Calm, confident Davey right man to lead Nationals
WASHINGTON -- Davey Johnson hadn't managed a Major League Baseball game in 11 years when the Washington Nationals turned their team over to him midway through the 2011 season. At 68, he wasn't a conventional choice.
Like a lot of the decisions Nats general manager Mike Rizzo has made, it has worked out nicely. Johnson's calm and confidence have been a perfect fit for a team with a bunch of young players still figuring things out.
"Basically, just let the players feel comfortable," Johnson said. "A lot of them are still in the learning process. They're all gamers. All they need is a little coaching here and there. Players win ballgames. I've said it a hundred times. They understand I'm going to try and give them the best situation to be as good as they can be."
Johnson had absolutely nothing to prove, and because he'd been through so much during 50 years in professional baseball, he could relate equally well to rising young stars and established veterans.
"Nothing against managers we've had here in the past," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, "but Davey came with accomplishments. He has done everything imaginable as a player, as a front-office person."
As a young player, Johnson played for -- and occasionally sparred with -- Orioles legend Earl Weaver. Weaver once joked that Johnson had a habit of bringing suggested lineups into his office.
"And all of them had him hitting third," Weaver cackled.
As a manager, Johnson ushered Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry to the big leagues and celebrated a championship with them as the manager of the 1986 Mets.
Johnson also led the Reds and Orioles to playoff appearances with a method that included a mixture of smarts, humor and occasionally sarcasm. There are few managers better at running a game or filling out a lineup card. Players know he'll be honest with them.
"He's old school," Zimmerman said. "Everyone uses that term. You show up, and if you're healthy, you'll play. If you struggle for a week or two, he's not going to panic. He'll come talk to you and try and help you out and talk about what he thinks is wrong. He's not going to jump ship on you. Because he's so loyal to us, everyone in this room will run through a brick wall for this guy."
With so much of the focus on Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg this summer, Johnson has slipped under the radar, his magical touch having gone unnoticed by some.
The Nats have baseball's best record at 84-52 and a 7 1/2-game lead in the National League East. They're fundamentally sound, smart and efficient. In terms of communication and putting players in position to succeed, no manager has done a better job.
"He has kept a steady hand and had a calming presence on the youngest team in the league," Rizzo said. "He has really kind of guided us to the position we're in."
Rizzo has surrounded himself with experienced baseball men, including Bob Boone, Roy Clark and his dad, Phil Rizzo, a respected talent evaluator.
That was the role the younger Rizzo envisioned for Johnson in November 2009. When Jim Riggleman resigned 18 months later, Rizzo asked Johnson to take over the club.
"He's a guy with extreme confidence," Rizzo said. "He has done everything you can do in this game. He has been an All-Star player. He won the World Series as a player and as a manager. He hit 43 home runs and won Gold Gloves. He can relate to these players. These players want to get where he has already been. He has the respect of the room. They know when he says something, he's saying it for their betterment."
For his part, Johnson said he didn't join the Nationals with the idea of managing. But he has settled in nicely.
Johnson has reached out to players to communicate his thoughts and hear what they have to say. He has helped Harper adjust to life in the big leagues as a 19-year-old. When Johnson called a team meeting the other day during a five-game losing streak, he apparently told a few jokes and attempted to get his guys to relax.
"Am I having fun? Yeah," Johnson said. "I like seeing guys do well. I know people think it's the wins and losses. Really, it's seeing guys establish themselves and become the players they can be. That's the joy of managing or coaching."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.