Commentary

Believe it or not, Davey Johnson 'a geek'

Nationals' new manager in charge of a big league team for the first time since 2000

Originally Published: July 7, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- Davey Johnson turned 68 years old in January, but he still has a bounce in his step and the willpower to keep time at bay. It has been more than a decade since he bolted up in bed at 3 a.m. fretting over one-run losses, like so many of his big league managerial colleagues are wont to do. Take a 4,000-day sabbatical from the stress of the job, and it's bound to have a therapeutic effect.

Johnson looks fit and trim at 180 pounds -- or five pounds fewer than his playing weight with Baltimore and Atlanta in the 1970s. After undergoing a procedure in February to have a heart arrhythmia corrected, Johnson is hitting the weights and running a treadmill with vigor. He plans to spend the next three months eating wisely and exercising regularly, and hopes to add enough muscle tone to gain 10 pounds.

[+] EnlargeMike Rizzo and Davey Johnson
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesNationals GM Mike Rizzo, left, officially named Davey Johnson as the Nats' manager three days after Jim Riggleman resigned from the position.

Johnson's big staff addition, upon taking over for Jim Riggleman as Washington Nationals manager, was filling his bench-coach void with Pat Corrales, a 70-year-old baseball lifer who walks like a former catcher and wears his eyeglasses on a lanyard around his neck, the way grandfathers and librarians do. As a duo, Johnson and Corrales are like Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman teaming up for one last ride in "Unforgiven."

Or are they? Johnson is under contract with the Nats as a consultant for two more years, but he won't rule out a longer-term engagement in the dugout. He's always been a "live for the moment" kind of guy, so why lock himself into a course of action before it's absolutely necessary?

As a youth, Johnson was a bat boy for the Washington Senators during spring training in Orlando, Fla. He fervently believes that he's come "full circle" with this latest opportunity, trying to lead a new generation to title contention in the nation's capital.

"I can assist along that journey," Johnson said. "I think I'm the right man for it. My goal every day is, 'How can we be better today, and what effect will it have on tomorrow and the next day and the next day?' I want to see this thing progress to the point where the Washington Nationals can contend for a championship. What else is there? If you start looking too far out there, how can you be successful now?"

Two weeks ago, Riggleman chose not to board the team bus to the airport in a dispute over his contract status, and the Nationals pressed forward with a guy whose credentials include a World Series victory in 1986 and more than 1,100 career wins with the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers. So far, so good in Washington. Stephen Strasburg is getting closer in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, Bryce Harper just received a promotion to the Double-A Eastern League and the Nationals moved to 45-43 with a 5-4 victory over the Cubs on Wednesday night.

The early clubhouse reviews are positive on Johnson, whose disarming honesty and penchant for showing faith in his entire 25-man roster have made him a player favorite for most of his 15 seasons as a manager. Maybe that means dusting off 43-year-old, fastball-hitting machine Matt Stairs and sticking him into the lineup, or talking up young relievers Henry Rodriguez and Ryan Mattheus in the media for their contributions, or pulling some weird strategic maneuver out of what Johnson calls the "crackerjack box."

According to Johnson, he had never tried a suicide squeeze in the big leagues before Wednesday night. But after catcher Wilson Ramos missed a sign, swung away and nearly scared the life out of a charging Michael Morse on a botched attempt in the seventh inning, Johnson called for the squeeze a second time. Ramos laid down the bunt successfully, and Morse sailed home with the winning run to give the Nationals their third straight victory.

"Davey's been wonderful for this team," said F.P. Santangelo, the Nationals' TV color commentator. "The one thing he's done is make everyone feel included. I think the atmosphere in the clubhouse is different now."

When the Washington players gush over Johnson, it's not necessarily accurate to take that as a knock on Riggleman, a committed baseball man who made a puzzling career decision under duress. But it's clear the mood is different now that the manager arrives at work each day and checks his baggage at the clubhouse door. Even Riggleman's friends and supporters concede that his discontent over his relatively low pay and lame-duck status were affecting his mindset. Several Nationals people said that Riggleman inevitably made some allusion to his unsettled job status in every team meeting or pep talk.

Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth points to two chaotic moments near the end of Riggleman's run. The first came on May 20, when Riggleman came into the clubhouse and perpetuated an in-game spat with pitcher Jason Marquis to take the luster off a 17-5 win over Baltimore. And of course, there was Riggleman's stunning decision to step down after the Nationals had just beaten Seattle for their 11th win in 12 games.

"Two of the biggest team positives that we had all year were turned into negatives because it was personal to him," Werth said. "It all ties in to, 'How do you quit when we're on a run like that?' It was all personal-driven. You've got to look out for yourself, I guess. But at the same time, the big picture is really where this team is going. I think he was just overly concerned about himself, and it ate him up inside."

Johnson, in contrast, has never been one to get flustered over a bad day at the office. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman recalls Sunday's game against Pittsburgh, when Johnson came to the mound to pull Marquis, who was getting hammered early in a 10-2 loss to the Pirates.

"Davey came out to take Marquis out, and he said, 'Well, you're going to have days like this,' or something carefree like that," Zimmerman said. "We were down [5-0] in the second inning, and he was so even-keeled. He doesn't get too high or too low, which is perfect for this game. There's not really an ounce of worry in him."

Indeed, Werth sees lots of similarities between Johnson and Charlie Manuel, his baseball benefactor for the past four seasons in Philadelphia.

