Davey Johnson: On Top of His Game
Baseball’s oldest manager says he’s the guy who can make the Nationals winners.
Last spring, the Washington Nationals were partway through another middling season—their seventh since bringing major-league baseball back to the nation’s capital—when signs of turmoil in the clubhouse surfaced on the diamond.
On Friday night, May 20, Jason Marquis was on the mound against the Baltimore Orioles. By the fourth inning, Marquis had given up five runs. Manager Jim Riggleman sent him to the showers.
Marquis, the Nats’ best starter at the time, was steamed. He argued with Riggleman in the dugout, demanding to stay in the game. Riggleman tried to calm him down. Marquis looked as if he wanted to belt his boss.
Mike Rizzo, the Nats’ general manager, heard about the incident. Players don’t argue with managers, especially in public. Rizzo figured it was time to call a team meeting.
But first he called Davey Johnson.
“Bad idea,” Johnson said.
Rizzo respected Johnson, perhaps more than any other baseball man. Johnson was a legend. He had managed four big-league teams, including the Orioles, and won three World Series, two as a player, one as a manager. Johnson had signed on as a consultant in 2005.
Johnson’s advice: “Your place is to man-age the manager. It’s the manager’s job to manage the staff. Meet with Jimmy. Pump him up. Make him feel at ease.”
At 9 the next morning, Rizzo met with Riggleman, told him to fix the problem, and said he was totally behind him as Nationals manager.
Then on June 23, minutes before the Nationals were to take the field at home against the Seattle Mariners, Riggleman sat down with Rizzo and gave him an ultimatum. His contract would end at the close of the season, and he demanded that Rizzo agree to an extension on the spot. Rizzo said they would negotiate in October. After the game, Riggleman quit.
Rizzo called the owner’s box and asked to meet with the Lerners. He knew they liked Riggleman. He broke the news. Then he said: “I want to offer the job to Davey Johnson.”
Johnson was 68—he would be the oldest manager in the majors. The Lerners asked if he had the stamina to manage spring training, 162 games, perhaps a postseason. Seeing as Ted Lerner was 86 and still running the Lerner companies, Rizzo had an easy sell.
Johnson joined the team in Chicago and was waiting in the charter jet on the tarmac when the Nationals boarded the plane for a series in California. He greeted each player and told them: “It’s going to be okay.” For Davey Johnson, it was more than okay.
He couldn’t wipe the smile from his face and wore it for the rest of the season, which the Nationals finished by sweeping the league-leading Phillies and helping knock the Braves out of the playoffs.
At the end of the season, the best since their first in Washington, Rizzo asked Johnson who should manage the team in 2012.
“I broke it down into pros and cons,” Johnson says. “Who can help the team? Who can make it better? Who’s the best fit?
“I recommended myself,” he says. “I was perfect.”
No one who knows Davey Johnson would accuse him of lacking confidence. He’s been called a lot of names; shy isn’t one of them.
But it had been 11 years since he coached in the major leagues. And he has had some medical problems. I asked Johnson about his energy level one recent morning in his living room in Winter Park, Florida, a posh community north of his hometown of Orlando. His eyes narrowed, then he flashed that wide grin and laughed.
“I’m in better shape than I’ve been in years,” he said.
He survived a ruptured appendix in 2005 and endured four surgeries to correct it. He’s had both shoulders repaired and had a heart-rhythm problem fixed a year ago. He’s had cataracts removed from both eyes. He says he has quit drinking from January to October.
“Now I can see with my own eyes if an ump misses a call,” he says.
He spits some tobacco into a Styrofoam cup. He shades his eyes from the sun pouring through the two-story windows in his living room that look onto a pool and palm trees.
“I might want to take some batting practice, too,” he says.
There’s more than his ability to swat fly balls riding on Johnson when the Nationals take the field on Opening Day, April 12.
He has a record of turning losing teams into champions. He took the New York Mets from last place in 1983 to World Series champions in 1986. The Nationals are in need of a turnaround. Since coming to DC in 2004, the team has never finished with a winning record. The fan base is soft. Nationals Park usually fills just over half of its 41,500 seats.
The Lerners have begun to show a willingness to spend serious money on established stars. Paying Jayson Werth $126 million for seven years and $100 million to extend Ryan Zimmerman’s contract comes to mind. But their investment needs to start paying off—with winning teams and higher revenues.
This spring, Johnson will have two of the most talented youngsters to hit the majors in a decade: pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper. How will the oldest manager nurture the two young prospects?
