clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Davey Johnson? "Low guy on the totem pole"? No way.

New, comments

It appeared unexpectedly enough, a press release that had made its way to Nats Farm Authority:

The Washington Nationals today named former major league manager and player Davey Johnson as Special Consultant to Vice President/General Manager Jim Bowden. Johnson, 63, will contribute to player personnel matters, including the evaluation and scouting of major and minor league players.

A ruse? Did the calendar just flip to April? Was Brett Haber involved somehow?

No, it was legitimate. A quick search for the press release on the team's official website confirmed that much. And the thought---emanating from what had been a confused germ of undeveloped understanding---developed as clear as crystal: Bowden, you diabolical genius. Jim Bowden just hired the Washington Nationals' next manager. He just fortified his position to remain the Nationals' general manager.

The denials followed in the media straight-away, as you might expect:

  • Stan Kasten, on Bowden's job security and whether Johnson's presence fortified it: "I am simply not talking about that subject," Kasten said. "This was Jim's decision. I knew about it, and I approve of it."
  • Johnson, on whether he's a "manager-in-waiting": "That's not what I'm thinking about. I love Frank Robinson. Anything I can do to help him with the organization, that's what I want to do."
  • An unnamed team official, according to the Post, on the move and any future implication: Johnson wouldn't be a candidate to manage.
Well, as Dylan would say, I don't belieeeeeve you.

Johnson told the Post:

"I'm the low guy on the totem pole. I'm doing this for minimum wage. I'll do whatever they ask."

This doesn't ring true in the slightest to me. Since when has Davey Johnson ever been the "low guy on the totem pole"? Since when has he been satisfied with minimum wage? Since when has he been so pliant as to promise to do whatever anyone asks? Or, more to the point, why? Why the Washington Nationals? Why now?

I have no basis for this statement beyond (past) information and belief, but it seems so predictable as not to feel like much of a prediction in itself: Davey Johnson will be the manager of the Nats in 2007. Frank Robinson will be allowed to finish the season, will hopefully be treated with class and dignity, and then will be let out to pasture. Johnson, 63, isn't much younger than Robinson---but he'll be the Washington organization's first mover, its first independent hire.

And Bowden will remain along for the ride.

* * * *

The relationship between Bowden and Johnson dates back to at least 1992, when Johnson was one of a half-dozen managerial candidates to interview during Bowden's first week on the job in Cincinnati. Johnson, one of the most successful managers in the 1980s, had been dumped by the New York Mets over two years before, after a 20-22 start. (The Mets finished with 91 wins that season, the sixth time in seven years they topped the 90-win mark. Then they declined in a swift, sharp, and ultimately protracted fashion, not posting a winning season again until 1997.) Among the other candidates were Bobby Valentine (who led the Mets to that winning season in '97), Ron Oester (who subsequently came to despise Bowden), Dave Miley (who would assume the managerial role in Cincy more than a decade later), and Tony Perez. Bowden selected Perez---but then did one of the things we know he does best: Bodes quickly changed his mind. Perez was gone after only 44 games, with a record similar to Johnson's in '90 (20-24). About six months after he interviewed with Bowden, Johnson eventually assumed the managerial post.

Initially, Johnson failed to turn around the Reds, a moribund, 89-loss squad with the third-worst team ERA in the National League. But the team improved dramatically in Johnson's second season, leading the newly-created NL Central at the time the Strike of '94 hit. And, the following season, the Reds won a tangible division title, finished with the league's second-best record, and made it to the NL Championship Series.

However, the Braves swept out Johnson's Reds in four games, and this humiliation exacerbated the situation with then-owner Marge Schott, with whom Johnson butted heads:

He had said it would take three or four years to get done what he wanted to do with the Reds. One of the many curiosities of Johnson's tenure was that the team moved toward a World Series more quickly than even he envisioned. The Reds may have been the National League's best team in the strike season of '94 - Johnson's second year - and this time around they were so confident that every personnel move was dictated by one ambition: victory over Atlanta.

In the winter of '94, though, the woman with the dead dog decided she didn't like Johnson. She liked Ray Knight who had been a broadcaster until his friend, Johnson, hired him as a hitting coach. In a series of maneuvers that defy logic, the owner allowed Johnson to seek other jobs - and when he couldn't find one, she told him he could manage the Reds one more season on this condition: Johnson would teach Knight how to manage.

After the Mets fired him in 1990, Johnson was out of baseball nearly three years. He didn't want that to happen again. So rather than tell the woman with the dead dog that he didn't want her job, he decided that winning with the Reds was his best advertisement for future work.

. . . As for Johnson being hardheaded, stubborn and opinionated - a critique heard more than once - he said, "It's different being hardheaded with the general manager than with the owner. The field manager can differ with the general manager, can argue with him, express his opinion. But when the owner wants something done, ifs cut and dried."

Bowden spent much of the next two seasons answering questions about Knight's control of the team, whereas Johnson spent that time in the playoffs with the Baltimore Orioles. However, when Johnson again butted heads with his owner, Bowden came to Johnson's defense:

"It doesn't surprise me that they (the Orioles) won," says Reds general manager Jim Bowden, who employed Johnson from 1993 through '95, "and it doesn't surprise me that they had differences. For the most part, when you win, it takes care of all the other problems, but sometimes it doesn't."

. . . Bowden, [unlike former Mets' executive Joe McIlvaine, who held a dim assessment of Johnson's interpersonal skills], has few complaints about Johnson's tenure in Cincinnati. He got the Reds to the National League playoffs in '93 and '95 with a team that didn't have nearly the economic resources of the Orioles. But Johnson nonetheless lost out to Ray Knight in owner Marge Schott's good-guy comparison and found himself out of work.

"If you give Davey the horses, he's going to win at least 90 games," Bowden says. "Davey can run a game, and he's going to bring along your young pitchers. I felt working with him was very positive. He can be stubborn at times, but he never asks you for players and he lets them play."

Johnson appeared willing to return the favor. When Pat Gillick left Baltimore's GM post, Johnson apparently recommended Bowden---though, considering Johnson had already parted acrimoniously with Peter Angelos, I don't know how much attention was paid to that recommendation. At any rate, Bowden stayed in Cincinnati, where he lasted until the middle of the 2003 season.

Johnson moved on to Los Angeles, where he spent two years spinning his wheels in the wake of the Tommy Lasorda sideshow and in the midst of the Kevin Malone era. Johnson's Dodgers finished third in '99 (the first and only full season in which he has finished worse than second) and second in 2000.

He's essentially been out of the game since then (just doing side jobs such as World Cup manager). But he remains a presence in the game. His career .564 winning percentage sees to that.

Back in 1988, Johnson was described as a skipper who believed that "baseball is solely a matter of sitting back and waiting for the long ball to put the game on ice, relegating to oblivion the contributions of defense, base running and such offensive minutiae as bunting, squeeze plays and manufactured runs." The description was rather apt, as Johnson is an Earl Weaver disciple. He's also supremely self-assured---and perhaps worse, having been described during his stay in Baltimore as "egotistical, selfish and an agent provocateur"; according to Dave Kindred of The Sporting News, "Anyone who has ever heard the tone of Davey Johnson's pronouncements come away with the impression that this great thinker served as consultant to Alexander Joy Cartwright in 1845 when, on a vacant lot on New York's Murray Hill, the tall, whiskery fellow taught his buddies a game using four bases, a bat, a ball and nine men on a side."

To be trite about it, Johnson is what he is: smart, decisive, brash, difficult, and by necessity peripatetic. It's hard for a guy like that to find a long-term home. He's also developed a reputation as someone who works best with veterans, not a teacher, a "five o'clock manager"---the type "who showed up at the clubhouse the same time as the team bus." These attributes are seemingly in tension with Stan Kasten's vision of building patiently, from the ground-up.

Perhaps so. But take a look at Johnson's first team: It could not have been any younger.

And it won 90 games.

* * * *

The story at the official site has amplified the denial that Johnson's presence has significance beyond the stated consultant's role:

With the Nationals looking to trade their veteran players such as Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen and Livan Hernandez, Johnson's job is to evaluate other team's prospects, not to replace Frank Robinson as manager. Bowden also said that the Johnson hiring also doesn't mean that his own job is secure.

For now, Johnson's is expected to work for the Nationals until July 31, but Bowden didn't rule out Johnson remaining with the team past that point.

"Frank Robinson is the manager, and Davey is not going to manage the Washington Nationals," Bowden said in his office. "Just like nobody should read into that the general manager has any more security. It's an opportunity to bring in a good baseball mind to help us during this time period. There's nothing more to it."

Of course, the story also notes that, "[a]ccording to two sources, Robinson didn't know about the hiring until a member of the media gave him the news around 5 p.m. ET."

Simply stated, Robinson is out of the loop. It's likely that he has been pushed out of that loop for quite awhile now. While the word seems to be that Robinson and Bowden get along professionally, there appears to be little cohesion between the two. One would suspect this spring's backup catcher fiasco serves as an example of this lack of chemistry.

To this admittedly far-outside observer, it seems clear that Robinson's days are numbered. I hope that Bowden and the new ownership treat him with the appropriate amount of respect and dignity, and I believe they will---the recent surge by the team will ensure that for the time being. Robinson was hired as the manager of a ridiculously neglected team prior to the 2002 season, and he's lasted into his fifth year with two winning seasons and a .500 campaign. No matter what one maintains about his managerial style, this record is to Frank Robinson's credit.

But it will soon be time to move on. It's nonsensical to believe that Davey Johnson is contracting himself out for his consulting services without any future expectation of employment. Why else would he care about the Washington Nationals?

To help out an old professional associate, Jim Bowden? Aha.