Davey Johnson's baseball journey comes to an end after 60 years

Tuesday September 24th, 2013

The Nationals honored Davey Johnson on Sunday before his last home games as Washington's manager.
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Davey Johnson's soon-to-be former manager's office at Nationals Park is a spacious room with two couches, a desk and locker where his uniform No. 5 hangs. A light yellow wall has a shelf with family photos and black-and-white pictures of three men who represent the start of a baseball life that is coming to an end after 60 years.

Johnson, who will retire after the season, isn't one for baseball sentimentality, but ask him about his life-long connection to baseball in the nation's capital and his voice is energized. Mickey Vernon, Frank Howard and Joe Haynes, the men in those black-and-white photographs, are more than just Washington baseball players from another franchise and another era. They are important figures in Johnson's lifelong journey through the sport.

Vernon was an All-Star first baseman who played 14 years for the original Senators, the American League's D.C.-based team that had two incarnations until leaving the district for good after the 1971 season. Howard, a 6-foot-7 slugger known as the Washington Monument during his stint with the second version of the Senators, coached for Johnson when the latter managed the New York Mets. Perhaps most significantly, Haynes was a pitcher who helped a then-10-year-old Johnson, his neighbor in Orlando, land a job as a Senators batboy for spring training in 1953.

"That's when I knew I wanted to play for the Washington Senators,'' Johnson says. "Joe Haynes was a pitcher and he was my hero. I was a pitcher-shortstop. Mickey Vernon was on that Senators team and I got to be around him in that clubhouse. It's a miracle that 60 years later, I'm managing the team. I've come full-circle. There's a lot of symmetry in that story.''

What Johnson's story won't have is a happy ending, at least not in the way so many expected before the season began. Washington was a popular World Series favorite after last year's team won 98 games and the NL East title, its first postseason appearance since the franchise moved from Montreal after the 2004 season. But the Nationals' season hasn't gone as planned and it will end on Sunday rather than at some point in late October.

In fact, this season was supposed to be about a glorious sendoff into retirement for the 70-year-old Johnson, one of two managers to take four different teams to the postseason. Johnson did nothing to tamp down those preseason expectations, even making a "World Series or bust'' proclamation.

It turned out to be bust. Despite posting a .698 winning percentage since Aug. 9 that is the best in the majors, the Nationals were not able to overcome their 54-60 play to that point and were officially eliminated from playoff contention after losing in St. Louis on Monday night.

Johnson, though, had no regrets about his bold comment. "I said 'World Series or bust,' because I knew it was going to be my last year,'' he said.

"We didn't have depth in pitching. The bullpen is not nearly as efficient as it was last year. The bench has not been productive. We have talent, but we lack experience. I wouldn't have been as cocky coming out and saying we're going to win the World Series if that all those things I knew weren't set in place.''

Getting the Nationals to be the first team from Washington to make the World Series since 1933 would have been an excellent exclamation point on what could be a Hall of Fame managerial career. Johnson, who made four All-Star Games and was part of two World Series title teams during 13 seasons as a player, has managed teams to six division titles and his Mets beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. He won the Manager of the Year award in each league and 14 of 17 teams he managed with the Mets, Reds, Orioles, Dodgers and Nationals finished either first or second.

Johnson has to be retired for six months to be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration, so the earliest he can be considered by the Expansion Era Committee is 2016, for induction in 2017, Hall spokesman Brad Horn says. The committee has 16 members made up of Hall of Famers, media members and team executives.

With or without a spot in Cooperstown, Johnson has led an interesting life. He's got a math degree from Trinity University, was at the forefront of the game's computer revolution, can speak Japanese, has a pilot's and real estate license and teaches scuba diving.

As a player, he was the last batter to get a hit off the Los Angeles Dodgers' Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in the 1966 World Series, one of four Fall Classics Johnson played in. He was teammates with Hank Aaron and, in Japan, Sadaharu Oh, the legendary slugger who hit 868 home runs in 22 seasons for the Yomiuri Giants. Johnson himself once hit 43 home runs in a single season, for the 1973 Atlanta Braves.

