- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2013

The sun beat down on the field at Space Coast Stadium one day this spring as Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson approached his second baseman. Danny Espinosa was busy doing infield work during batting practice, fielding ground balls and practicing his footwork.

Johnson stopped and chatted with Espinosa for a few minutes. Then he made his way to the other side of the diamond in Viera, Fla. He stopped and talked with shortstop Ian Desmond.

“There he goes,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, watching from the dugout railing. “Davey’s having his team meeting right now.”

This is what Johnson does. At 70, the oldest manager in the majors still fills each of his days with talking and teaching in his own unique way.

It’s when the conversation is turned toward him, when the topic of what his legacy in this game might be is raised, that Johnson becomes less comfortable.

“I don’t really like talking about me,” he said. “Because it’s not about me.

“I don’t think it matters. I don’t look like it matters, I don’t act like matters, I don’t want [the players] to think it matters.”

Johnson paused every few moments as he spoke, glancing out at the field to keep an eye on each of his disciples taking batting practice and spitting out some of the tobacco juice collecting in his mouth.

Both were habits Johnson formed long ago, early in his 50-plus years in the game. He doesn’t plan to stop either anytime soon.

“I have to gain their respect every day,” he said. “And their trust. And they’ve got to do that with me.”

There is a question that hangs over Johnson, though, as he begins what he and the Nationals have mutually agreed will be his final season in the dugout. He has said for months that his exit means it’s “World Series or bust” for the Nationals and he would love to go out in style.

So, if this is the end for one of the game’s greatest characters, how will history view him?

“Don’t you think Davey wants to be in the Hall of Fame?” one of his players wondered aloud recently.

If he does, he won’t say.

He won’t even acknowledge thinking about it.”Oh, not at all,” he said emphatically. “Not at all.”

Johnson wants to win the World Series because that’s what he believes his team is capable of. He wants to win it because, well, it’s what every man who’s ever buttoned up a baseball uniform wants.

But there is an added weight to his desire. If the Nationals do it, if Johnson pulls what he’s taken to calling “A La Russa” — a reference to former St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, who retired days after the Cardinals’ 2011 championship — his case for enshrinement in Cooperstown goes from compelling to downright fascinating.

“This year is important,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, Johnson’s teammate during their days with the Baltimore Orioles. “He’s not worried about the Hall of Fame, but you can tie the Mets era to the present era with a World Series championship.

“What a beautiful present it could be. The 2013 season could be the bow to a terrific career.”

 When the Baltimore Orioles selected a baby-faced high school catcher from Illinois with their first pick in the 1997 draft, they brought him to Camden Yards and let him sit on the bench during a game. He marveled at the Orioles’ manager.

Sixteen years later, Jayson Werth looks down the Nationals’ bench and sees the same guy.

“I had no business being there. I was like 18 years old, green as the field,” Werth said. “And he hit me on the leg and said something like, ‘Watch this.’ I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I remember him being right. And I was like, ‘Whoa, look at this guy.’

“My thoughts haven’t changed a whole lot since then.”

Johnson doesn’t like to talk about his past all that much. But one night this spring, his brother, Fred, got him to musing over when they were kids in the Babe Ruth League. Fred was 13, Davey 10.

The team didn’t have a right fielder, so it tabbed Davey. The uniform top ended down around his ankles. “I was a little runt in right field,” he said. But when a towering fly ball was hit out there with the game on the line, Johnson caught it and trotted in, wondering what the big deal was. He’d been doing that with Fred for years.

“He got me to reminiscing about things 60 years ago,” Johnson said, his cocksure nature having changed little from that afternoon as a preteen. “And that was kind of fun.”

Mostly Johnson uses his past as a tool with his players, conveying to them an anecdote from a time he dealt with a similar situation. “Experiences give you insight into solutions for today,” he says. And he’ll often regale listeners with a story when he wants to get a laugh.

Most of the memorabilia from his glory days — mementos from 13 years in the major leagues and two in Japan; managerial stints with five major league teams and forays into international competition — are hidden away in a closet at his home in Winter Park, Fla. He jokes that his wife, Susan, is waiting until he dies so she can sell it and make some money off him.

There are easy ways to tell the story of his success. Johnson won two World Series rings as a player with the Orioles, was a four-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner. He hit 43 home runs in 1973 and is the only man to have had the honor of protecting two home run kings: Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh.

