Today's Game: Davey Johnson
All this week we’re taking a closer look at the 10 people on the Today’s Game Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame.
In 1995, Davey Johnson had one of the strangest seasons anyone has ever had in the history of baseball. It also happened to be the first full season I spent as a sports columnist in a major league city. Neither of us had any $%&$*# idea what was happening. I still am not sure what went on, and I suspect Davey doesn’t know much more.
Before the season began, Davey was told that it would be his last year as manager in Cincinnati. That was the weird way it started. Best anyone could make out, Reds owner Marge Schott didn’t want Johnson to manage the team, even though he had brilliantly guided them into first place in 1994 before the strike happened. The rumor was that Schott wasn’t happy about Johnson living with his girlfriend rather than marrying her. Anyway, she wanted Johnson out, and she wanted Ray Knight in.
Thing is, nobody thought Ray Knight was ready to be the manager.
The Reds general manager, Jim Bowden, who had been working frantically to build that team — I called him the GM of Mayhem, and I’m still proud of that — wanted to keep Johnson. But nobody knew for sure that Bowden himself would be back in 1995.
Anyway, all of them somehow worked out a deal so that Johnson would manage one more year, 1995, and Ray Knight would be his trusty lieutenant, and then Davey would step down, presumably for Knight to move in.
But shortly after that deal was cut, the rumors began that the Reds would try to bring Sparky Anderson back to manage the team.
It’s hard to fully capture the circus of those Marge Schott Reds.
In any case, Johnson seemed OK with the arrangement, but this is because Davey Johnson seemed OK with ANY arrangement. He was only 52 then, which is very, very young (I’m about to turn 52), but he seemed ancient. He already had lived an extraordinary baseball life. He faced Satchel Paige and was teammates with Steve Dalkowski. His double-play partners were Luis Aparicio and Mark Belanger. He hit behind Henry Aaron. He played for Earl Weaver.
[caption id="attachment_23747" align="aligncenter" width="448"] Johnson was plus-.500 at all five of his managerial stops, but won the pennant only once.[/caption]
And when that was all done, he went to New York and managed the most brilliant, flawed, wonderful and terrible team in memory, the 1980s Mets, where he won a World Series and lost years off his life and was fired after finishing first or second in the division every year.
“The big thing is, I got out alive," Johnson told me. "Not everybody does."
And now he was managing a gifted Reds team with an owner who would walk on the field with a ziplock bag filled with dog hair that she wanted to rub on the players for good luck. Well, it was a living. I’ve always thought that the work Johnson did in 1994 with an aging team and a shaky rotation was pretty special, though he didn’t get to finish the job. So, he came back for 1995.
And then, you will remember, the owners locked out the players.
This was madness everywhere, but it was particularly crazy in Cincinnati, where the Reds tried various stunts, including an announcement that they were bringing back the old reliever Pedro Borbon (he was 49 at the time and hadn’t pitched in 15 years). It was apparently some sort of joke, though nobody let Borbon in on it, and Johnson was so disgusted that he handed the job over to Knight right then and called the whole thing a disgrace.
Then, he came back to manage. Then the players came back.
And those 1995 Reds were good. Shortstop Barry Larkin ended up winning the MVP. Outfielder Reggie Sanders hit .306/.397/.579, his best season. Johnson was terrific at working the pitching staff, I think that was his greatest strength as a manager, and he worked all sorts of magic that year with the team’s ace, Jose Rijo, injured; he got the most of out Pete Schourek, John Smiley and Jeff Brantley, and then Bowden helped him out by bringing in David Wells and Mark Portugal and Dave Burba. The Reds won the division. And then they swept the Dodgers.
At that point, nobody knew what would happen when the season ended. Was Johnson still fired/exiled? Were they really going to break things up and hand the team over to Knight? Did any of it make any sense at all?
Johnson seemed unconcerned. "When you've been in baseball as long as I have, nothing surprises you anymore," he said. "Nothing can ever be strange again."
I often thought of him then the way I thought of Bob Newhart’s role on his television shows. Davey was the one seemingly sane guy in a morass of madness. We’d ask him what was going on, and he would kind of shrug his shoulders and make it clear that whatever happened, happened. He was just an old ballplayer, and old ballplayers take ‘em one day at a time, control the controllables, see the ball and hit the ball.
In the NLCS, the Reds were swept by the Braves in one of the least competitive series ever — Cincinnati managed just five runs total. The city still hadn’t forgiven baseball for the strike and lockout and canceled World Series the year before, and there were empty seats everywhere. And when it ended, there was no announcement about Davey Johnson. It was just understood: He was gone.
This was what I wrote for The Cincinnati Post.
Davey Johnson shrugged. Reds must learn early in their careers how to shrug, and so this was Davey Johnson's last official act as manager of the Reds, he shrugged his shoulders, began to speak, then shrugged again.
Sometimes, there are no words to say.
And, in the end, Johnson walked out the clubhouse door in Atlanta, dazed and confused, apparently fired as manager after consecutive first-place seasons. "Well, uh," Johnson said, he smiled, he shrugged.
In the end, I’m not 100 percent certain what it takes to become a Hall of Fame manager. I suspect multiple World Series victories will do it; Johnson didn’t get there. (Though many think he should have with the Mets.) I think sustained excellence in one place helps; Johnson won division titles for four different teams, but was fired shortly after each of the four for some reason or another. (In 1997, in Baltimore, he was fired on the day that he won Manager of the Year.) The thing that impressed me about Davey was that he could manage all kinds of teams — young, old, arrogant, up-and-coming, he had a knack for whatever the situation needed. He was that rare blend of analytical (he was on the forefront of computers in baseball) and old-school ballplayer.
I don’t know if that adds up to a Hall of Famer; I suspect there are others ahead of him in line, including possibly ballot-mate Lou Piniella. But Davey could manage my team any day.