“My greatest love as a manager is seeing young players play to their potential,” he says. “My job is to create fertile ground for them to develop. That’s the sweetness of the whole deal.”
The word in some baseball circles is that Johnson will get just this one year. But word from the owner’s box is that this could be the start of Washington’s Davey Johnson era.
Why, I ask, did Johnson take the manager’s job?
He had a sweet consulting gig. He could show up at spring training or not. He could put on a uniform, kick the dirt, fungo a few flies.
“Happy as a clam,” he says.
He and his baseball buddies—Mel Stottlemyre, Whitey Herzog, and Bill Robinson among them—could get together to play golf or fish.
Johnson’s place in baseball is secure. He has the third-best record among living managers, behind Earl Weaver and Joe Girardi. No chance Davey would be bored. He might take a computer class, as he did at Johns Hopkins while he was in Baltimore. He applied statistics to baseball lineups decades before Moneyball made the movies.
“It wasn’t the money,” he says.
Johnson wasn’t born rich. His father was a “tough Swede,” in his words. His dad was captured by the Germans in World War II, escaped, and was captured again but survived the war.
By the time Davey was nine, he had a paper route, sold potholders, and ran a root-beer stand after school. He played baseball well enough to land a scholarship at Texas A&M, and from there he signed with the Orioles in 1962.
“I used the salary from my first major-league season to buy a Pontiac LeMans convertible and a set of golf clubs,” he says. “But I also used $8,000 to buy a lakefront lot near Orlando.”
In 13 big-league seasons, mostly at second base, Johnson was an all-star four times and won two World Series rings, both with the Orioles, in 1966 and 1970. While he was fielding ground balls and managing teams, he was investing in real estate. He now owns an island, several choice building lots, a 72-acre fishing camp, and commercial and residential buildings. He’s a millionaire a few times over. So it wasn’t the money.
Family life is calm now. Susan is his second wife. They married in 1994. She owns a high-end clothing store in Winter Park. Their children and grandchildren live nearby. Susan and Davey have an agreement not to be apart longer than a week at a time, so they had to factor that into whether he took the Nationals job. Their bond has been defined more by tragedy than by baseball.
Johnson had two daughters in his first marriage, Dawn and Andrea, and a son, Davey.
Andrea was a surfer, a very good one. Sports Illustrated Jr. put her on its cover.
“She was not afraid of anything,” Johnson recalls.
But she wasn’t well. Andrea started hearing voices and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She moved back to Orlando in her early twenties. When Johnson lost his job as manager of the Dodgers in 2000, he was happy to move back home. “I was burned out,” he says, “and I had a sick daughter.”
Andrea had spent time in Northeast Florida State Hospital in Macclenny, but she was considered well enough to come home. She deteriorated mentally and physically. In 2005, she was rushed to the hospital in septic shock.
“When I arrived, she was already on life support,” Johnson says. “I had to make the decision to pull the plug.” Andrea Johnson was 30.
“I believe in heaven,” he says. “I have to believe she’s in a better place. She’s surfing. She’s happy.”
Johnson was very close to Susan’s son, Jake. He was a “rubella child,” born with no hearing and no sight in one eye, because Susan had had German measles during her pregnancy. Jake needed constant care, often lived in group homes, and relied on specialists with the Helen Keller National Center.
About a year and a half ago, when he was 32, he lost the sight in his good eye.
“You can’t imagine how hard it was for a kid who could barely see to lose all his vision,” Johnson says.
Jake loved to feel the wind on his face as he rode in the back of Johnson’s speedboat across the nearby lakes. Johnson took him up to his fishing camp so he could feel the sand between his toes and wade in the water. Davey and Susan hired a teacher to help him communicate.
“We were turning a bad situation into a happy one,” he says.
About nine months ago, Jake developed a urinary problem. Doctors detected a blockage. During a test to determine the problem, he stopped breathing. It turned out he had pneumonia. He died at age 34 in the same hospital where Andrea passed away.
How does Johnson cope with the loss of both Andrea and Jake?
“Like any challenge, you have to try and look for the good in it,” he says. “You are supposed to die before your kids die—you’re there for them, they’re there for you. It doesn’t always work out that way.
“I don’t try to relive the past,” he says. “I’m a looking-forward kind of guy. It’s probably the key to the game of baseball for me, too, as a player and a manager. It’s not what I’m doing now but what I can do tomorrow.”
That still doesn’t explain why he took the job as manager of the Nationals.
“They could afford me,” he says.
I ask again.
“It was the challenge.”
One day last season, after he took over the Nationals, Johnson hopped on the team bus after a game. His spot, the right front seat, was taken by Ted Lerner.
