Once upon a time, Washington was first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. These days Washington is first in the National League, and Davey Johnson is first in Washington.
Any manager who has a Washington baseball team in first place, whichever the league, has to be viewed in the nation’s capital as somebody special, more special than any officeholder or other politician.
“I’m enjoying the season,” Johnson said. “I’m enjoying the players.” But, he added in a long, wide-ranging telephone interview Friday, he doesn’t enjoy every aspect of his job and where he does it.
“It’s a pain in the neck flying into Dulles,” he said of the airport the Nationals use, “and driving to the ball park to get your car.”
At 69, the oldest manager in the major leagues, Johnson has an understandable gripe. But he doesn’t otherwise betray his age. The Nationals are the fifth team he has managed, and when Jim Riggleman unexpectedly resigned June 26 last season over contract differences, the Nationals didn’t hesitate in naming Johnson, who had been a front-office adviser for several years under general managers Jim Bowden and Mike Rizzo.
“I’ve learned a lot from him just watching what he does with players, the patience he has with players; he makes players comfortable,” said Bob Boone, the Nationals’ assistant general manager, who has been a major league manager himself. “Players reflect the attitude of their manager. He’s relaxed, calm, doesn’t get excited.”
Johnson had not managed since 2000 when he went to work for the Nationals.
“I wouldn’t say I wasn’t working,” Johnson said, citing his coaching and managing roles with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic and in five world championship tournaments and the Olympics and with the Netherlands international team.
“I didn’t look down on those jobs,” he said. “I thought they were great. I wouldn’t have changed that for managing in the big leagues, I loved managing kids. That was a real joy to me.”
Which is why Johnson is having so much fun managing Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler, Gio Gonzalez, Wilson Ramos, Jordan Zimmerman, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez and Steve Lombardozzi, none of whom is older than 27.
How was Johnson in position for general manager Mike Rizzo to pluck for the job?
“Originally,” Johnson related, “Jim Bowden maybe five years ago told me he wanted me to scout some clubs in spring training. He gave me 1500 bucks or something. I kind of faded from that relationship as I was doing more U.S.A. baseball.
“When they hired Mike Rizzo, he wanted me to put a uniform on in spring training and be a consultant. I enjoyed that. I didn’t have any responsibility, just talk to players and watch them play.”
Johnson officially joined Rizzo Nov. 18, 2009, as senior adviser. “I liked the people Rizzo had in the scouting department,” Johnson said. Nineteen months later, “He wanted me to manage the club.
“I knew the system,” Johnson said. “I felt I knew the talent. I said I’d do it if he wanted me to. I liked the owners. They were in real estate and that’s where I put my money.”
One step remained before Johnson succeeded Riggleman. “I had to ask Susan,” he related, referring to his wife. “She said she knew I loved challenges so she was o.k. with it.”
Because Johnson had not managed a major league team since the Dodgers fired him after the 2000 season, a rumor arose that he had been blacklisted by one of his former employers.
“Not at all,” Johnson said but acknowledged, “After Peter Angelos, Marge Schott, Murdoch and company and Kevin Malone and company, it was a little more stressful. But in each case I tried to leave the club in better shape than I inherited it. When I was let go in L.A., I was pretty much burned out. I needed to be around my kids.”
The people Johnson mentioned were mostly owners he worked for – Schott in Cincinnati (1993-95), Angelos in Baltimore (1996-97), Rupert Murdoch and general manager Kevin Malone in Los Angeles (1999-00).
“I had a lot of people call me at that time wanting me to be a bench coach,” Johnson recalled, “but the traveling and being bench coach didn’t challenge me. I had numerous opportunities to be back in the big leagues.”
After the Dodgers’ dismissal, Johnson said he adopted a different view. “I told my wife after the L.A. thing, ‘Sweetheart, you’re going to go to work.’ She opened a women’s clothing boutique, and it became probably the most successful in central Florida.”
Now, however, it’s Davey’s turn again, and he is running a team that has been atop the National League East most of the season and every day for the past two months. The Nationals’ play has not surprised their manager.
“I said if we did the things we’re capable of we could contend or win,” Johnson said, adding, “It wasn’t a pipe dream. I wasn’t just blowing smoke.”
He came to his outlook, Johnson said, by the fact that “we played well against Philadelphia and Atlanta, the two teams ahead of us.” Last season the Nationals beat the Phillies 10 times in 18 games and split 9-9 with the Braves.
“I felt we had the makings of a decent pitching staff with young talent in the wings, Bryce Harper included. I definitely thought we’d be a contending team and if the young players played up to their potential we could win the division.”
The acquisition of two starting pitchers, Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, reinforced Johnson’s view, which was also built on his expectations from certain players.
“Baseball people look at talent,” he said. “I’ve had enough experience being with young players.”
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, he said, “is a great defender and hitter. We have a shortstop in Ian Desmond who forgot the kind of player he was. I talked to him and told him he had Barry Larkin type talent. He can steal, hit to all fields and I told him you have more power than Larkin. He’s had his ups and downs but now is playing up to his potential.”
Second baseman Espinosa, Johnson added, “is a great defender with a high ceiling offensively. We didn’t have Adam LaRoche all last year. You just have to have patience and let them play and stay out of the way.”
