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Right team, right time for Nationals’ Davey Johnson

Manager sees organization’s potential

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Tanned and relaxed, or at least appearing that way, Davey Johnson fits in effortlessly in a dugout under the California sun.

He looks right in a baseball uniform, with good reason, and the Washington Nationals manager's smile rarely disappears as he discusses nuances in his lineup and his team.

He's a long way from his Winter Haven, Fla., home but that's no problem. Travel was always in the plans for Johnson this summer, even if touring the world with your wife is a little different than shuffling between ballparks with 25 men.

"[My wife, Susan] had a trip planned for Alaska and one to Paris," Johnson said at his introductory news conference. "I said, 'How 'bout D.C. instead?' She went for it."

They both did, actually, taking the unexpected opportunity when Jim Riggleman resigned last week.

When the dust settled, though, there was one name on general manager Mike Rizzo's list and it carried quite the cachet. Rizzo had kept Johnson within arm's reach as an advisor for exactly this reason. But Johnson, who has been getting his managerial fix with Team USA and the Florida Collegiate Summer League the past few years, had said the situation would have to be "perfect" for him to take another major league managing job.

With the Nationals, it was.

"I don't think he ever got it out of him, I really don't," said former Oriole Andy Etchebarren, who played with Johnson and then served as his bench coach in Baltimore. "He probably thinks he could do it or he wouldn't do it. He doesn't need the money. Only reason is, it's still itching at him."

Manager's mindset

Nearly 40 years ago, long before all but two of his current players were even born, Davey Johnson manned second base for the Orioles. And he knew then how to manage a game better than almost anyone else.

Johnson, "just one of my second basemen," as Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer remembered him, watched as Pat Dobson gave up a two-run home run to Cleveland's Tommy McCraw one game in 1972. As soon as the team returned to the dugout, Johnson told Dobson just what he thought of the exchange.

"Davey came in and said, 'That wasn't a very good pitch.' " Palmer recalled. "And Dobby would go, 'Why didn't you tell me before I threw it?' That's when I knew he'd be a good manager. He was the classic second-guesser."

In his fifth go-round as a major league manager, Johnson's years and his winning resume command a respect his predecessor has since said he felt was lacking. And as far as second-guessing goes, Johnson's not exactly one to be susceptible.

After he opened his tenure as Nationals manager with three straight losses, Johnson stood in the middle of the clubhouse and told his team: "You guys win games, and I lose them. I've got three in my column and I'm going to rectify that."

"He's a very positive person," said catcher Ivan Rodriguez. "He's a very nice guy on the bench, he walks back and forth in the dugout and hits you in the arm like, 'Lets go, we're doing fine.' When you have a guy like that it means a lot."

"[Former Orioles owner] Edward Bennett Williams once told me at Cal Ripken's wedding, 'No I's, no R's: no indecision, no regrets,' " Palmer said. "Davey lives that motto, from what I saw. He relies on his gut feeling, his preparation and his knowledge. He's going to do whatever he thinks is right."

Enthusiasm for the future

As much as Riggleman's resignation caught the Nationals by surprise and provided an immediate need, Johnson also chose to return. On some levels, he instilled confidence in his players by that act alone: One of the 20 winningest managers in major league history chose to come out of retirement for this team, for these players.

"I love young players," Johnson said. "I love talented young players. There's a lot of energy in this Nationals organization. And the talent is coming. It's showing its value on the major league level for the first time in a long time."

So why, after over a decade has passed since he last managed, are the Nationals right? The answer, it seems, involves both sides of the equation.

The past 11 years have not been easy for Johnson personally. He first endured the death of his daughter, Andrea, in 2005, and then the passing of his stepson, Jake, earlier this year. He's been through serious health issues in the meantime, including a ruptured appendix and a cardiac ablation process to fix an arrhythmic hearth beat.

In much less significant ways, the Nationals have not had the easiest few years, either. But this is a new season, with new players and a new attitude infused in the clubhouse. This is a team that is 40-41 for the first time in six years. It's a team with its ace on the mend in Florida and the most-hyped power-hitting prospect in a generation learning the rigors of a baseball life in Single-A — both of whom Johnson knows personally.

It's an organization with a future as bright as its past is dark. And that's why it's right for Johnson.

"I think it's a perfect storm," Rizzo said. "It's the right time for him. He senses this is the right organization, the right general manager and leadership group. He's got a bond with a lot of these players already — not only the current players on the 25-man roster, but he has a bond with the minor league system and the prospects that will help us for years to come."

It's an organization that could be on the brink of contention, if not this year then certainly in the near future, and in need of a stern hand to guide them there. And that's why Johnson is right for them.

"If I'm Mike Rizzo, I admire Riggleman. He's had a storied career as a baseball man and everybody respects him greatly," Palmer said. "But if you're going to have a manager come in, don't you want to have a manager that you know can really manage? That's what they have in Davey Johnson."

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