"I wish it didn't have to end," said Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez. "I appreciate the time we've had with him, but I wish we had more time. It has been so much fun being around him.''

"I feel bad that we couldn't give him a going-away present by keeping him around here for the month of October," says first baseman Adam LaRoche.

Twenty-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper says he was 15 years old when he first met Johnson. "He was all smiles with lots of enthusiasm for teaching the game. You could see he loved baseball. We all knew who he was, and I'll never forget the smile he had on his face. And I'll always appreciate the faith he had in me as a 19-year-old player. He called me up at a time when I was hitting [.243] in the minors. He believed in me. I'll never forget that.''

Denard Span, the leadoff batter who slumped most of the season after arriving in an offseason trade from the Minnesota Twins, said that he never saw Johnson panic during the low points in the season and that Johnson knew how to give Span confidence when he struggled.

"When I was going bad, he came over and told me, 'You're our guy, and we are glad that you are part of this team," says Span. "Anytime you're not playing up to expectations, it felt good to hear that from some one like Davey Johnson. It made a difference. It helped.'' Span would eventually post a 29-game hitting streak that was the longest in the majors this season.

Despite that success, Johnson couldn't get the rest of his team turned around in time. He spent many sleepless nights worrying about how to get the Nationals to play better, and he took responsibility. "Players win games and managers lose them,'' he says. "Blame me.''

As Washington stayed on the fringes of the NL wild-card race, Johnson never got too excited about keeping track of how the Pirates and Reds, the two teams the Nats were chasing, were doing. He'd go to bed before the games were over, and check out the scores on his phone in the morning.

"No sense worrying about what I can't control,'' he says.

Last Thursday, the first day of the final homestand, Johnson did his usual routine by arriving at the ballpark about 11:30 a.m. and reading injury updates on his players and going over scouting reports and matchups of the visiting Marlins.

After that, Johnson put on his headset -- "I listen to classical music,'' he says -- and walked four miles around the outside of Nationals Park. Then he'd get a hot pack, hang out in the clubhouse and visit with the players as they came in. "This is my home, this is where I spend my time,'' he says.

Johnson says that while he likes the challenge of baseball competition, he's not going to miss the routine of running a big-league team. For one thing, his back, on which he's had two operations, is constantly hurting, especially when he has to stand in the dugout for several hours at a time.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said that Johnson is under contract through next season and that he will be a senior advisor who is around for spring training and will then mentor coaches and managers in the team's minor league system.

Johnson, though, will slow down. He wants to be healthy enough to play golf and go fishing. "I love the water, the ocean, the fresh water,'' he says. "It replenishes my soul and vitality. It keeps me sane.''

He wants to travel to Australia, spend time with his grandchildren and start an Urban Youth Academy in his hometown of Orlando. He says his next uniform might be the T-ball uniform of his grandson. "I might get my baseball fix right there.''

On Sunday, the Nationals split a day-night doubleheader with the Marlins, losing 4-2 and winning 5-4. But the day belonged to Johnson. The team honored him with a video tribute before the first game. Everyone from Boog Powell, one of Johnson's former Baltimore teammates, to Ryan Zimmerman, the Washington's star third baseman, spoke. The video showed Johnson in his various uniforms, including his days in Japan.

On the field, he hugged each of his players and pretended to punch them in the gut. Span ask him if he had tears behind the sunglasses, and Johnson responded with his typical, "(Expletive) no.''

Afterward, Johnson admitted he was moved by the tribute. "To get something like that makes you happy and sad," he said. "It took me way back. I was mingling with big leaguers when I was 10 years old. Here am I am going out to pasture managing my favorite team.''

Mel Antonen, a former USA TODAY baseball writer, is a baseball analyst for Sirius-XM Radio and MASN-TV in Washington and Baltimore.

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