Davey can enhance Nats' development in DC
Manager showed ability with burgeoning 1984 Mets squad
NEW YORK -- As recently as last summer when the Mets opened the doors of their Hall of Fame to their Mount Rushmore faces of the '80s, Frank Cashen identified 1984 as the year Davey Johnson did his best managing with the team. The former general manager said as much dozens of times in the later years of Johnson's tenure with the Mets and in the decades that followed it. The Mets were more successful in subsequent seasons, but Cashen steadfastly held to his evaluation of the work his hand-picked manager did in his first year in the dugout in Queens.
Johnson is back for another first year -- or half-year -- in the dugout, a couple of hundred miles south of Shea Stadium's footprint and not too far from where he made his first mark as a player and later underscored it as the Orioles' manager. In a curious development, he is to manage again at age 68, which makes him the second-oldest man, by 12 years, to return to a big league dugout after an extended absence in less than a week.
Evidently, neither Johnson nor Trader Jack McKeon is the retiring type.
Now, partially because Jim Riggleman has the courage of his convictions, Johnson has moved from the Nationals' cabinet to their Oval Office dugout. He's setting up shop in D.C. and making plans to prepare the Montreal-Washington franchise for a degree of success it never has known.
That's what Johnson did in '84, months after congratulating Cashen for "being smart enough to hire me." He prepared his young team to win big and nothing less. Demonstrating a touch of arrogance than eventually rubbed off on his players, Johnson spent his first Mets summer essentially writing out invitations to the World Series of 1985-95. He expected to be one of the co-hosts for each one and maybe a few more. By the end of June 27 years ago, he knew he would have the horses. He had started his managerial career quite certain he had the expertise.
Heavy doses of Whitey Ball, interference from Orel Hershiser and the general entropy that undermines all best-laid plans limited Johnson's Mets to one World Series championship -- grand and unforgettable as it was -- amid disappointment and disapproval. But he'll always have 1984, the year he brought the Mets from last place to 90 victories, from nowhere to the beginning of five-year sequence in which the team averaged 98 victories.
Johnson took George Orwell's year and made it his, nurturing the remarkable array of talent the Cashen administration had accumulated and, as he said repeatedly that summer, "establishing the young arms." The appendages he included under that label belonged to Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Tim Leary and, to a lesser degree, Calvin Schiraldi. And they belonged to the Mets' future one way or the other.
It was with the pitchers that Johnson did his best work, with the "young arms" that he implemented his pay now-win later philosophy. Mel Stottlemyre, the pitching coach Johnson was assigned, polished their technique and, with Johnson, directed their on-mound thinking. Johnson enhanced the pitchers' confidence and, with Stottlemyre, developed their arm strength and mindset.
The rookie manager said they were taking baby steps, invoking some of what he recalled from his days as the Orioles' second baseman and the Baby Birds pitching staff of the '60s. Baby steps became giants strides by 1985, when Gooden was the most dominant force in the game and Darling and Fernandez became reliable -- occasionally dominant -- starters.
It was on Easter Sunday 1984 in Philadelphia that Johnson made his pay now-win later point. Darling allowed six runs in the first two innings and appeared to the untrained eye to be one hit away from being replaced. Johnson had no such leaning. Darling remained on the mound; he even batted in the fourth when the Mets had two runners on base and a chance to get back in the game. By the time he was removed, he had completed five innings, the last three of which were scoreless.
"I wanted Ronnie to get something positive out of his start," Johnson said afterward. "And he did, he left feeling good -- or at least better -- about himself than he would have if we yanked him in the second. What was he going to gain from that? What were we going to gain?"
Darling said he gained a sense of accomplishment merely by surviving.
Johnson let his young players fail, but seldom to any great degree, just enough so they might learn from the experience. He looked at the season through a prism of player development and was willing to lose or risk losing if an individual player's sense of self might benefit. He was reluctant to pinch-hit for a young player if he believed an at-bat in challenging circumstances would bolster the player's confidence.
"How's he going to prove anything if I pinch-hit for him any time it gets tough?" Johnson asked rhetorically one afternoon after he had allowed Wally Backman to face his nemesis, a left-handed pitcher.
Backman delivered a go-ahead sacrifice fly and swore allegiance to his manager. "He has faith in me, and I have faith in him" is how he put it.
And so it went in 1984. Johnson didn't make the Mets better so much as he allowed the considerable talent available to him to develop. And by the beginning of the '85 season, with Gary Carter added, the Mets were quite a formidable opponent. Not all weaknesses had been eliminated, but the strengths had been polished and the impact of their weaknesses limited.
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Johnson's impact in 1984 was not a new subject to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo when his team played at Citi Field in April. Rizzo's words were echoes of Cashen's. He expressed high regard for Johnson then, and appointing him to succeed Riggleman was a move based on that high regard.
The Nationals are at a significant point in their development. The terrain is familiar to Johnson, and, as was the case in 1984, Johnson is quite familiar with the personnel.
Nearly halfway through their 2011 season, the Nationals appear to be near the coordinates the Mets reached in 1984, the coordinates of "don't look now" and "beware." Rehabbing Stephen Strasburg can be their Dwight Gooden, prospect Bryce Harper their Darryl Strawberry. Ryan Zimmerman already may be their Keith Hernandez. From now through the end of this season, Davey Johnson can be, well ... their Davey Johnson. And, with his input if only for three months, their future can be brighter.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.