"They're going to do it their way, and they're not concerned about losing their jobs," Werth said. "Davey knows what it takes to be a great player, and he's managed great players. He's a pillar. He can stay true to himself and be himself and not worry about the B.S."

Back in the saddle

Johnson is a firm believer that "eras" are insignificant, that baseball is baseball and managers are always best served tailoring their approach to the talent available. When the Reds had Barry Larkin, Deion Sanders, Reggie Sanders and all those rabbits in 1995, he turned them loose, and the team stole 190 bases on the way to a National League Central title. Two years later, the Rafael Palmeiro-Cal Ripken Orioles slugged their way to 98 victories and a first-place finish in the AL East under Johnson.

My whole life, I've always liked a challenge. I think that's the spice of life. I don't care what age you are.

-- Davey Johnson

Still, the landscape has changed significantly since Johnson last made out a lineup card with the Dodgers in 2000. The steroids era was in full bloom, and for every Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds taking records to new heights, there was a corresponding manager sitting around and waiting for the three-run homer.

By most accounts, Johnson's California adventure wasn't one worth savoring. The Dodgers' roster included such established stars as Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Shawn Green, and there was enough talent that Johnson observed that "the village idiot" could manage the team and be successful. But the roster was too right-handed, the farm system was depleted and there were too many players with individual agendas to make for a cohesive group. Johnson failed to click with general manager Kevin Malone, and after two disappointing seasons, he was sent packing.

Former Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros, now a broadcaster for Fox, said Johnson lived up to his reputation as a "player's manager" in Los Angeles. But rolling out the balls and letting the players play failed to produce the desired results at Chavez Ravine.

"There weren't any rules," Karros said. "We kind of policed our own with that team, but even though we had guys who had been around, I'm not sure we had guys who could police themselves. From that standpoint, things didn't really mesh very well."

Santangelo, a utility infielder on that 2000 Dodgers squad, agrees that Johnson seemed out of his element in L.A.

"For me personally, that Dodger experience was awful -- just a bad time to be in that organization. Kevin Malone was over his skis as general manager," Santangelo said. "Davey is just a genuine person, honest and open, and I don't think Los Angeles is very conducive to people like that. It's pretty pretentious for the most part. It's Hollywood. It just didn't seem like a good fit."

What some baseball people might regard as a walk in the wilderness Johnson viewed as a welcome opportunity for personal growth. He coached the Netherlands team in the 2003 European championships, won a bronze medal with the U.S. squad at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and spent some time coaching in a wood bat collegiate league in Florida. With each new stop, he gained some insight to help make himself better.

Johnson never raises his voice in anger. But you might get a quizzical look if you mention that he's been "out of baseball" for a while now.

"I wasn't 'out' 11 years," he said. "I was having the time of my life. Everything you do in baseball is always a learning experience. I wouldn't trade any of that to have been in the big leagues."

Renaissance man

A casual conversation with Johnson in his office tends to encompass lots of topics other than baseball. He knows Spanish from his boyhood in San Antonio, he picked up some Japanese from a playing stint with the Yomiuri Giants in the mid-1970s, and he jokes that he learned how to curse in German from the year he spent in the country as a military brat.

As a collegian at Texas A&M, Johnson aspired to be a veterinarian. His academic path then shifted, and he earned a mathematics degree from Trinity University in Texas.

"I wasn't good in English or history, and I liked for there to always be a solution," Johnson said. "There's always one answer in math. It's always fascinated me that way."

In the late 1960s, Johnson was playing second base for the Orioles and taking courses at Johns Hopkins University when he struck up a friendship with Earnshaw Cook, a Princeton-trained engineer who helped blaze the game's statistical trail with the book "Percentage Baseball." The two men shared a passion for numbers and computers, and they brainstormed ideas over lunch.

At the time, Johnson was hitting primarily sixth and seventh in the Baltimore batting order. He preferred to bat second, so he ran eight to 10 different lineup combinations through an IBM computer and presented his findings to Orioles manager Earl Weaver.

"I ran the stuff in to Earl, and he threw it into the garbage can," Johnson said. "But I know he got it out of there after I left."

During his tenure with the Mets in the 1980s, Johnson managed an inquisitive, offensively challenged young outfielder named Billy Beane, who went on to become a trend-setting general manager in Oakland. Johnson jokes that many of the hotshot baseball executives who are so immersed in their laptops these days have a lot more in common with him than they realize.

Jayson Werth Davey knows what it takes to be a great player, and he's managed great players. … He can stay true to himself and be himself and not worry about the B.S.

-- Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth

When a Nationals writer jokingly called him a "math nerd" during a recent dugout scrum, Johnson laughed and issued a correction. "I'm not a nerd," he said. "I'm a geek."

The key, of course, is balancing the statistical side with the human element. Johnson is always looking for an edge, and he seems to feel a bit hamstrung getting up to speed on NL scouting reports and the tendencies of opposing managers.

For a guy with a short-term horizon, Johnson is always cognizant of the long-range view. His closer, Drew Storen, is 22-for-25 in save opportunities, but Johnson frets that the kid is being overworked, so he's intent on finding a reliable Plan B option. Meanwhile, he's holding daily talks with Werth, whose confidence needs bolstering after a lengthy slump that has dropped his average to .218, and perpetually looking for ways to keep guys like Stairs and Brian Bixler in the mix. Sometimes there just aren't enough hours in a day.

"My whole life, I've always liked a challenge," Johnson said. "I think that's the spice of life. I don't care what age you are."

At 68, Johnson doesn't lack for challenges or spice. Tear open life's crackerjack box, and there's no telling what surprises you might find.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer