All Davey Johnson had to do in his first week as manager of the Cincinnati Reds was withstand a grilling from the media about his mysterious three-year exile from baseball, tap-dance around the fire storm that erupted after the shabby way his predecessor, Tony Perez, had been fired and take a sentimental journey to New York for a weekend series against the Mets, who canned him in 1990 after he had won nearly 60% of his games and one world championship in his six-plus seasons as their skipper.
Flashing smiles and optimism everywhere he turned, the tanned and relaxed Johnson handled it all with aplomb—which was a good sign, considering that he now works for a franchise burdened by player acrimony and front-office ugliness.
Although the Reds finished the week a daunting 8½ games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants in the National League West, they had won two out of three from both the Atlanta Braves and the Mets to get to 24-26 on the season. Thus the 50-year-old Johnson had made a promising start on a formidable assignment: Deliver a divisional championship to Cincinnati. Not next year, this year. And he'll have to do it with a bunch of disgruntled players who couldn't be less interested in saving the job of 32-year-old general manager Jim Bowden. It was Bowden who on May 24 dismissed Perez—one of the most popular individuals ever to wear a Red uniform—just 44 games into the season, and by doing so put his own career on the line.
At week's end some players were still paying homage to Perez by writing his number, 24, on various parts of their uniforms—shortstop Barry Larkin inscribed it inside the C on his cap, on the sleeve of his jersey and on the toes of his hightop spikes—but Johnson wasn't taking it personally. "They'll get over it," he said. "They'll realize that the time comes when you have to stop beating a dead horse."
"We've got a new manager here, with his new staff, and we're going to go out and play as hard for them as we did for Doggie [Perez's nickname]," said starting pitcher Tom Browning, who threw five shutout innings in Johnson's debut, a 5-0 loss to the Braves on May 25. "We have no ill feelings toward them coming in here. But we're always going to have bitter feelings toward the general manager and the way Perez's firing was handled.
"Forty-four games into his rookie season, we were four games under .500. It wasn't like we were in last place. It came as a shock. This is Doggie's team. We're going out to win with him in mind."
No one had to describe for Johnson the emotions attached to a manager's firing. Just hours before his debut in a Cincinnati uniform, Johnson noted that Riverfront Stadium was where the Mets had dismissed him almost three years earlier to the day. "As the plane flew in here this morning, I knew I was back," Johnson said. "I started looking for a Tums."
When the Mets axed Johnson after a 20-22 start in 1990 and he retreated to his business interests in Winter Park, Fla., it was widely assumed that he would have his pick of whatever managing vacancies came open. Instead, he didn't receive a solid managerial offer until Bowden asked him to take over for Perez.
Although Johnson says the pressure of managing the Mets contributed to an increase in his drinking and the breakup of his marriage, that wouldn't have been enough to keep a success-starved team from coming after him. One explanation, albeit one that Johnson now says he discounts, is that the Mets bad-mouthed him, telling other teams that his ego and his closeness to his players made him difficult for a front office to handle.
Although Bowden admits that Perez's closeness to the Reds "might have been one of the factors that led to his demise," he apparently isn't concerned that Johnson has a reputation as a players' man. "Davey is a proven big league manager," Bowden says. "I do not consider Davey Johnson the same as Tony Perez. They run a game differently. I wouldn't have made the change if I didn't think Davey was a better manager than Tony."
Looking and sounding like a different man than when he last managed at Shea Stadium, Johnson could not stop smiling when he brought his new team into New York last Friday night. "It was good to be back and not feel all the stress," he said. The Reds won the series' opener 5-2 in 10 innings, and afterward Johnson celebrated with a nonalcoholic beer ("Been off booze for six months," he said). "People think managing's easy," Johnson said. "It's not. There's a lot of stress. Drinking, whether it's one drink or 500 drinks, was a way of handling it. That's not a good thing. But it was a way."
Johnson was cheered by the New York crowds whenever he stuck his head out of the dugout, particularly when he confronted an umpire during Sunday's 8-4 victory. "I wasn't nervous," he said. "Even though no one wanted to hire me for three years, I don't feel like I have to prove anything. I feel happy."
