A man born into a world without credit cards, microwaves, the United Nations or an integrated major leagues walked into the middle of the visiting clubhouse of Miami's postmodern Marlins Park and searched for the right inspirational words. It was 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 29, and Davey Johnson, the oldest manager in baseball, was five months from turning 70; most of the Nationals' players he was about to address weren't even born when he began managing. Johnson rarely calls team meetings, and he hadn't bothered to prepare anything to say to a first-place team stuck in a five-game losing streak, matching its worst of the season.
This is an article from the Oct. 1, 2012 issue
Tall, angular and weathered, Johnson bears the mien of a frontier sheriff—though the figure of authority he cuts is tempered by a glint in his eye and a wisp of a grin when he knows he is right, which happens to be just about all of his waking minutes. "He can get on a player," Washington general manager Mike Rizzo says, "and the player doesn't even know he's getting on him. It's a wonderful gift that players trust him even when he raps them after games in the media. They take it like, 'Jeez, Dad's a little mad at me.'"
Before this year the Nationals had not had a winning season since 2003, when they played in Montreal as the Expos. The District of Columbia had not seen a postseason team since the 1933 Senators. And as the unfamiliar pressure of a relevant September drew nigh, the Nationals had been outscored 26--6 during their losing streak. Johnson's instincts told him a moment of need had come.
"Listen," the manager told them, "I didn't even really want to have a meeting, but when you're losing, the media thinks you're supposed to have a meeting. So I figured this would make me look real damn smart. And besides, by having this meeting we can keep those a------- out of here for a while."
The room broke up laughing. Dad was on a roll.
"I have no problem with your effort or your preparation. This is a damn good team, and I'm with you. But when we lose, it's hard on the coaches and the manager. We don't sleep as good. So could you please start winning a few damn games and make it easier on this old guy?"
Says utilityman Mark DeRosa, "And that was pretty much it. I remember thinking, 'Uh-oh. Here it comes. He's going to give it to us.' He didn't. I've been blown away by how good he is. He's the ultimate guy's guy. Things are going to be done the way Davey wants them done. But he's got a quiet swagger about him."
The Nationals busted out against the Marlins that night for an 8--4 win, the start of a 12--3 run. Despite injuries that have sidelined their closer (Drew Storen), catcher (Wilson Ramos), leftfielder (Mike Morse) and rightfielder (Jayson Werth) for extended periods this season, as well as the much-parsed, Rizzo-engineered plan to shut down their healthy ace (Stephen Strasburg) earlier this month, the Nationals have held first place for all but 10 days. With 92 wins with 10 games to play, they were a very good bet to break the franchise record of 95 set by the 1979 Expos.
That they play baseball with Johnson's swagger is not coincidence. For example Johnson, tired of the passive-aggressive modern hitting approach of taking pitches and pushing the ball the other way, drew on lessons from former teammates Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson to encourage his players to cut loose on inside fastballs. The result is that the freewheeling Nationals, willing to bear the third-highest strikeout total in the National League, have the franchise's highest slugging percentage in a dozen years and have already broken its home run record. "It all starts with Davey," says shortstop Ian Desmond, who has 24 home runs, 14 beyond his previous career high.
Washington is a baseball town for the first time in generations. That the best team in the NL, not to mention the second youngest, is led by the oldest manager in baseball is the best part of the story. Johnson was out of a major league dugout for 10½ years before Rizzo gave the sheriff his badge back. So difficult was his time in exile that Johnson's own near death wasn't even close to being the worst of it.
In 2000 the Dodgers fired Johnson after they won 86 games and finished in second place. It wasn't the first time he had parted ways with a team he had led to success. The Mets fired him 42 games into the 1990 season, with the team two games under .500, after they had finished in first or second place for six straight years on his watch. The Reds dumped him in 1995 after two straight first-place finishes, and he and the Orioles parted ways after he won 98 games in 1997 and was named AL Manager of the Year.
