Johnson bucking latest trend while pointing Nationals toward future
NEW YORK -- A few days after Jayson Werth signed his first professional contract in mid-June 1997, the first-round pick of the Orioles traveled to Baltimore for an introductory press conference at Camden Yards.
Afterwards, he sat in the dugout for the first few innings of the game that evening. The Orioles' manager was Davey Johnson.
"He was my first taste of a big league manager," Werth recalled. "I had just turned 18. He wasn't what I expected, that's for sure. I remember being surprised that he was that laid back and cool as a cucumber. I was at the other end of the dugout -- I tried to stay out of the way -- but I did pick up on that."
Fifteen years later, Werth and Johnson share the Nationals' dugout on a daily basis. Johnson, who turned 69 in January and is the majors' oldest manager, inherited the club for the final 83 games of last season after Jim Riggleman quit unexpectedly.
Johnson is now managing in his 16th season with his fifth club. He has a .561 career winning percentage, second among all living managers with at least 1,000 games, and has won five division titles. He has only one losing record among his 12 full seasons, but last week was his first Opening Day as a major-league manager since 2000.
"I hope I've gotten a little wiser through all the experiences I've been through, but basically it's the same game," he said. "I don't think I'm any more patient, but I try to be."
Johnson's first and most successful managerial stint came here in New York, leading the Mets from 1984 into the 1990 season while never finishing worse than second in the National League East and winning the 1986 World Series.
Johnson took the Mets' reigns just six years after his playing career ended. In 13 years with four teams, he was a four-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner who amassed 1,252 hits and played in four World Series. He played for Earl Weaver on the Orioles and alongside legends like Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson in Baltimore and, after moving to the Braves, Hank Aaron. He's since managed Hall of Famers such as Gary Carter, Cal Ripken Jr. and Barry Larkin and has no shortage of historical comparisons to impress his current players with. "He can pull up some memoirs," said Werth.
When considering his 2012 Nationals, Johnson noted a comparison with the first team he managed: the 1984 Mets that won 90 games -- their first winning record in eight years -- and two seasons later were World Series champions.
"There are a lot of similarities on this team," Johnson said. "When I first managed the Mets, we had some good young talent, some good young arms. We had some problems early on offensively before turning into a pretty good ballclub."
Of the Nationals, he said, "It's my job to oversee that growth."
The Nationals expect Johnson to oversee a season of great promise in D.C. -- the club is 3-2 as of Wednesday morning -- thanks to a confluence of new acquisitions (starters Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson), healthy returns from injury (starters Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann each had Tommy John surgery in the past few years and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman missed 59 games last season) and the hope of youngsters either nearing their prime (infielders Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond) or making a long-hyped debut (Bryce Harper).
Eyebrows were raised around baseball this winter when the White Sox and Cardinals hired Robin Ventura and Mike Matheny despite neither having any managerial experience at any level (and a third team, the Cubs, hired Dale Sveum who only had a 12-game interim stint under his belt). The burgeoning Nationals -- who have risen from cellar-dweller to a contender entering a window in which they should compete for several years -- are putting their faith in the opposite category, the long-tenured veteran.
One new National, Chad Tracy, described Johnson as personable with an open door to his office. The manager publicly projects a calm demeanor with diverse interests. (In spring training a recently published biography of President James A. Garfield sat next to his desk.) But he can at times be "fiery," according to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who said Johnson's competitive nature is evident during baseball games and in rounds of golf.
"He gets how to relate to players," Zimmerman said. "He understands. He doesn't forget how hard the game is. He's very loyal and honest. He's going to do what's best for the team, no matter what."
Johnson doesn't lack for confidence. He expressed the utmost confidence in his starting pitchers, saying he'd take his rotation over any in the league. Reminded that the Nationals play in the same league as the Phillies -- who boast Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels atop their rotation -- Johnson said his top three of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann have the stuff to match them.
When asked in spring training if he thought the season would be a failure if the club didn't make the playoffs, Johnson told Comcast SportsNet Washington, "No question in my mind. And they can fire me."
For a man who twice left his job after winning a division title (1995 Reds and 1997 Orioles) because of feuds with ownership, such a gambit may not seem so daring.
"If I do a good job, then we should be there," he said Monday of being in the postseason. "If we're not" -- he paused, before completing his train of thought in a new direction -- "I've been fired for less."
His resignation letter to the Orioles was accepted the same day he was named 1997 AL Manager of the Year. (He is a four-time runner-up for NL Manager of the Year.)
Though Johnson hadn't been a big-league skipper for about a decade before taking over in Washington, he rarely left the dugout. He had stints managing the Dutch national team, the U.S. Olympic team, the U.S. World Baseball Classic team and a team in the Florida Collegiate Summer League.
"He's not managing because he has to but because he wants to," Werth said. "I think he's always done it like that. He works on his terms. That allows him to be himself."
For most of his career, that self has been a winning manager, which is just what Johnson and the Nationals envision in 2012.