Even if Bowden's panic move has an immediate payoff for the Reds, a lot of people in Cincinnati will never forgive him for the way he treated Perez. The level of discontent has ranged from the fans who vilified Bowden relentlessly on the radio call-in shows to the two death threats that were phoned to his office. Bowden didn't help himself by meeting with the team only after The Cincinnati Enquirer had quoted Browning as accusing him of being "afraid" to come to the clubhouse. The ensuing meeting settled nothing. The players greeted Bowden's two-minute remarks with a frigid silence that, in its way, was more eloquent than anything that could have been said.
Last winter, when Reds' owner Marge Schott was suspended from the game for one year for making racist remarks, she was given the right to name her replacement to handle Cincinnati's day-to-day operations. Schott bypassed her seven limited partners and appointed Bowden. A baby-faced whiz kid who had held front-office posts with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees, Bowden joined the Reds in 1990 and quickly become almost as big a Schott favorite as her dog Schottzie.
Remarkably brash and confident considering his youth and inexperience, Bowden embarked on an off-season shopping and trading spree that pushed the Reds' payroll to $42.8 million, the highest in the league. "General managers have to be a lot different now because the payrolls are so large," Bowden said before the season. "This is a big business. It's not just spitting tobacco and drinking whiskey and making a deal at 11 o'clock at night." Around the league he came to be known as Little Abner, as in Doubleday, because he seemed to think he had invented the game and had all the answers.
Before taking control Bowden had been a member of the four-person committee picked by Schott to select a successor to manager Lou Piniella. After interviewing seven candidates, the committee unanimously selected Perez, who had been with the Reds for 27 of his 33 years in pro ball, the last six as a coach. Although Perez had never managed before, the decision was immensely popular in Cincinnati. Perez wanted the job so badly that he refused to see anything sinister in the fact that the Reds also hired two of the other candidates, former big league managers Johnson and Bobby Valentine, as front-office consultants.
After a splendid spring and a victory in their opener, the Reds fell into a funk. Errors came in bunches, new pitcher John Smiley got off to a 1-6 start, and Cincinnati was beating itself with mistakes on the base paths and with bases-loaded walks.
After a 1-6 road trip against the Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers that left the Reds with a 20-24 record and 9½ games behind San Francisco, Bowden decided he had seen enough. At 8:30 a.m. on May 24, only a few hours after Cincinnati had returned home on a red-eye flight from L.A., Perez was awakened by a phone call from Bowden. "I have bad news," Bowden said. "I'm firing you."
An hour or so later, when Bowden announced the firing of Perez and the hiring of Johnson at a news conference, the immediate reaction was shock and outrage. Even those who weren't sold on Perez as a manager believed he hadn't been given enough time to prove himself and deserved better than to be informed of his dismissal over the phone.
Carl Kroch, a Chicago businessman who is one of Schott's partners, told The Enquirer that "the fellow we have to get rid of is Jim Bowden. That jerk didn't have the decency of telling the partners they were making a change." Yet under the terms of Schott's agreement with her fellow owners, the minority partners have no control over Bowden, as they discovered when they were rebuffed in an attempt to oust him in late April.
Of all the charges leveled against Bowden, the most serious was that the Reds had cynically used Perez and his Cuban heritage to defuse some of the criticism prompted by Schott's racist remarks. Even Perez, who reacted initially like the good team player he always has been, seemed to give some credence to that theory after thinking about it for a day. "Yesterday I thought this was a move they had to make," Perez said on May 25. "Today I smell something fishy. I don't know if I was used because I was a big name in town or a minority. But I feel I've been used."
However, Bowden insisted that Perez was fired only because Bowden had become convinced that Perez was incapable of providing the leadership necessary to snap Cincinnati out of its lethargy. "We just didn't have the time to train a manager," Bowden said. "I made the right move, and I made it at the right time. The only mistake I did make was that I should have called Tony over to my office and looked him in the eye when I told him."
Now it's up to Johnson to get the Reds to look him in the eye and follow his lead by focusing on the games ahead. Before last week his biggest decision every day was whether to play golf or go fishing. "A year ago I really became anxious to come back," Johnson says. "I wanted to be in a situation where the ball club wanted me, and I felt like I was the man. I want to do some good here. I just hope I'm here long enough to hear the players bad-mouth the guy who fires me."