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Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson share vision of building franchise for the future
The air was crisp, the atmosphere convivial last Thursday as the Washington Nationals took batting practice at Wrigley Field. The 2012 season, one that carried more expectation and anticipation than any in the organization's history, was near.
Behind the batting cage, general manager Mike Rizzo approached manager Davey Johnson. There, Rizzo reflected on the work that built these Nationals. He glanced out at a team on the verge, and then at the man who'd chosen to help bring them there.
"Man," Rizzo said to Johnson. "I'm glad I got you here."
Johnson, pushing 70 and managing his fifth major league team, turned and put his hands on the general manager's shoulders. Their relationship born out of mutual respect that evolved into its current form as a result of the abrupt and absurd last summer, the two stood like that for a moment, then shared a hug.
"I was more glad," Johnson said later, "that he was there."
"You could see them looking at each other, smiling," said special assistant to the general manager Harolyn Cardozo, who often serves as a conduit between the two. "It was this moment, this 'We're in it together, and we've got something good here,' moment. That has to be unique."
For an organization that just passed its eighth birthday and has a history strewn with moments of ineptitude and instability, the tranquility that presides over it now is incomparable.
For the two men who exemplify that stability most, the symbiotic nature of their relationship sets the precedent for the organization.
Dialogue, several Nationals officials said, is constant and encouraged. The prevailing thought being the same one Cardozo visualized between Rizzo and Johnson on Opening Day: We're all in this together.
When Rizzo brought Johnson on as a special assistant, he wanted the man and his vast baseball knowledge by his side. But when the opportunity arose for Johnson to become the Nationals' manager, one of several invitations he'd had since 2000, Johnson only agreed to it for this organization because Rizzo was at the top of it.
"Davey picked Mike Rizzo as much as Mike Rizzo picked Davey," Cardozo said. "Period."
"Today, right now," Johnson said, "It's a perfect fit."
Baseball lifer meets rookie GM
Mike Rizzo has spent his entire professional life in baseball, from player to coach to scout to executive. Even then, his experience pales in comparison to that of Johnson.
When Rizzo got the GM job in 2009, he knew that in order for him to be successful he had to surround himself with "smart people." Giving Johnson a more integral role was one of his first moves.
That fall, as the Nationals were on the brink of removing the interim tag from manager Jim Riggleman's title, Rizzo happened to be in Cardozo's office when Johnson called her with a basic question. Rizzo, who'd weathered a turbulent year for the organization, realized in that moment the resource he hadn't yet tapped. He picked up the phone.
"I see it in my mind," Cardozo said. "He immediately got on the phone. 'Davey, Mike Rizzo.' That was the beginning."
Johnson spent his time as a special assistant getting to know the players, from the bottom up. When he took over as manager, Johnson had seen roughly 90 percent of the Nationals' system play. And he offered advice to Rizzo when he felt it was needed.
He voiced some of his concerns early in 2011 that the bullpen was constructed in a way in which its best pitchers, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, would never withstand the weight of their workload. He explained the merits of an 'A' and 'B' bullpen to Rizzo, who'd never heard of the concept, and wondered how Rizzo expected to go on a 10- or 12-game winning streak, or win 100 games, without splitting it up that way.
"Well, you know, I never thought about a 12-game winning streak," Rizzo told him, the Nationals' past more backloaded with losing streaks of that length.
"I thought I knew a lot of stuff about baseball; I'd been in it 30 years," Rizzo said. "He taught me about stuff that I had never heard of before.
"He is one of the best baseball men I've ever known. My dad [Phil, a longtime baseball scout] taught me more about this game than anybody. He's the best baseball man I've ever been around. But Davey's right there with him."
Learning from a renaissance man
Rizzo presided over two other Nationals managers before Johnson, Manny Acta and Riggleman. Both partnerships ended unceremoniously. Acta was fired after a 26-61 start in 2009, and Riggleman resigned over contract issues in the midst of an 11-1 stretch last June. The communication between Rizzo and those managers always was there, he said, but he didn't get the same level of input and conviction back from them as he does with Johnson.
"Davey, he's been around so long he's going to have his input for hell or high-water or it's not going to work," Rizzo said. He also felt that exchange of ideas ends with a unified front more now than ever before. The final decisions still are Rizzo's to make, there's just room for input throughout the process.
But the relationship between the two also goes beyond the ones Rizzo had with Johnson's predecessors, simply because they genuinely enjoy one another's company. One evening this spring, Cardozo sent Rizzo an email letting him know she was having dinner with Johnson and extending an invitation to join.
"In any other case, the email back would have been something like 'No, I have to wash my socks,' "she joked. In this case, the answer was an immediate 'Yes.'
Rizzo describes himself as very limited in scope. Johnson is, well, not that way.
A successful real estate investor, Johnson owns an island as well as a fishing camp. He's pretty close to a scratch golfer, has a degree in mathematics and knows more about advanced stats than most 69-year-old baseball lifers. "We should go fishing sometime," he's told Rizzo, a city-bred guy who'd never been. The same offer applied to the golf course and other facets of Johnson's life.
"He's like a friggin' renaissance man," Rizzo said. "Although everyone thinks that I'm this old-school scout, dinosaur kind of guy ... I think we're cut from the same cloth."
We're all in this together
The curtain will go up on Nationals Park for the home slate Thursday afternoon. One week since Rizzo and Johnson met behind the batting cage, they return home with a 4-2 record. In 2011, the most the Nationals got was two games over.
Most believe this season will be different. From the caliber of team on the field to the cocksure nature with which the man in the dugout goes about his job. Right now, it's working as they planned through daily or near-daily phone calls this winter, aside from a few injuries to key players.
Things can change. When asked for outside perspective on the relationship between Johnson and Rizzo, one official quipped, "Check back around the All-Star break." Johnson had good relationships with his previous owners and general managers in New York and Cincinnati and Baltimore and Los Angeles. Until he didn't. And the Nationals took that into consideration during the hiring process.
Johnson says his mindset toward the job hasn't changed, but it'd be wrong to think that he hasn't. A confluence of improved health and tragic events helped get him here. After he realized Cardozo wasn't joking when she called following Riggleman's resignation, Johnson offered Rizzo two or three other suggestions for the job. Then he discussed it with his wife, Susan. In May, they'd lost Susan's son, Jake, at age 34, the second child Johnson buried after his daughter, Andrea, died in 2005 at age 32.
"You need another challenge," Susan told him. Two days later he was waiting at the airport in Chicago, greeting every player, coach and official as they walked onto the Nationals' plane. The message then was the same as it is now: It'll be OK, we're all in this together.
"There'll be tough times, and there'll be good times," Johnson said. "It's how you handle those things as you go. But I feel very positive about this organization, about Mike and what he's created. I'm just playing my part in it."
"He only took the job because I'm the GM," Rizzo said. "Tomorrow, if we were to say 'You don't have the job,' he walks away with a smile on his face. ... We're very comfortable. There's a good, secure feeling. It's all 'We' and 'Us,' and I think that's him and I."
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About the Author
Amanda Comak covers the Washington Nationals and comes to The Washington Times from the Cape Cod Times and after stints with MLB.com and the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder. A Massachusetts native and 2008 graduate of Boston University, Amanda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter @acomak.
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