PHOENIX — Davey Johnson stepped back from the dugout entrance and shook hands with his coaches. He filled himself up a cup of water from the dugout jug and walked back up the steps to do a postgame interview. The last moments of his time as the Washington Nationals’ manager were spent watching a reliever struggle and a lead disappear.
The Nationals’ 2013 season ended Sunday afternoon in a 3-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. And with it, Johnson’s career as the team’s manager came to a close. It was a cruelly fitting way for the Nationals to lose, with their bullpen being unable to hold what scant offense the team provided.
“It was a heck of a ride,” Johnson said. “Great group of guys. Time to go home. Put me out to pasture.”
Johnson’s final lineup included only one player who’d spent the entirety of the 2013 season on his roster in Steve Lombardozzi, and only three who didn’t qualify as rookies. The stars kicked back, hung along the dugout railing and cheered for their teammates. Tanner Roark turned in seven strong innings of work, allowing one run and completing his resume for 2014 rotation contention. Ryan Mattheus couldn’t hold the 2-1 lead.
Johnson took off the uniform for the last time with a 1,372-1,071 record and a fascinating future case for the Hall of Fame. Those were thoughts for another day, though.
“Any time anybody walks away from the game that they love, their profession, I think it’s always a little tough,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “Hopefully it’s not the last time I see him.”
Before the game, tired as he was of tributes — “I’m cooked,” he said Saturday — the Diamondbacks announced it was Johnson’s final game. His team stood and applauded him, as did the parts of the 30,420 in attendance who’d arrived. Johnson waved his cap, did a little shimmy and then sprinted his way into the dugout. Enough of that.
“I feel really lucky to have had the big league experiences I’ve had as a player and as a manager,” Johnson said Sunday morning. “When you love a game as much as I love this game and like the competition, you just enjoy it. … It’s been quite a journey. A fun journey.”
Johnson dressed in his uniform Sunday, No. 5 on his back, and tied up his black Under Armour sneakers as if it was any other game. He practiced his golf swing in the dugout, and laughed and joked with his players.
He made his plans to head home to Florida, booking a ticket on the Auto Train when he realized what driving a car all those hours would do to his bad back. He’s got a tee time for Wednesday, and his usual golf groups are scheduled to start up again soon. Tickets for his April or May trip to Bora Bora with his wife, Susan, are all but booked.
After that? He’s got an offer to manage in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, and a desire to establish a youth baseball academy in Orlando — where his own major league dreams were nurtured as a 10-year-old.
In the last week, he’s been asked many times what his emotions are about the finality of it all. He called himself a “wet rag” ever since seeing a tribute video the Nationals played for him last Sunday, and being eliminated from playoff contention hit him “like a ton of bricks.”
Sunday morning, he’d had enough. Johnson has plans, good ones, and plenty of things that will happily fill his days. Even if they don’t include a major league uniform.
“It’s not like I’m dying tomorrow!” Johnson said. “Good Lord. There’ll be something I can do.”
This season, dubbed ‘World Series or bust’ back in December by Johnson himself, went little the way the 70-year-old hoped. The Nationals started inconsistently and were often ineffective. He had to deal with the organization firing his hitting coach, and friend, in late July. A week later, with his team’s standing hardly improved, he shrugged his shoulders and said it “looks like bust.”
The Nationals finished no more than two games over .500 in any of the season’s first three months, and in a July that featured six straight losses out of the All-Star break, they were 11-16.
When they began to play the way they knew they could, in the middle of August and September, their record reflected it. From Aug. 9 through the end of the season, the Nationals went 32-16 and pulled themselves from, at one time, being six games below .500 to an 86-76 finish. In that stretch, they shaved the wild card deficit to as small as four games, but no closer.
Ultimately he settled for knowing that the organization, adrift in 2011 when he arrived, is poised to be a contender for a long time upon his exit. His goal, he says, is always to leave a place better than it was when he got to it. The fact that the Nationals will have their pick of the litter to replace him should speak to that.
“The managerial role as a whole is kind of an enigma,” said right-hander Tyler Clippard. “You don’t really know … what he’s doing well to have his guys succeed under him. But I know, just from being around this team and this organization and playing under Davey, that he was uncanny in showing confidence in his guys. And it never wavered.”
The Nationals couldn’t give the manager the send-off they’d all hoped for with a championship parade through the District in early November, but, as the well-worn saying goes, that’s baseball.
“I feel melancholy, because this is a great group of guys,” Johnson said Sunday morning. “I love the organization and I’m finishing up in the city that made me love big-league baseball, the old Senators. I feel very fortunate. My life has come full circle.
“It’s the end of my big-league journey. Period. I know that.”