Davey Johnson is not much for tributes. Nostalgia and all that, it doesn’t appeal to the Washington Nationals’ manager. If there’s one phrase he’s worn out during his 2½-year stint at the helm of the Nationals, it’s that he manages — and lives his life — for today, with an eye on tomorrow.
But, perhaps for just one day, Johnson set that notion aside.
Sunday afternoon, before the Nationals’ 4-2 loss to the Miami Marlins, Johnson stood in front of his team’s dugout with his arms crossed and took in a 15-minute video highlighting his career as a player and a manager. Flanked by the Nationals’ ownership and general manager Mike Rizzo, he basked in the words of his players, coaches and former teammates, including Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken Jr.
“You’ve transformed the Washington Nationals,” Rizzo said in the video. “We will never forget that gift.”
The Nationals presented Johnson, the only manager to ever lead them to a winning record, with a crystal from Tiffany & Co. that was engraved with the words “In celebration of your decorated baseball legacy and your contributions to the Washington Nationals.”
And when it was all over, every member of the Nationals’ roster streamed out of the dugout and lined up to give Johnson a hug.
“You’re not crying behind those shades, are you?” Denard Span playfully asked Johnson.
“He told me, ‘Bleep no!’” Span said with a laugh.
“It was really sweet,” Johnson said. “I was really moved by it. The guys were great. I felt like when it was over I should take off my uniform and go crawl in a hole somewhere, but it was nice.
“It took me way back [to] the old Tinker Field where I was mingling with all the big leaguers and I was just 10 years old. Here I am, going out to pasture managing my favorite team. I like to stay away from those emotions, but, it got to me. … I feel for [my players] greatly. To get something like that coming back makes you happy and sad at the same time.”
As Johnson spoke at his postgame news conference, with another game just three hours away, he did so knowing that the chances of this being his final day managing at Nationals Park had just increased.
The Nationals mustered only four hits against the Marlins, one of them a two-run homer by Ryan Zimmerman to give him 26 on the season after starting September with just 15. And Dan Haren surrendered two early home runs — a two-out, two-run shot to Giancarlo Stanton in the first inning and a solo homer to Christian Yelich in the third — that put the Nationals in a hole they could not climb out of.
“That one hurt,” Johnson said.
Their loss clinched the National League East title for the Atlanta Braves, who were in the midst of a victory over the Chicago Cubs. And as the Cincinnati Reds took the series from the Pittsburgh Pirates with an 11-3 victory, both NL Central teams’ magic number to eliminate the Nationals from wild card contention dropped to two.
It was difficult, in the confines of a quiet clubhouse with players sprawled out and trying to rest before their next game, not to feel a sense of finality.
“I’m not good at math, but I’m good enough to know that losing makes it tougher,” said Zimmerman. “But you’ve just got to keep playing and see what happens. We put ourselves in this situation.”
“We had to win pretty much every game going forward,” said Haren. “Which is really just a matter of the hole we dug ourselves. We didn’t play good baseball. I don’t want to speak for the team, I know the team has struggled. But I obviously struggled at the beginning of the year. I was a part of the reason we were down so many games.
“But I think the most important thing is to keep this group together,” Haren said, acknowledging that his departure could likely be one of few changes. “This could be a building block. … We showed a lot of fight here these last few months, and I think as close as things can stay to the guys in this room, I think, the better.”
The Marlins’ first win in D.C. this season was a dagger to the Nationals’ hopes and their season-opening sweep of Miami seemed so long ago.
Earlier in the day, at the end of the ceremony honoring him and as the crowd rose to its feet to shower him with cheers, Johnson doffed his cap and bowed four times to different sections of the ballpark. Then he disappeared into the dugout.