"It wasn't that bad," Johnson says when asked about the Mets' firing. "I like working for smart people. And if they were dumb enough to fire me, I guess they weren't very smart."
Losing the Los Angeles job was different. Part of Johnson welcomed it. His energy was low. His heart would go into arrhythmia on long flights or in stressful situations, even during his beloved golf matches with buddies. He didn't work well with general manager Kevin Malone, beginning with Johnson's preference to sign free-agent pitcher Randy Johnson in 1998 rather than Kevin Brown. Johnson admits that he was "basically burned out" when the Dodgers fired him. "Emotionally, physically, I needed to be home," he says. "I came into a situation that was not real conducive for me to do much. At the same time, I had a very sick daughter back home. My little surfer girl."
Andrea Lyn Johnson was a world-class competitive surfer. Many mornings at dawn at home in Winter Park, Fla., Andrea would slip her surfboard into the back of her red Mustang—the one Davey bought for her with the fold-down back seat—and drive 70 miles to the closest big waves, at Sebastian Inlet on the Space Coast. "She loved the competition," Johnson says. "She lived for it."
One day in 1995, when Andrea was 22, she took an overdose of acetaminophen and had to be rushed to a hospital. While being treated there, she explained to doctors she was hearing voices in her head. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and began years of medication and hospitalizations.
In 2004, Johnson's own health took a turn for the worse. He underwent two surgeries to address chronic abdominal pain, one of which involved removing part of his stomach. His health only worsened. He lost 50 pounds. "I could tell the doctors were concerned he wasn't going to survive," says his wife, Susan. She asked one doctor, a friend, "If this were your wife, what would you do?" He responded, "First thing in the morning I would go to the Mayo Clinic."
Johnson did, and doctors discovered the problem wasn't his stomach at all. His appendix had ruptured and was filling with toxins. He remained alive only because his body somehow had walled off the infection for nearly two years. In layman's terms, this old Army brat—his father, Frederick, survived imprisonment at a prison camp in Poland during World War II—was too stubborn to die. "The way they explained it to me was my body just overhealed around the appendix and saved my life," he says.
It took three months to drain the infection. Johnson regained his health and his weight. Meanwhile Andrea, who was being treated at a state hospital in Florida, seemed to be doing better. In June 2005, Johnson arranged to put her in a house he built two miles from his home in Winter Park and one mile from the home of her mother, Mary Nan, Johnson's first wife. Andrea moved in and soon thereafter began preparing to take a trip to Texas to visit Mary Nan's mother.
"One of the things about the drugs she was on," Johnson says, "was you get constipated unless you take a laxative. And she hated to take a laxative."
The toll that skipping the laxatives took was apparent when Mary Nan called on Andrea on the morning she was to leave for Texas. Andrea's body had shut down from septic shock, and Mary Nan rushed her to the hospital. Davey met them there. The news from the doctors was grim. Andrea had no vital signs. Clinically, she was dead, and she was on full life support. She was 32. "I had to make a decision to pull the plug," Johnson says. "They said it may take an hour for her to go. I remember it took about five minutes."
Johnson was sitting in the visiting dugout at Citi Field in New York City earlier this month. The Nationals were taking batting practice. He looked far, far beyond them. His voice grew low and soft.
"Maybe it's because I went through a divorce.... It's a long story.... I felt as guilty.... I'm still not sure ... what happened."
"Well, you know, I think we're all responsible for anything that happens to our kids, like I have a responsibility to these kids here, but especially your own kids.... You think about what we did wrong and the mistakes I should have foreseen and you didn't protect them enough ... something."
Six years later, in May 2011, Johnson lost another child. This time it was a stepson, Jake Allen, 34. He died suddenly from pneumonia. It was because of Jake, who was deaf and blind, that Johnson and Susan met in 1990. It happened at a fund-raiser for Jake's special-needs school in Winter Park. Someone mentioned to Susan that she should be nice to Johnson because he was a ballplayer. So Susan, hardly a serious sports fan, went up to him and asked politely, "So, you play a little softball?"
