"Any time you play for a club or manage a club, they become your favorites and you want to see them do well," 70-year-old Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson told reporters last May before he went up against the team he signed his first pro contract with in 1962. Johnson debuted with the Baltimore Orioles in 1965 and played for the O's until 1972.
Once his playing career was over, and after he had managed both the New York Mets (1984-90) and Cincinnati Reds (1993-95), a then-53-year-old Johnson returned to manage team he once played for in 1996, sticking for two seasons in Baltimore and leading the Orioles into the post season in his second year on the bench in '97 when the O's finished 98-64 but lost to the Seattle Mariners in the NLCS.
"I love coming back and playing Baltimore," the Washington Nationals' manager said last summer, "I spent so many years as a player [with the Orioles], and I mean, I picked them when I signed, when I could have signed with any other team. So, I've always followed the Orioles and whatever was going on with them ever since I was a teenager, and that's a long time."
The O's took two of three from the Nationals that weekend, but the Nats, behind a strong outing by Stephen Strasburg, salvaged the finale of the three-game set.
"The Orioles are playing as good as any team in baseball right now," Johnson said after the series against his former team. "And they beat us a couple ballgames and they owed us something, and to come back and score nine runs against their pitching staff says a lot. My guys over there have a lot of confidence and that rally that we had [Saturday night] when were six down did a lot for us. And I like the way the guys were swinging, it was a big win though, shoot."
To the surprise of many, when the two teams met again in June they were at or near the top of their respective divisions, at in the Nationals' case, and near in the Orioles'. The O's again took two of three from the Nats, to improve to 23-19 against their "regional rivals" from the nation's capital since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005. Both teams went on to make the postseason, the Orioles for the first time since Johnson led them there in 1997 and the Nationals for the first time since relocating to Washington. Both teams lost in five games of their respective Division series as well.
After the Orioles took the first game of the 2013 campaign between the two teams on Memorial Day in D.C., the Orioles are in third place in the AL East, 3.5 games out of first behind the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, at 28-24 overall. The Nationals are 26-25 after the loss to the O's on Monday, 4.5 games behind the NL East's first-place Atlanta Braves. Before the first series of the year last summer, Johnson admitted that he still took some joy in seeing his former team succeed.
"I thought they were going to do well right after I left," Johnson said, "I really liked the ballclub I had, thought they were going to do well in '98 and they didn't do so hot and it's been kind of slim pickings ever since then. But I've seen them jump out and play good, break out of the gate good. That was always an Orioles' trademark, so I'm happy for them."
Before yesterday's game, the manager said he was happy that both teams had taken it to another level so that baseball and the series between the two franchises was once again a big deal in the Mid-Atlantic region. "I think it's great," Johnson said, "I think it's wonderful. I've been excited about it. It's no secret that I love this area. And there's been some hard times here and there's been some hard times in Baltimore. And to me, they're great football towns, but they should be great baseball towns too. Baltimore is, it's kind of been struggling here until last year."
41,260 fans turned out for Monday's Memorial Day matchup, the third-highest total attendance in Nationals Park this season behind Opening Day, 45,274, and the Saturday, April 13th matchup with the Atlanta Braves which drew 41,992. Though the Orioles were represented well in D.C., the majority of the crowd, if you were to judge by the sound and reports from the nation's capital, was made up of hometown fans, which wasn't always the case in years past. O's skipper Buck Showalter too talked about the importance of the games on MASN after the Orioles' win.
"It's a game we try to win," Showalter said. "We want to win them all and [then] we turn the page and put the good day behind us here shortly and try to figure out a way to do it again. Nobody in baseball won more games than they did last year and I think it's a given where the Nationals are going to be this year, we're just trying to keep pace with them."
While the Orioles' manager says it's a given where the Nationals are going, which is, presumably, back to the postseason, ESPN's POFF (which measures the chance a team has of making the playoffs) says the Nationals have a 20.2% chance of making it back right now, 51 games into the 2013 campaign. Davey Johnson was asked about the odds after the Nationals' win over the Phillies on Sunday.
"Let me tell you something," the Nats' skipper said, "One thing I know about with having a Math degree, I know a lot about statistics, and you can use statistics to say anything you want. I can take the same data and say we're going to be a shoo-in. It's on how you play and we certainly haven't played like we're capable of. And the bullpen has been a little out of whack, I expect it to get better, and the starters have been great and I expect the offense to pick up, and that's not shown in stats." Sounds like Davey Johnson would with the opposing manager and is still confident about where his team is going... a win over his old team tonight would certainly help the cause.