As a manager, he led the New York Mets to the 1986 World Series and has won almost 300 games more than he has lost. Last season, after taking the Nationals to the postseason for the first time in their history, he won his second Manager of the Year award.

“I’ve got to think if he gets one more world championship he’ll be under serious consideration for the Hall of Fame,” said former Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez. “He’s one of those guys. Everywhere he goes, he wins. He had a very nice playing career, but I just think he’s transcended in managing. He’s always been a good judge of talent.”

For those who spend their time with Johnson, learning from him, listening to him, his story is more than just the accolades. Last year, Werth thought about what Johnson gave up in his own life to take over for Jim Riggleman in 2011. For Werth, it’s Johnson who “really turned the ship around and got it going in the right direction — or a direction.”

He saw a quote from Mike Mussina in which the former Orioles and Yankees right-hander explained that Johnson’s success comes from the fact that, when the game starts, he believes his players are prepared, and that he’ll have the right guys in the right spots.

That it is the confidence Johnson exudes that makes him so good.

“He believes in his guys,” Werth said. “[Mussina] just hit the nail right on the head.”

 To figure out where Johnson’s Hall of Fame case rests on the precipice of the 2013 season is to wade into a gray area. Managers are voted in by the veterans’ committee, which will already have La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox to debate in the coming years.

Still, some feel that Johnson’s body of work and his impact on the game already speak loudly enough to echo through the halls in Cooperstown.

“To me, regardless of what happens this season, he’s a slam-dunk Hall of Famer,” Rizzo said. “I think his legacy is cemented in Major League Baseball and, as far as managers go, he’s as good or better than anybody I’ve ever been around. That’s really all I can go on.”

Others stopped a little short of that proclamation. Palmer said Johnson would “certainly get into the mix” if the Nationals win the World Series. Hernandez concurred.

“One more world championship and I think he’s on his way,” Hernandez said. “I wouldn’t say he’s a lock, but he’s well on his way.”

The question, then, becomes how do you evaluate a man’s life’s work to deem him worthy? Players can be evaluated on a multitude of statistics, combined with the eyewitness accounts of those who watched them at their best, when they dominated an era of the game.

Managers must win.

Johnson’s .564 winning percentage ranks 19th in major league history and comes in at No. 12 among those who have managed at least 10 seasons. He also leads all active managers with at least 1,000 games under their belts. He’s got one World Series title — though, as Palmer pointed out, “If Jeffrey Maier had somehow stayed home with the flu it could’ve been more.”

Some of his players don’t know the hard numbers that define his career. They see only the man whose infectious confidence set their standard and helped establish their identity as a team. The man who constantly hammers home one fact about the players on his teams: They almost always play up to their capabilities.

“When they decide whether he’s a Hall of Famer, I just hope character comes into play,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “Because that should go a long way with him.”

 When the Nationals announced in November that this would be Johnson’s last season in their dugout, though his contract as a consultant runs through 2014, it seemed like he was signaling for retirement.

He emphasizes now the fact that it is a mutual agreement — and retirement is the wrong word.

“I will be working even if I’m not here,” he said. “I know the organization feels that this should be my last year. I didn’t really make that decision, as much as I felt that that was what they wanted. So I’m very comfortable with all of that.”

While Johnson often jokes about Susan’s “honey-do” lists and the tasks piling up for him around the house, he’s not exactly ready to be put out to pasture, either.

The next opportunity might be doing more work with MLB’s Urban Youth Academy to help bring one to Orlando. Maybe it’ll be with the Florida Collegiate Summer League, or back with USA Baseball.

Maybe it’ll be something completely different. He won’t know until the phone rings. He just knows there will be something.

“I’m still going to be working at something that I think is challenging and that I’m the best candidate to do,” he said. “That’s always what turns my wheels.”

It’s possible that when the 2013 season is over, Johnson still will not have written his final chapter in the game.

But if it is, everyone knows one more World Series certainly wouldn’t hurt his cause.

“I could see how this year plays a lot into [his legacy],” Werth said. “I hope we win. I want nothing more than to win. Not only for myself, but for him.

“I wouldn’t mind sending the old man off into the sunset on top.”