As skippers go, Davey among the most special
VIERA, Fla. -- The man dressing in the manager's office appears quite tanned and rested. Thirty years ago, that would have qualified him to manage the Yankees, as George Steinbrenner judged Billy Martin fit to return to the job if he passed the owner's "tanned and rested" test. Instead the man looking healthy and ready to begin a baseball season of promise is Davey Johnson, the manager of the Washington Nationals, the most talent-laden entry in the National League.
Johnson is in position for a second Spring Training with the Nationals. The first preceded a season of 98 victories, the most in the game. The second comes with expectations for another occupied October and for more reasons to consider Johnson one of the special managers in the long history of the game.
He comes with baggage -- at least two suitcases, a duffel bag and a carry-on filled with success. Johnson has managed the Mets, Reds, Orioles, Dodgers and, since June 27, 2011, the transplanted franchise in the nation's capital. And everywhere Davey has gone, success was sure to follow.
He has run a team from the first day of Spring Training through the last game of the regular season 13 times. Those seasons produced six first-place finishes, six runnerup finishes, five records with at least 98 victories and six others with at least 85.
This man knows what he's doing -- to such a degree that he already has been assessed by the Veterans Committee for Hall of Fame induction, and since then he has padded his resumé. Moreover, for seven summers he was an integral component, the second baseman, of one of the premier teams of the last 50 years, the Orioles of the late '60s and early '70s. And 40 years ago he put together an extraordinary offensive season for a second baseman -- 43 home runs and 99 RBIs for the Braves.
None of that is new information, though presented in a small lump of words, it may create a different perspective of Johnson's long career in the game. He is quite accomplished. Indeed, few men have achieved so much as a manager and also had so much success as a player.
A learned former colleague at Newsday, Steve Jacobson, reached this conclusion after several decades of observation, listening and measuring: No one has succeeded as both a player and as a manager to the degree Joe Torre did, which is to say that Torre is the most accomplished manager in history who also was an accomplished player, and he achieved more as a player than any manager of comparable or even greater success.
Scant grounds for legitimate rebuttal exist here. Torre won the NL Most Valuable Player Award in 1971 and received MVP votes in six other years. Without the benefit of a leg hit, he batted .297 in his career, driving in 1,185 runs and hitting 252 home runs. He drove in 100 or more runs five times and batted .315 or higher four times.
Connie Mack, Sparky Anderson, Gene Mauch, Bobby Cox, Bucky Harris, Tony La Russa and Walter Alston produced marginal playing careers. Neither Earl Weaver nor Joe McCarthy played a big league inning. Casey Stengel, John McGraw and Leo Durocher had more compelling playing careers than the others, but none produced as Torre did in his 18 seasons.
Cap Anson produced a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago franchise in the NL in the 1800s, when he served as player-manager. His teams won five pennants. The six pennants and four World Series championships Torre's Yankees teams won clearly trump Anson's resumé. So there ought to be little argument with Jacobson's premise.
The question is, who follows Torre? Stengel had more success as a manager and did some memorable things as a player, but Torre's playing career had more. McGraw was a pioneer in the dugout, but his achievements as a player were modest compared with Torre's.
Johnson may be the runnerup to Torre in this hybrid evaluation. He was a successful player who has been a greater success as a manager.
"That's not up to me," Johnson said on Sunday morning as he prepared for meetings and a late-morning workout in the chill -- 40 degrees at 8 a.m. ET -- of Central Florida. No surprise. Though he is proud of the two Manager of the Year Awards he has won -- and how he didn't win one with the Mets in the '80s remains a mystery -- Johnson isn't one for "attaboys."
He is a motivated and ultra-bright man who gets his kicks from doing his job well and seeing those he tutors and directs succeed.
But he turned 70 last month, and he has identified 2013 as his final year in the dugout. At some point in the not-too-distant future, Johnson might unplug, sit back and try to determine his place in the game. "Not now," he said on Sunday. And he insists that he doesn't give a rodent's rear about how he is perceived.
"The joy isn't in the record," he said, "It comes in evaluating talent, working with the talent and seeing young players live up to their talent."
Johnson embraces challenge. He revels in it, actually.
"I guess it's my mathematical background," he says. "I love solving problems. I tell my players, 'If the guy next to you can't help, bring your problem to me.' ... I want to remove the obstacles from their paths and let them perform as well as they can. ... I feel I've been successful if I leave things better than they were when I started.
"If I do my job and if we have good talent, then we win. ... It's my failure if a guy doesn't do all he can do. I haven't made the ground fertile enough for him to grow."
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It is the first week of Spring Training. Neither fun nor games are evident in the Nationals' camp. This is a serious time. No matter how comfortable players are because of Johnson's handling, pennants can't be won without preparation. The games begin soon enough. The real fun comes in October.
These days, Johnson directs as much young talent as any manager. The public focuses on Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, as folks focused on Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry with the Mets in the '80s. But the secondary talent is special, too.
Johnson has been blessed in that area, but he also has been chosen because of his ability to remove obstacles, teach and nurture. He says it takes 25 players to win, and that has the sound of cliché, but he explains that when each of 25 men has had his role identified and he accepts and understands it, the chance for success dramatically increases.
His faces stiffens as he discusses his theories. So serious. He articulates his responsibilities better than most of his peers. His baseball and personal intellect are so evident. That he has devoted thousands of hours to thinking his craft is apparent, too.
"He's so good at what he does," Mike Rizzo says. The Nationals' general manager acknowledges he had wanted -- read: planned for -- Johnson to manage at some point. "I knew about him, but I never saw him play. But if he was as a good a player as he is a manager, he must have been one special player."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.