In the midst of the Washington Nationals’ on-field festivities Thursday night, a mild celebration of their clinching of a playoff spot, manager Davey Johnson was shown on the Nationals Park scoreboard descending the steps of the dugout and heading into the clubhouse.
The park erupted. They cheered the manager of the best team the Nationals have ever had. Cheered the man who led their city’s team to its first playoff berth in 79 years.
Then Johnson entered the clubhouse and told his team what they were already thinking: “We ain’t done yet.”
But they did revel in what they’d accomplished, “Step one,” as Adam LaRoche put it, en route to the weightier steps ahead. And in doing so they helped their manager make history.
Johnson joined Billy Martin Thursday night as the only managers in major league history to take four different franchises to the playoffs. He added another line to his already-distinguished resume and ensured that he’d return to the playoffs, himself, for the first time in 15 years.
For Johnson, a man who rarely spends time marking time and began his post-game press conference quipping “What’s the big deal?”, the number was staggering.
“Has it been that long?” Johnson asked, genuine shock in his 69-year-old voice. “Don’t the Olympics count or something?”
When the Nationals hired Johnson last June, an unexpected twist of fate after Jim Riggleman’s abrupt resignation, everyone wanted to ask Johnson how the game had changed since he’d last been a part of it. Behind the question seemed another question: Would Johnson still be as sharp as ever with age and life having taken its toll and his time away coming during a period in which parts of the game’s exterior changed at a rapid pace?
His response was most often to point folks to his resume. Out of the game? Johnson would seemingly retort as he’d rattle off his jobs managing in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, the World Baseball Classic, the Olympics, wherever. He may have been away form the big leagues, but he never stopped managing.
But now, for the first time since 1997, he’s got a seat back at the table of major league postseason contenders.
“I enjoy seeing a team get better,” Johnson said Thursday night. “That’s the joy of managing. The wins and losses are important but it’s just seeing all the players do the things you know they’re capable of doing and when that happens, that makes me feel good, like I haven’t hindered their progress. But it is a good feeling to know we’re back in. I’m awful proud of those guys and there was no over-celebrating in there. They had the same kind of subdued attitude that I did.
“You know, don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Let’s just be ready for every game with the same mindset and there’s a lot of talent in that other room. They’re not cocky, but they’re very confident in their ability and it’s fun to see them express it and that’s what they’ve done basically all year. The veterans have great presence, but the youngsters in this organization have really stepped up and I’m most proud of that.”
If the Nationals have had one unabashed champion from perhaps even as early as the end of last season, it’s been Johnson.
During a spring in which bravado was being tossed around with regularity and no one was entirely sure just how good these Nationals would be, Johnson asserted his confidence in the talent and the capabilities they had. He went so far as to say that they could fire him if his team, a team that had never had a winning season in it’s seven-year history, didn’t make the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of people around here that you can point fingers at that had a lot to do with the change in direction and everything that goes into that in the ballclub and the organization,” said outfielder Jayson Werth. “But none any bigger than Davey.
“When I got here last here, this place was a mess. It was upside down. We had a lot of work to do. At times it felt like we would never get to play in October. Then Davey took over in the middle of the season and kind of did things his own way, went about business the way Davey goes about business, and he was the guy that he is. You could start to sense and see that the shape was starting to turn around. I give him a lot of credit. I couldn’t be happier. I’m really excited. I got to give a lot of thanks and praise to Davey.”
Johnson is known as a players’ manager. He makes his decisions with an air of confidence that often screams that he knows he’s the smartest one in the room. He knows when to push, when to motivate, and he knows when to sit back. After the Nationals were swept in Atlanta this past weekend, Johnson walked around the clubhouse sharing a few words with several players. More often than not, the conversations ended in gut-busting laughter and Johnson would move on, flashing a mischievous smile.
“You’re only as good as your leader, right?” said Drew Storen. “He doesn’t ride that rollercoaster. There’s no highs and there’s no lows. It’s just business as usual everyday, and you’ve got a guy that’s got your back, no matter what. There’s so many good things about him as a manager. It’s been nothing but a pleasure playing for him.”
“He has been phenomenal all year,” said LaRoche. “And not just the things you guys see on the field and the moves he makes. The way he handles the young guys and the older guys in here when media and other people aren’t around, he’s a first class guy. He cares about his players and he’s made that known, he shows it. He is a great manager.”
The last time Johnson stewarded a team to the playoffs, though, it didn’t end well. The same day he was named the 1997 American League Manager of the Year, Johnson lost his job as the Orioles’ manager in a spat with owner Peter Angelos.
Late Thursday night he was reminded of his spring training prediction and jokingly asked if he could finally relax now that he knew the Nationals would indeed not have to fire him.
“I think I said they can fire me if we don’t win our division,” Johnson said. “Maybe this counts partial. Maybe I’m still in the hot seat but maybe I get some votes, you know? Just maybe.”
“You’ve got a lot of work to do,” a reporter sarcastically shot back.
“I know I do,” Johnson said his smile as big as ever.
“Just don’t win manager of the year,” another reporter chimed in.
“No,” Johnson responded with a hearty laugh. “That’s a bad sign. I’ve been there, done that. My vote is for (Reds manager Dusty) Baker.”