A series with the Baltimore Orioles in mid-May had former O's player and manager Davey Johnson in a reflective mood. The 69-year-old Washington Nationals' skipper debuted in the majors in Baltimore in 1965, three years after he signed with the Orioles as an amateur free agent. Eight of Johnson's 13 MLB seasons were spent in an O's uniform and he returned to manage the team in 1996 and '97 before a conflict with the front office ended his time on the Orioles' bench.
It was his playing days Johnson looked back to in a conversation with reporters early this season, however, before he led the 2012 Washington Nationals into a three-game set with the Nats' regional rivals. More particularly, it was teammates like Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Paul Blair, Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer that Johnson mentioned, saying they were more like a family than a team at the time.
"It was my first big league team," Johnson said, "We tried to live close to each other, we did things off the field. We partied a lot. [The Orioles' owners] the Hoffbergers believed in partying. Of course we won a lot, so we had a lot to party for." A then 30-year-old Frank Robinson joined the Orioles in 1966 and won the Triple Crown, posting a .316/.410/.637 line with 34 doubles, 49 home runs, 122 RBIs, 87 walks and 90 Ks in 155 games and 680 PAs. Robinson helped lead Baltimore to a 4-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the first World Series Championship in franchise history.
Johnson and Robinson remained teammates with the Orioles until 1971 when Robinson was traded to LA. Johnson was dealt to Atlanta a year later. While they were teammates, they went to the World Series three more times, winning again in 1970 when the Orioles beat the Cincinnati Reds and losing to the New York Mets in 1969 and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971. When he thought back to those days, Johnson explained to reporters, it wasn't the on-field successes, but the parties, his teammates, the time he saved Frank Robinson from drowning in a pool, that he remembered.
"Those were great times," Johnson said, "I mean, it's funny, I remember those more than sweeping the Dodgers four straight and all the times I used to kick [Earl] Weaver's [butt] on the golf course."
Frank Robinson, who managed in Washington, D.C. in 2005 and 2006, returned to throw out the first pitch of the Nats' first postseason game since 1933 in Game 3 of the NLDS with St. Louis this past October, and he was asked by reporters that day what he remembered about his former teammate, who had led the Nationals to an NL East title and the best record in the league.
"Davey's had success wherever he's been," Robinson said, "So [it's'] not a surprise." As for their playing days together, the Hall of Famer said Johnson was, "... a good headsy hitter, a good headsy player, and he was a thinker. And if [Orioles' manager] Earl [Weaver] would hold still long enough, he would tell Earl how to do things. Earl wasn't having too much of it, but Davey was a real thinker back then. Sometimes he would think too much and that's where he got the name, 'Dum Dum,' because he used to get four hits and then go back out working on hitting the next day and think himself into an 0 for... but he was a good teammate and a good player. He knew the game and he played it well."
Johnson studied mathematics and received a Bachelor's degree from Trinity University two years before debuting with the Orioles, earning the nickname bestowed on him by the O's when he used computers to come up with optimal lineups and discussed standard deviation theory with teammates. At the same time, as Joe Posnanski noted in an October article on the Nats' manager, Johnson watched Earl Weaver closely, learning all he could from the manager Mr. Posnanski wrote was, "... perhaps the greatest strategic manager the game has known."
Davey Johnson combined his interest in mathematics and statistics with what he picked up from Earl Weaver and his own history in the game. As Davey Johnson explained in an interview with former MASN Nats beat reporter Ben Goessling after Johnson took over on the bench, it's a combination of all he's learned over the years that he relies on when making decisions.
"I try to look at everything where, I always want the best decision for that moment,'" Johnson told the reporter, "'I try to be right all the time. I will gamble. I gamble with talent. I'll go against percentages sometimes. But that's more of an instinctual thing.'"
When he spoke to reporters late this season, Frank Robinson was asked if he thought some managers these days relied too much on statistics and managed by computer instead of focusing on baseball instincts like they used to in the past? If the reporter who asked was expecting to find a critic of statistical analysis in the 77-year-old, decidedly old-school Robinson, however, they had the wrong man.
"I don't know who's managing by the computer or whatever," Robinson said, "But a computer is a very important part of baseball operations now. And I think it's more the front office and the scouting department and people like that, the player development department that depends a lot on the computer. I think most managers are still managing by what they see and feel and what's going on in the course of a ballgame. That's the only way you can do it. You can't manage by a computer, and I don't think they do, but you get a lot of good information from the computer."
Bet he wouldn't have admitted that to Davey Johnson in the '60s.