ANAHEIM, Calif. — The minute Davey Johnson put on a Washington Nationals uniform, he distinguished himself from the men who came before him for one main reason: He was a winner. That's not a subjective statement. Johnson is the first manager in Nationals history with a winning percentage better than .500.
He strolled around the batting cage Monday, keeping a watchful eye on his hitters during early and regular batting practice. He was greeted by old friends such as Mike Scioscia and new players such as second baseman Danny Espinosa, who wasn't born when Johnson led the 1986 New York Mets to a World Series title. He has a presence, as a few players pointed out Monday that simply commands respect.
"I like playing for him," Espinosa said. "I had a good time playing for him. He's a very smart baseball guy. I think everybody knows the guy will teach you baseball — all the time.
"He's ready for every situation. He really is. He's got everything thought out, planned. He's a baseball guy. The guy knows a ton."
But in his managerial debut with Washington, the result for Johnson was no different than that of any of his predecessors. Interim manager John McLaren, who went 2-1, aside, none of the three full-time managers who came before Johnson won their inaugural game with the Nationals.
Frank Robinson, while in his fourth year at the helm of the franchise's team, lost his Washington debut in 2005, falling 8-4 to the Philadelphia Phillies in a game Livan Hernandez pitched. Manny Acta followed suit in his debut. Despite a 2-for-4 performance from third baseman Ryan Zimmerman - not unlike the one Johnson got Monday night — Washington lost on opening day 2007 to the Florida Marlins, 9-2.
Jim Riggleman was the first manager to take over at midseason, but the result was the same. Taking over a team that had lost 10 of its last 13 games under Acta, Riggleman didn't have an immediate impact as the Nationals fell to the Chicago Cubs 6-2. They did, however, finish the season 33-42 after going 26-61 that year for Acta.
But this situation is unlike any of those. Johnson has a distinguished managerial history. He's not taking over at the start of the season, and he's not relieving a manager whose team was mired in a losing streak. Still, despite the ninth-inning heroics by Espinosa on Monday night, the Los Angeles Angels' 10-inning, 4-3 win ensured Johnson would suffer the same fate. It didn't, however, sour the experience for the 68-year-old Johnson.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "I enjoyed every minute of it. We had a little bit of everything in that ballgame. ... It's kind of like flying an airplane. You don't have to fly for a while, but you still get off the ground. It was a lot of fun."
There will be 83 more games this season with which to judge Johnson's impact on the Nationals (40-39), who are one game over .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2005. He'll have plenty of time to distance himself from those who came before him.
"He lets us just play," Espinosa said. "There's no rah-rah in the dugout. He just sets a good mood for us, and we play. It's fun when you have a manager like that that wants to set a good mood and keep a positive flow going. I think everyone enjoys playing for him, it's one game though."
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