Johnson said he had the 19-year-old Harper making the team out of spring training, especially because he’s a left-handed hitter and the lineup needed a left-handed hitter. But they let the outfielder start the season in the minors because “we didn’t want to have to deal with Harper struggling early so we sent him back.”
The Nationals recalled Harper April 28, and he is hitting .270 in 73 games with 8 homers and 26 runs batted in.
The other notable National, Strasburg, began the season at the start, April 5, but he will end it before the end.
“He’s going to be shut down,” Johnson said. “That’s what we did last year with Jordan Zimmerman.”
Zimmerman, in his first full season and a year and a half past elbow surgery, made 26 starts and pitched 161 1/3 innings before being shut down for the final month. Strasburg, who had elbow surgery in September 2010, has started 19 games and pitched 110 1/3 innings.
Rizzo has said he will decide when to end the 24-year-old right-hander’s season, and he will end it even with the Nationals in the pennant race. He has a 10-4 record and a 2.85 earned run average.
“It’s out of my hands; I don’t have control over it,” Johnson said. “We’ll deal with it when it comes up. I’m an Army brat. I follow the chain of command. We’ll deal with that just like we’ve dealt with the loss of Jayson Werth and Drew Storen.”
The difference with the loss of Strasburg is the Nationals will be so much closer to winning the N.L. East title, and his absence could undermine their effort.
“Regardless of what happens I have high expectations for this ball club,” the manager said. “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t carry this through right to the end.”
Johnson said people constantly ask him if he plans to continue managing.
“I have a saying,” he said. “You make a decision after the last pitch is thrown and the last out is made, hopefully after the World Series. Then you sit down and think about the next day and see how you would best be served. It has no bearing on what happens today or what you do next February.”
In this instance, though, Johnson contradicted himself.
“People say what are you going to do next year,” he said. “I say I’m a consultant next year. As soon as it’s over I’m on a consulting contract so I know I’m going to be employed. I’m comfortable with that.”
Then he thought for a second and added, “If we don’t play well, I might get fired.”
RETURN TO MAJOR LEAGUE DUTY
Davey Johnson is one of three current major league managers who had not managed in the majors for nine years or more before last year or this. Their return has produced mixed results, and those results, interestingly, mirror the kind of success or lack thereof they achieved in their previous tenures.
Besides Johnson, the managers are Terry Collins of the New York Mets and Bobby Valentine of the Boston Red Sox. Johnson has the Nationals surprisingly in first place, Collins has the Mets surprisingly in the wild-card race and Valentine, not surprisingly, has created more controversy than success.
Valentine, who kept in practice between major league jobs by managing in Japan for six years, has had help in relegating the Red Sox to a scramble to avoid last place instead of keeping up with their archrival New York Yankees in the upper stratosphere of the American League East. The front office, led by president Larry Lucchino, has contributed, as have injuries.
But too much emphasis can’t be placed on injuries. Every team has them, and the best teams overcome them. The Yankees, for example, have the biggest division lead despite having lost closer Mariano Rivera for the season and starting pitchers Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia and left fielder Brett Gardner for substantial time.
The Nationals, too, have endured significant injuries. Closer Drew Storen missed the entire season until recently, and others have missed parts of the season: Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Xavier Nady, Mark DeRosa, Wilson Ramos and Chien-Ming Wang.
Of the three managers re-employed in the majors, Collins returned after the longest absence, 11 years and 211 days. Johnson was next at 10 years and 269 days. Valentine returned after an absence of 9 years, 189 days.
Valentine, however, gained another benefit from his hiring by a major league club. By managing 95 games this season (through Saturday), Valentine has managed 2,284 major league games without finishing in first place. Only Jimmy Dykes managed more games without finishing in first place – 2,962.
UNION VS. UNION, BASEBALL VERSION
The baseball players’ union finds itself in a peculiar position. The union is one of the sponsors and producers of the World Baseball Classic, which is in the planning stages for its third event, and the Japanese players, winners of the first two classics, are threatening to boycott this one.
The Japanese players’ union wants a larger share of the proceeds from sponsorship and merchandise revenue.
In a statement quoted by the Associated Press, Takahiro Arai, chairman of the players’ union, said: ” We made our demands to the organizers a year and half ago, but we have yet to get a response, and since it appears one is not coming we are forced to take this stance.”
Michael Weiner, head of The Major League Baseball Players Association, acknowledged in a telephone interview that “it is an unusual situation” but said, “We know there have been discussions going on with them for a while. We believe we’ve been and continue to be fair with all the participants in the W.B.C. Our expectations are that everyone is going to play, but we know the Japanese players have been less than satisfied.”
Weiner said union lawyers and Major League Baseball officials have held discussions with the Japanese union and more talks will take place.
Qualifying rounds for the 16-team tournament will be held in September and November with the Classic itself scheduled for next March.
One of the qualifying rounds will be held in September in Jupiter, Fla. That group includes Israel, which is competing for the first time and will be hampered by the timing of its games.
The Israeli team, which is being managed by Brad Ausmus, the former major league catcher, was hoping to use some Jewish major league players, but they will still be playing for their major league teams and will be unavailable for the qualifying round.
Those players, if they want, would be available to play in the Classic, but Israel’s chances of winning in the qualifying round will be greatly reduced without them.
Maybe Sandy Koufax would be available for a game in September.