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In a Conflict Between the Nats’ Davey Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo, Who Wins?

After the skipper went off on the GM Sunday night, folks are starting to wonder.

Davey Johnson. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

Nationals skipper Davey Johnson has rage issues.

Check with players who have shared locker rooms with him since he played infield for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1960s. Ask team owners in New York, Cincinatti, or LA, who felt his wrath when he managed their teams—before they let him go.

So it might not have come as a great surprise when Johnson went off on Nats general manager Mike Rizzo Sunday night, after the Phillies swept the Nats. The Washington team had lost four straight.

“Why don’t you come down here and manage this team?” Johnson asked Rizzo when they huddled after the game in the Citizens Bank clubhouse. Reporters overheard the spat and spread the word.

Having written a profile of Johnson in The Washingtonian’s April 2012 issue, I started to field questions: If there’s a power struggle between Johnson and Rizzo, who wins?

Short answer: Rizzo.

Rizzo chose Johnson and brought him to the Lerner family, the team’s owners. He truly likes, admires, and respects Davey Johnson. But Rizzo is the boss. He’s also a baseball man who knows about Johnson’s past behavior with owners and GMs.

Johnson told me he will say what he wants when he wants, and he will leave the job if it no longer works for him. Johnson clearly adores managing the Nationals. At 69, he’s the oldest skipper in the majors but manages as if he were in his prime. Still, he doesn’t need the Nationals, Rizzo, or the Lerners.

Davey Johnson is the combustible element. Rizzo is the Lerners’ guy. Rizzo has built the team, in their view. Davey Johnson is expendable, if it should come to a true dispute.

Harolyn Cardozo, Rizzo’s assistant, explains it this way: “What that exchange represented was the opposite of a rift. It was a frustrated manager and a passionate GM, reacting to a four-game losing streak in uniform fashion. Neither are the type to address losing over a nice cup of tea.”

Despite the dustup, I would bet Rizzo is smart enough to smooth over any problems or spats so the team can ease into the postseason. A more crucial question for Rizzo is whether the Nationals can maintain their record, now the best in the majors.

Starting tonight in Miami against the Marlins, the Nats have 35 games remaining in the regular season. It’s no easy street. They have only three games against the second-place Atlanta Braves. Two other teams stand between the Nats and a smooth path to October’s playoffs: the St. Louis Cardinals and the Phillies.

The Cards are the defending World Series champs. At 71-57, they are in second place in the National League Central Division and in line for a Wild Card invitation to the postseason. They have much at risk in their seven games with the Nats.

The Phillies are a broken team. This time last year, they had the best record in baseball. They didn’t make it out of the division series and spent most of this season in the cellar. But they seem to be rejuvenated at the right time. Their pitching staff is still the envy of most teams. They play the Nationals six more times, including the last three games of the season in Washington.

The Phils are angry, frustrated, and prone to rage—just like Davey Johnson.

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