ANAHEIM, Calif. – When Davey Johnson last put on the uniform of a major league manager, the baseball world was different. He was different – and not just in stature.
The Nationals were still in Montreal, finishing fourth in the National League East as the Expos. Players hit 1.16 home runs per game – the most in baseball history – and not too many batted an eye. The Yankees had won two straight World Series titles and Dodgers, his team, were in fine economic standing.
Eleven years ago, Johnson wasn't long removed from a 1997 season that earned him American League Manager of the Year honors and, subsequently, a bitter divorce from the Baltimore Orioles and owner Peter Angelos. He was known as a fiery tactician who had a penchant for turning talented teams into winners.
A lot has changed, in baseball and for Johnson, who has endured both personal tragedy and health scares in the years since he led the Dodgers to an 86-76 record in 2000. The man who has come out on the other side, players say, is one who's mellowed – though still not afraid to speak his mind.
"The game hasn't changed," he said Monday at Angels Stadium. "As far as managing, every team's different. It's a learning experience of the talent and the abilities of each of player and how you handle them. But no, the game's the same."
Dressed in his gray road uniform pants, a batting practice pull-over windbreaker and Ringer Classic shoes, Johnson arrived at the ballpark at 11 a.m., less than 24-hours after he'd met the team on their charter flight from Chicago and had personal conversations with each player. Then he met the media before his first day as Nationals manager.
He talked about his managerial style, which he adapts to each team he's managed: "I definitely think this club has been an underachiever offensively. I don’t like to give up outs. I’ll bunt when I have to. I’ll hit and run when I feel like it. I think this club hasn’t quite come into it’s own. It doesn’t really know how good an offensive club it can be. It definitely has a chance to be a good one."
And he addressed his reasons for deciding to make the jump back to a major league managing job: "I love young players. I love talented young players. There’s a lot of energy in this Nationals organization. It was not a tough decision for me, to step in. It’s really exciting to even have a chance to compete."
He even discussed who his bench coach will be, bringing back Pat Corrales to be his right hand man, mostly, the 68-year-old Johnson joked, "because then I won't be the oldest guy on the staff."
He left the 20-minute session with reporters looking relaxed and happy as he headed back to the visitors clubhouse to hold a meeting with his team. He made no guarantees that he'd manage any game beyond the end of the 2011 season and said his focus lies solely with a team he feels can "most definitely" make the playoffs.
"He was always level," said White Sox reliever Matt Thornton, who was on the 2009 World Baseball Classic team that Johnson managed, describing Johnson's demeanor on Day 1 with the Nationals to a T. "He was always right there. I like that in a manager, one that doesn't get too crazy, (but) it was absolutely (different than I expected)."
Any changes, though, are perhaps brought on by the rigors of life that forced him to mourn the loss of his daughter, Andrea, to septic shock at age 32, a ruptured appendix that nearly killed him, a cardiac ablation procedure this spring to correct an arrhythmic heart beat and the loss of his stepson, Jake, earlier this season at age 34.
All of which could also easily be reasons Johnson had declined numerous coaching and managing jobs in the big leagues until now. Instead he stuck to behind-the-scenes roles, like the one he's filled with the Nationals since November 2009 and stayed around the game in other ways – managing five different Team USA squads since 2005, leading the 2008 Olympic Team to a bronze medal and that 2009 WBC team to the semi-finals – and managing the River Rats of the Florida Collegiate Summer League. He hadn't really thought, he said, about returning to the major league dugout until Nationals GM Mike Rizzo approached him about the team's vacancy.
"It was easier sitting over there, no stress, not having to make a pitching change or take a guy out of the lineup, watching somebody else make those decisions," Johnson said. "But I was still managing right along with them. Like everybody else does."
Nearly 11 full years after he last stepped out of the manager's office of a major league clubhouse, Johnson was behind the batting cage early Monday afternoon at Angels Stadium, wearing a uniform that looked made for him – even if some of the other players in it weren't alive when Johnson managed the New York Mets to the 1986 World Series. A lot has changed, sure, but once the game starts there's a good chance Johnson won't notice.
"The bases are still 90 feet, right? The mound is, what, 60 and ½? The game is still the same," said Nationals infielder Alex Cora, who played his first full big league season under Johnson on the Dodgers.
"He manages the game, he understands the game. He teaches, and all that stuff, but it's all about winning."
"Ballplayers are the same the world over," Johnson said. "They all want to be successful, there's peer pressure, sometimes they try too hard, sometimes they don't try hard enough. Everybody has a little different button to push, but one thing about a ballclub that's really important to me and I think that's why I really admire what's been happening here in this organization is the makeup on this ballclub. You can have all the talent in the world but if the makeup isn't there, the performance isn't there. It's a direct relationship to the performance and the makeup on this club is exceptional."
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