On one of their first dates, over dinner, Susan broke down sobbing because Jake was having such a difficult time in school. "I don't know you very well," Johnson told her. "And you and I wouldn't know if we're falling in love. But I'm just going to tell you, I will help work this out."
Johnson, who attended Texas A&M, earned a degree in mathematics from Trinity (Texas) University and took computer-science classes at Johns Hopkins while playing for the Orioles in the 1960s, says, "I like math because I always liked solving problems. Like managing players. I tell these guys, 'Come to me. The guy next to you can't solve your problems. I'm the problem solver in this group.' That's basically what you do in this job. You try to keep the problems to a minimum."
A month after Davey and Susan buried Jake, they were on a fishing trip on Martha's Vineyard when they decided it was time to visit Alaska. They had planned to make the trip for years, but the joke between them was that every time they'd begin making arrangements, Davey would get another job offer to manage. This time their schedule looked clear. Johnson, who had joined the Nationals in 2006 as a part-time consultant, was in the second year of a three-year contract to work as Rizzo's top adviser. His days of managing appeared to be over. "Being a new G.M., I needed to surround myself with really good baseball people," Rizzo says. "He was the first guy I hired."
It was June 24, 2011, when Davey and Susan decided to book the trip. They had until 8 p.m. to call the booking agent in Alaska. That morning Johnson's phone rang. It was Rizzo. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman had quit the previous day over a contract dispute. Rizzo wanted Johnson to manage the team. "He was Plan A," Rizzo says, "and I didn't have a Plan B. He was the perfect candidate. He was in-house, well-respected, and he knew the players already. The only questions were would he do it and would Susan let him."
Davey and Susan discussed the offer. He was feeling fit; a 10-hour heart procedure that February had corrected his arrhythmia, and his weight was back up to 180 pounds. There was a void with Jake gone. And so they laughed about putting off the Alaska trip one more time.
You comedown and manage the team!
His weight and heart rate are stable, but the surest sign that Johnson's vigor has been restored was the shouting match he engaged in with Rizzo after the fourth loss in the five-game losing streak last month. The closed door to Johnson's office did nothing to contain the volume or keep the blowup private.
When Rizzo hired Johnson, they quickly came to an understanding: The general manager would sit in the manager's office every day for a postgame review, and the manager would gladly welcome his questions. "Feel free to question me," Johnson told Rizzo, "because I'll give you 10 reasons for why I'm doing what I'm doing."
This time Rizzo pushed the wrong button. Both men were unhappy about the team's sloppy play, but when Rizzo questioned Johnson about the players—rather than any managerial moves—Johnson erupted. "It was typical Davey, protecting his players," Rizzo says. "It was good casting. Everyone had their role down perfectly."
Johnson carved out a reputation as a player's manager long ago. During the 1986 World Series, for instance, he shocked and angered the media by giving his Mets a day off in Boston after they lost the first two games in New York. By doing so he sheltered them from a barrage of negative questions. The Mets took two out of three in Boston and won the series in seven games.
Johnson is especially deft at protecting young pitchers. His Mets teams, for instance, were loaded with young arms—including Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Ron Darling, Rick Aguilera and Sid Fernandez—and almost all of them had long careers without major arm injuries. This year Strasburg, 24, and Jordan Zimmermann, 26, have faced only 62 batters combined all year after the sixth inning—none in the eighth or ninth.
"I'm the caretaker of the players," he says. "I have to do what's best for them over the long haul." That explains why he supported Rizzo in the G.M.'s seasonlong plan to shut down Strasburg, who was in his first full season after 2010 Tommy John surgery, after roughly 160 innings. (He ended up throwing 159 1/3.) That support included rejecting the idea that Washington could have started Strasburg's season in May or saved innings by using him out of the bullpen. That was the Braves' strategy with 26-year-old righthander Kris Medlen, who also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and spent the first four months of the season as a reliever. He has gone 8--0 with a 0.76 ERA in 10 starts since entering the rotation in late July.
"No!" Johnson snapped when asked if a similar plan was considered for Strasburg. "It's a crock of s--- what they're doing with Medlen. It ain't anywhere close [to Strasburg]. They're trying to act like geniuses. Here's the deal. It's like you've got these great racehorses. And their whole life they're raised to go through a certain process at certain times of the year. And ballplayers go through them in the spring. Now you take Doc Halladay or anybody, and if you start varying that—don't let him [pitch] for a month? You don't know what's going to happen."
Says Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, "Davey asked me in the spring, 'Who's our ace?' I said, 'Strasburg.' He said, 'Yep. And we put our best foot forward.' That's how he works."
"Unfiltered" is the word DeRosa chooses to describe Johnson: "His door is always open, and unlike some managers who say that, he means it. But a player better expect he's going to hear it straight from Davey. He's not going to sugarcoat anything."
Johnson took Strasburg—who was scheduled to make one more start before his shutdown—to task through the media on Sept. 7, when the righty lasted only three innings and gave up five runs in a loss to the Marlins. After the game, Johnson told reporters, "I think he wasn't focused as much on the game as he was on the impending shutdown." The next morning the Nationals announced that Strasburg's season was over.
But as Rizzo notes, Johnson's barbs don't sting because he cultivates strong relationships with his players, and because he has had such an accomplished and colorful baseball life. He batted against Whitey Ford; got the last hit off Sandy Koufax; hit behind Aaron and, as a Yomiuri Giant, Sadaharu Oh; lost to the Miracle Mets (as the Orioles' second baseman) in 1969; benefited from Bill Buckner's error in 1986; lost a playoff game on Derek Jeter's infamous Jeffrey Maier--aided home run; and moved an aging Cal Ripken Jr. from shortstop to third base as Baltimore's manager in 1997. Johnson has won Gold Gloves, been an All-Star, won World Series as a player (twice with Baltimore) and a manager, and been named Manager of the Year. Nobody else has accumulated all of those honors.
Johnson has the 10th-best winning percentage (.564) among managers with 1,000 wins. Of the 13 seasons he has managed a club from start to finish, this will be the 12th time that he has finished first or second. His success this season is particularly striking because of the years the Washington franchise went without winning and the ones Johnson went without managing. Johnson is one of 17 managers to be hired full time after at least 10 years between jobs—including current managers Bobby Valentine with the Red Sox and Terry Collins with the Mets—but the first one since Burt Shotton with the Dodgers in 1947 to lead that team to the postseason. "He says he can slow the game down and analyze it better than he ever has," Susan says. "It's such a joy to see him reaffirm he's so good at it."
Susan doesn't see her husband managing "for five more years. He doesn't want a heart attack in a hotel room somewhere." Johnson doesn't know how long he will last in the job. Such are their natures. Susan is the planner. ("We can be staying on the nicest beach in Cabo San Lucas and looking at the beautiful water, and she can ask me what we're doing six months from now," he says.) Davey is a man without plans. The Army brat was raised this way—another year, another base, another town. The folly of plans only became more evident with four managing jobs gained and lost, with more than a decade gone by before a fifth chance and, most painfully, with the burial of two children.
"I think about them every day," he says. "They're in my prayers every day, as well as the people I love and want protected. I don't pray for wins. I pray for health.
"I try to look on it that I was blessed for as long as I had them. They were joys. But it's also the way I've lived my life. I'm going to enjoy the right now. My energy is about enjoying the moment the best way I can. Losing two kids only reaffirms how precious each moment of your life is. You're given a gift with every opportunity."
A BASEBALL LIFE
Johnson taking his hacks in the World Series
Addressing his troops on the first day of Mets spring training
A rare light moment in his three-year tenure under Reds owner Marge Schott
Arguing the infamous Jeffrey Maier home run in the ALCS
Warming up in spring training before his first season managing the Dodgers
With Team USA, which he managed at the '08 Olympics and the '09 WBC
Imparting some wisdom to Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth