clinched the playoffs. “None maybe bigger than Davey.
“When Davey took over the middle of the season and kind of did things his own way, and went about business the way Davey goes about business, you could start to sense and see the ship was turning around.”
This week, the Nationals and Johnson agreed on a contract that will keep Johnson in the dugout for one more, and only one more, year. He will then retire to a consultant position with General Manager Mike Rizzo. He hopes the Nationals re-sign first baseman Adam LaRoche, and does not see the need for external upgrades this winter.
“I still feel that we have a higher ceiling, that we can do better,” Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
Johnson has one more season to win a second World Series ring, to augment his Hall of Fame resume, to let his players, in his phrasing, express their talent. The game has more one season to catch up to him.