“I was dumbfounded,” Johnson says. “In all my coaching and playing days, I had never seen an owner ride the team bus.”
They talked about the Redskins, who were then in training camp and jawing about the great season ahead, perhaps a trip to the Super Bowl.
“They’re dreaming,” Lerner said, according to Johnson. “I don’t believe in dreaming.”
Johnson says he’s no dreamer, either.
“Ted Lerner is a real-estate man, and a good one,” he says. It was the Lerner family’s real-estate holdings and other assets, valued around $3.3 billion, that put them in line to pay $450 million for the Nationals in 2006. “I admire that in a man. I like to work for people smart enough to hire me.”
The four baseball clubs Johnson managed were displeased enough to give him the boot—sometimes because he wasn’t winning enough games, sometimes because he was irascible and disagreed with owners even as he gave them winning records.
Why, then, should anyone be convinced that his tenure with the Nationals will end differently?
The answer: Mike Rizzo.
“Davey’s part of the furniture as long as Mike Rizzo is general manager,” Rizzo tells me.
Rizzo joined the Nationals in 2006 as an assistant GM in charge of scouting. He was promoted to general manager in 2009. He began to rely on Davey Johnson, at the time his consultant.
“He’s an old-school guy with a cutting-edge mind,” Rizzo says. “He checked off every box I needed in a guy to run things by.”
Is he worried about Johnson’s big shoes walking all over him?
“Look,” Rizzo says, “I didn’t invent this game. There are things I need to learn. I surround myself with bright people. It makes me stronger. Besides, Davey doesn’t intimidate me.”
Their first conflict might come over Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old whose crack of the bat can hurt eardrums.
Johnson has said that Harper will compete for an outfield slot in spring training, and the kid could be in center on Opening Day. Rizzo, more cautious, said he might want to send Harper back to the minors for more seasoning. Though he added: “Sometimes special talent breaks the mold.”
Both Harper and Stephen Strasburg will play under an intense glare. Sportswriters and fans will examine every pitch, every swing—and the way Johnson handles his young stars.
“In each case,” Johnson tells me, “I had a relationship with them before we drafted them number one. Kind of coincidental.”
Johnson managed Strasburg when he pitched for Team USA in the 2008 Olympics. The kid was a rising junior at San Diego State and the only college player on the team. Johnson recalls that Strasburg took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of one game, his pitch count got high, and Johnson wanted to give him the hook, but how could he intrude on a no-hitter? Finally, someone got a hit and he pulled him.
His quote to USA Today: “He’s the best I’ve seen at that young age, and I’ve had a lot of good ones.”
A year later, he helped sign Strasburg for the Nats.
Johnson has heard all the amateur coaching suggestions that he go easy on Strasburg’s arm, that he go with six starters, that he save the kid for the postseason. Will Strasburg be on the mound on Opening Day?
“What do you think?” Johnson says.
How will Strasburg handle the pressure?
“I don’t see it as a problem,” he says. “Strasburg is a lot like me but a bit quieter. We’ll try to control the media so it doesn’t become intrusive.”
And Bryce Harper?
“He’s got a little different personality.”
Whereas Strasburg is quiet, mature, and married, Bryce Harper has been portrayed as a bratty 19-year-old seeking headlines. After smacking a home run last season in a minor-league game, Harper rounded third base and blew a kiss at the pitcher. Davey Johnson points out that a pitcher from the same team had drilled Harper in the previous game.
Until he shut down his Twitter account in February, Harper tweeted whatever came to mind—for example, that the New York Yankees were his favorite team. He told an interviewer that he aspires to have a lifestyle like “Broadway Joe” Namath’s in New York when Namath took the Jets to the Super Bowl.
Which makes Bryce Harper more like Davey Johnson, who signed with the Orioles at 19 and played a cutup and prankster in the clubhouse.
Johnson says he met Harper at a home-run derby in St. Petersburg when the kid was 17. He followed his progress, as did every other baseball scout, and was totally behind drafting him first for the Nats.
“Bryce is a smart kid,” says Johnson, spitting into his cup. “His whole life is baseball.”
Johnson can relate.
“He was expecting to make the club at 18,” he says. “He has no thought of going back to the minors. His talent has put him in the place where he’s earned the right to compete.”
Johnson believes the Nationals are headed for a breakout season. They’re “over the rookie jitters,” he says. Though he’s the oldest manager in the league, he also believes he’s the best manager around to help them win.
“I have more experience than any of them,” he says, “and that is an advantage.”
This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.