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Davey Johnson: On Top of His Game
Comments () | Published April 5, 2012

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.

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Posted at 12:50 PM/ET, 04/05/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles