News & Politics

Davey Johnson: On Top of His Game

Baseball’s oldest manager says he’s the guy who can make the Nationals winners.

This year Davey Johnson will have two of the most talented young players in baseball: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

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.”