- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

This was in the Mets’ clubhouse at Shea Stadium after an October loss to the Montreal Expos eliminated New York from the 1985 National League East race. Understandably, the gloom was so thick you couldn’t have cut it with a chain saw, much less a knife.

Making the rounds as he tried to console his players, manager Davey Johnson stopped at the locker of Dwight Gooden, the second-year right-hander who had gone 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA.

“You know, Doc,” said Johnson, a stern look on his face, “if you hadn’t lost those four games, we would have won the division.”

The 20-year-old Gooden stared at his skipper unbelievably. Then Johnson laughed, Gooden joined in and soon other players were cackling right along. The tension was broken, and the Mets went into the offseason feeling good about themselves.

A year later, the Mets won 101 games and the division title by 21 1/2 games, then beat the Boston Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game World Series to cement Johnson’s reputation as a master manager and manipulator.

Because of this, and many other factors, the Nationals should be delighted to have Davey in the dugout. The guy has been a winner wherever he worked. If you don’t believe it, check out who was in charge the last time the Baltimore Orioles had a winning season, back in 1997.

Yet there is, or should be a caveat, as there are with most optimistic opinions. Here are two good reasons to question whether the arrival of this certified horsehide genius will make a big difference in the Nats’ ultimate rise from respectability to contention:

Earl Weaver.

Joe Gibbs.

The Earl of Balmer ended his first Orioles tenure with tears in his eyes and cheers in his ears after the O’s lost the American League East championship to the Milwaukee Brewers on the last day of the 1982 season. When the deep pockets of owner Edward Bennett Williams lured him back midway through 1985, Weaver inherited a ballclub so far over the hill that you couldn’t have found it with a GPS if one had existed at the time.

Earl stuck it out for most of a disastrous 1986 season before hanging up his uniform in Baltimore and dusting off his golf clubs in Miami. His record for parts of two comeback seasons: 126-141.

Gibbs, of course, suffered similarly except that after quitting football for NASCAR, he stayed away for 12 years. Huzzahs rang from Darnestown to Dumfries when Dan Snyder lured Joe back into burgundy and gold, but the results were decidedly mediocre for a man who had won three Super Bowls: a 30-34 record and just one playoff victory in four so-so, oh-no seasons.

Does anybody hear Thomas Wolfe muttering in the background?

In sports, what you did then has absolutely no bearing on what you do now. You might be just as smart as you once were, but so what? With apologies to Duke Ellington, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Or in sports, if you ain’t got the players.

There’s the age factor, too. Johnson is 68, four years older than Gibbs and 13 older than Weaver when they began their reruns. You might become wiser and kindlier as the years pile up, but that doesn’t mean your energy and initiative will be the same.

So let’s watch and wait as far as Johnson is concerned. The Nationals are a team on the rise, even with Stephen Strasburg sidelined and Bryce Harper down on the farm, but they’ll have to finish this promising season at .500 or above before the baseball establishment takes them seriously.

When Johnson agreed to succeed the unfortunate Jim Riggleman last week, the Nationals said strangely that he would be in the dugout for the rest of 2011 and then help “re-evaluate” the situation. Seems to me that means Johnson isn’t sure he wants to manage more or less permanently. Well, he’ll see, and so will we.

Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the improvement of a team that has kept its fans waiting for it too long. If Davey Johnson can contribute to that, and likely he will, so much the better.

• See more of the author’s columns at dickheller.wordpress.com.