- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

At the end of a very long and sad day for Davey Johnson on Monday, an interesting question got tossed his way to close his postgame news conference.

The Nationals had lost for the fourth straight time, just a small factor in Johnson’s mood. Earlier, the team fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein. Johnson made it clear it wasn’t his idea, though he understood changes needed to be made given the tenor the season. He called it one of his toughest days in baseball.

Thomas Boswell, a veteran and knowledgeable columnist for The Washington Post, had the final question. Boswell noted that late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner used to fire pitching coach Art Fowler when he wanted Billy Martin to quit. Did Johnson think anything like that was going on here?

Johnson’s response was telling. He said, “I don’t want to go there,” and he got up and walked out.

Johnson is an admirable, honest man. He’s not going to lie. He could have easily said “no” and then walked out. Instead he said, “I don’t want to go there.”

That kind of response makes me wonder: Is there something there?

The answer is probably not, almost certainly not. Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo have long been a mutual admiration society in their public comments and they’ve said they don’t always agree on everything. Running and managing a baseball team are difficult jobs and disagreements are natural. The best duos manage those disagreements without letting them became a major problem.

But a season like the one the Nationals have had, while not yet a disaster but quickly moving in that direction, turns up the power on the microscope. Everything gets dissected a little more. Molehills become mountains a little easier.

While the bloom is probably not off the Johnson-Rizzo rose, wondering if it is off is not unreasonable at this stage. They’re proud, accomplished men. They worked together to build a World Series contender. It isn’t working this year. Have they reached some kind of untenable spot in their relationship?

Again, probably not. But I still can’t help but wonder.

A logical question in all this is why would Rizzo be looking to force Johnson out at this stage? It’s long been known this is Johnson’s final season. In a little more than two months, he’s gone anyway. Why try to push him out?

The answer, at least in my mind, is part of what makes me wonder.

The Nats seem to be very well-constructed for the long haul. Almost all of their key pieces are under team control for several years. No one seems to be disputing that. This is just a very bad year thus far. The basic foundation still seems solid. The Nats should be playoff contenders for a number of years.

The next manager will be a very important hire. Managing personalities, which Johnson seems to do exceptionally well, is probably more important than managing a ballgame. You may have noticed there are some egos on a major league roster.

If Rizzo desires to make an in-house hire, an interim situation would give him a chance to evaluate without having to make a long-term commitment. He sure doesn’t want to make a mistake with the next manager. If an interim doesn’t work out, he can say thanks for the help and go about finding another long-term solution.

Sounds crazy, but crazier things have been done in sports.

Again, the dismissal of Eckstein is probably no more than an almost cosmetic move to try and jump-start a season that is quickly running out of juice. Rizzo said we’re going to do it, Johnson said I don’t agree but I understand and they did it. Nothing more than that.

Rizzo and Johnson would no doubt scoff publicly at the mere suggestion anything else was in play. But wait, Johnson had a chance to do that. Boswell’s question gave him that chance and Johnson didn’t say “no.”

He said, “I don’t want to go there.”

“No” would have been clean and easy, end of discussion. But if it wasn’t the honest answer, it wasn’t one Johnson was going to give.