- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The Nationals play their first home game under Davey Johnson on Friday, and his 0-3 record since taking the helm hasn’t diminished our giddiness by one iota. Did you know his 1986 New York Mets had five losing streaks of three or more games en route to winning the World Series?

Even though Washington has dipped below .500 again (40-41); the offense returned to its struggling ways Wednesday (zero runs on three hits); and the bullpen imploded the night before (seven runs on seven hits), we couldn’t be more thrilled by the sequence of events since the Nats’ last home game.

When Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned a week ago, I wrote that “there were no winners.” But over the course of a weekend, GM Mike Rizzo changed the verdict to “Nats win! Nats win! Nats win!”

Though I like and respect Riggleman, he has earned my never-ending affection and sincere gratitude for quitting in a huff. His impulsive move was the Nats’ most fortuitous development since landing Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in back-to-back drafts.

Just like the acquisition of Jayson Werth made the club more credible and respectable - even with the overpaying - Johnson’s return raises the team’s profile and increases its relevance. Washington already was enjoying some rare good publicity by winning 11 of 12 games and All-Star numbers from Mike Morse and Danny Espinosa. The Nats became a larger, though less-positive story minutes later, when Riggleman pulled his intentional walk.

He was ripped mercilessly from coast to coast and dominated the news cycle, as commentators pointed to his .445 career winning percentage and other managers in the last year of their contracts - including Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland. Riggleman embarked on a media tour to defend himself but public opinion leaned heavily toward Rizzo, who also got behind every microphone he found.

But with the announcement that Johnson was aboard, all the negative energy and emotion were reversed and it catapulted the Nats even higher into baseball’s stratosphere - discussion-wise, if not yet standings-wise.

Riggleman did what?”

Two days later:

“Riggle-who?”

It’s hard to tell which party is more excited about the transition. Players have gushed about Johnson’s background and the presence he established as a spring training instructor. Fans have rejoiced at having a World Series-winning manager in the home dugout. The media have extolled his decision-making, statistical analysis and deft ability to handle multiple personalities.

There’s everything to love about this development.

His time out of uniform certainly isn’t a problem. Johnson hasn’t managed since 2000, but the only thing that’s changed is the level of steroid abuse. It’s not like he has to figure out newfangled zone-blitzes and how to stop the Wildcat. Baseball strategy hasn’t evolved much since the Dead Ball Era. With a degree in mathematics, Johnson isn’t easily confounded by the intricacies of a double-switch.

His age isn’t a factor, either. While baseball’s frequent travel and late nights can be demanding, there’s plenty of time for pre-game naps on a daily basis. Besides, 68 isn’t so old in baseball. Leyland is 66 and has Detroit in first place. Jack McKeon was 72 when he led Florida to a World Series championship. Joe Torre was 67 and 68, and Tom Lasorda was 66 and 67, the last time either guided the Dodgers to back-to-back division titles.

Whether Johnson comes back next year for a full season is irrelevant, too. Of course we hope and pray that he returns and puts his stamp on the club from spring training forward. The job is his if he wants it — rightly so — even though the Nats have to comply with baseball’s worthwhile hiring guidelines and interview other candidates.

But if Johnson concludes that he’s really not up to managing again, the Nats will have a number of fine alternatives.

The 2012-13 teams figure to contend with Strasburg, Harper, Morse, Espinosa, Drew Storen, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman and a bunch of other young talents, which would give Washington one of baseball’s most attractive job openings. And it’s reassuring to know that Johnson would have a hand in selecting his successor … if it comes to that.

We shouldn’t have to worry, though. Donning the uniform seems to have re-energized Johnson, who forever has a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers like me, who grew up favoring the team in Queens more than the team in the Bronx.

It’s going to take way more than a three-game losing streak to change our feelings on Davey Johnson.