On a spring training afternoon in March, Davey Johnson proclaimed that if his team didn't make the playoffs, the Washington Nationals could fire him. And he meant it. But in a season filled with organizational bests — 98 wins, the National League East crown and the arrival of a fan base — there never was any worry they'd have to.
Johnson was rewarded for the Nationals' most successful season with the National League Manager of the Year award Tuesday night, beating out Cincinnati's Dusty Baker and San Francisco's Bruce Bochy. Johnson got 23 first-place votes to best Baker and Bochy by 54 points.
"This means a lot," Johnson said. "The organization gave me a lot of good players, and they're being recognized. That's a tribute to the organization. That means more to me. And I still feel that we can do better."
This is the second Manager of the Year award for Johnson, who also won it in 1997 after he led the Baltimore Orioles to the American League Championship Series but was let go the same day he was honored. Now he is one of just six managers to win the award in both leagues, joining Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox and A's manager Bob Melvin. Melvin beat out Orioles manager Buck Showalter by just eight points to win this year's AL award.
No one, however, went longer between awards than Johnson's 15-year wait.
"Davey Johnson's legacy was secure well before he became our manager in 2011, but his performance this season has to rate among his best work" Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement. "He showed this club how to win despite being engaged in a pennant race for the first time, and he accomplished this with so many young players. It is no coincidence that under Davey's watch, we witnessed breakout seasons from Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler."
The Nationals, who had not earned a Baseball Writers Association Award in their eight-year history, now have two; outfielder Bryce Harper took home the Rookie of the Year Award on Monday night. For Johnson and Harper, it was a consolation prize after being eliminated from the playoffs in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
"This award that I got tonight to me is more a reflection of the organization than on me," Johnson said. "I'm just kind of the guy who tries to keep them on track. As a manager, if you do that, you can be proud of yourself. I don't think we lost anybody. I think everybody came closer to what they're capable of doing, but there's still a higher ceiling, and that's the challenge I'm looking forward to. This was a step along the way as far as I'm concerned."
The 2013 season is expected to be Johnson's last, and with his usual confidence, Johnson predicted big things for the Nationals. "World Series or bust," he said with a laugh on MLB Network's awards show. But given his confidence, Johnson likely isn't joking.
It was a year that began with many predicting the Nationals to be contenders, likely improving on their 80-win season in 2011, but perhaps still playing second fiddle to the more established powers in their division, Philadelphia and Atlanta. But the Nationals, and their cocksure manager, never saw it that way. They would compete, he said in the spring, and perhaps they would open some eyes along the way.
What followed was six-plus months of top-tier baseball and more victories than any team in the majors. It was an 18-win improvement over their 2011 record, made possible in large part because of a stellar pitching staff and the contributions of several young players instilled with confidence by their manager.
The question of how much a manager matters in the grand scheme of a 162-game season often is debated. After all, it is the players who must produce. But in the Nationals' case, the best evaluation of his work perhaps came in the fact that his players did just that. He trusted them to perform up to their capabilities, assured them that he believed they would and carved out roles for them in which they could succeed.
They fell short of their ultimate goal — a sour taste for all of them — but Johnson's impact on them was profound.
"He's the best I've ever been around at managing a baseball game," said bench coach Randy Knorr, one of the leading candidates to take over when Johnson does leave managing. "He takes care of us and makes us all feel special. It's awesome. I love being around him. I learned so much from him."
Said Johnson: "You've just got to be right. Because the players are going to judge you, and I'm going to judge the players. I think we were all on the same page. That's the way I judge myself — if we both have that mutual respect and trust. That's my job. That's the title of my job. Give them an opportunity to succeed. Give them an opportunity to expand their roles. That's baseball. That's life."
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