The Washington Nationals will soon make it official that Davey Johnson, 68, has agreed to terms on a contract through the 2012 season with a club option for the 2013 season. However, Johnson is not expected to take over the helm of the club until Monday in Los Angeles when the Nationals visit the Angels.
Johnson won 90 games six different times in his career, with first-place finishes in 1986, 1988, 1994, 1995 and 1997 -- including a world championship with the Mets in '86. Johnson last managed in the big leagues in 2000, when he was fired after finishing in second place with the Dodgers.
This past week has been surreal for me, as two of my favorite managers that I ever had the opportunity to work with in Jack McKeon and now Davey Johnson have been hired again to manage in the big leagues, which means in all probability that Lou Piniella and Bob Boone can’t be far behind. The senior citizen movement is back in Major League Baseball, and the game is better for it.
Johnson has one of the most cerebral minds in baseball, with a delivery similar to that of television character Lt. Columbo, who was played by Peter Falk. (Falk, 83, died Thursday night at his Beverly Hills home.) Columbo had a slightly disheveled appearance and a mumbling speech pattern that hid his intelligence. I always told Davey that he was the Peter Falk of baseball. Davey’s “Columbo” approach will have some fans, media members, players, coaches and front-office members questioning the hire within days. But don’t be fooled. Behind that mask is a shrewd baseball man who knows how to run a pitching staff as well as any manager I’ve ever been around. He had a winning record in 11 of the 14 seasons he managed.
Over the last 48 hours, several people have asked me about Johnson and my response has been simple: Johnson has the intelligence, wisdom, experience and track record to win 90 games again. The only question will be his ability to make quick in-game decisions, and the Nationals wouldn’t have hired him if they weren’t convinced it was still there.
Johnson was the second major league manager I ever hired. The Reds went 53-65 under Johnson -- who began his initial season in Cincinnati in May 1993 -- and finished in fifth place. The next two seasons under his leadership, the Reds finished in first place, including a trip to the National League Championship Series in 1995. His contract was not renewed after the '95 season because owner Marge Schott was not happy that he was living with his fiancÚ Susan, whom he has been happily married to ever since.
Johnson is exceptional at running a pitching staff and famous in baseball circles for his "sixth starter," which unlike what the White Sox are doing, is a pitcher who is designated to eat innings during a blowout. His handling of a bullpen is special, which is part of the reason he was able to finish first or second in 12 of the 14 years he managed.
I’ll never forget the first meeting I had with him after I hired him back in ’93. I was going over the bullpen we had and showed him that we had five relievers with great ERAs. I was so proud to mention that we had arms who had velocities in the mid-90s, arms who had special breaking balls and changeups -- and even a pitcher who threw below side-arm. A perfect mixture, I explained. He looked at me in the eyes on that day in late May and said, "You have no idea how to build a bullpen, do you? Don’t worry, we’ll fix it together and have fun doing it." I had collected a group of relievers who could throw only one or two innings at a time and didn’t have enough length. Together, we fixed the bullpen through trades and free-agent signings, which helped give the Reds franchise back-to-back first-place finishes in the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995.
Davey Johnson is a general manager’s dream to work with because he’s the ultimate team player, working together to win without an ego. He’s open to new technologies and analysis and works as a team with the front office, coaching staff and players to succeed as a unit. He’ll delegate authority to his coaching staff and bring stability and continuity to the lineup. He’s loyal and straight-shooting and has the unique ability to be stubborn and yet flexible at the same if convinced there is a better way.
Johnson hasn’t managed in the big leagues in over a decade, but if he still can make those quick in-game decisions, he’ll succeed just like Peter Falk did in "Columbo" and just like he did in his previous 14 years as a major league manager.