A baseball season never sounds as hopeful as on those bright
mornings in Florida and Arizona when the first flings of
pitchers pop the stiff leather of catchers' mitts. But when that
annual percussive fanfare began at spring training camps last
weekend, Davey Johnson could hear none of it. One of the most
successful managers in baseball history remained oddly out of
Hopeful? Of course. Johnson is hopeful that one of his six
children from two marriages can hold down a job rolling
silverware into napkins despite being blind and deaf; that
another of the six can prosper after a year at a drug
rehabilitation center; and that another, a former champion
surfer battling mental illness, might someday leave the
assisted-care facility where, for the past year, she has been
treated for depression. For himself, he's hopeful that it will
not be too long before the people who run baseball stop thinking
of him as this glowing chunk of uranium. Having lost three jobs
in eight years, Johnson is radioactive.
"Who knows, we might be wrong," says Toronto Blue Jays general
manager Gord Ash, the only man who interviewed Johnson for any
job after Johnson quit the Baltimore Orioles on Nov. 5. "We were
interested in a guy we felt would be here a long time. Davey's
track record indicates that after a couple or three seasons he's
usually found in some kind of controversy, and not necessarily
ones of his own making."
Ash chose Tim Johnson, a prototypical late-1990s hire: zero big
league managerial experience but expected to be a company man
and a "good communicator." The last four major league managers
hired fit that description: Tim Johnson, Jerry Manuel of the
Chicago White Sox, Tony Muser of the Kansas City Royals and
Larry Rothschild of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Davey Johnson has become Billy Martin. He's a career winner
sitting just one phone call away--if only some club can muster
the gumption to accept a maverick. It's not because of his
record that Johnson is unemployed. Only two men alive who have
managed at least 1,000 games in the big leagues have better
winning percentages than Johnson's .575 mark
(985-727)--67-year-old Earl Weaver (.583), who hasn't been in a
dugout in a dozen years, and 89-year-old Al Lopez (.584), who
last managed in 1969.
In 24 major league seasons as a player and manager Johnson, 55,
has been associated with only four teams with losing records:
the 1967 Orioles, the '73 Atlanta Braves, the '78 Chicago Cubs
(with whom he played only two months) and the '93 Cincinnati
Reds (whom he began managing in May). Johnson has guided all
three teams he has managed--the New York Mets, followed by the
Reds and the Orioles--at least as far as a league Championship
Series. In each of his 10 full seasons as a skipper his team has
finished first or second. Every organization he has worked for
was worse off without him before and after his arrival (chart,
Then again, Johnson has so rankled front offices that each of
his three departures prompted more than a smattering of internal
applause. Mets general manager Frank Cashen and his assistant,
Joe McIlvaine, thought an increasingly careless Johnson, who
later admitted to drinking too much at the time, lost his grip
on the club. Reds owner Marge Schott chafed about a then
unmarried Johnson living with his girlfriend. Orioles owner
Peter Angelos detested the swagger that emboldened Johnson to
criticize players and ask for a contract extension. (Of course,
falling out of favor with his two most recent employers doesn't
mean much. Schott has gone through five managers in the past six
years. Angelos has had four in the past five years.)
Johnson has a defiant streak that serves him well in the
dugout--the Orioles beat Randy Johnson and the Seattle Mariners
twice in the 1997 postseason when Johnson benched Roberto
Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and B.J. Surhoff--but frequently
undermines him with his bosses. Never a smooth talker or
socializer, Johnson isn't interested in befriending the suits
who do the hiring. After he won 595 games in a little more than
six years with the Mets, he could not get another job in
baseball for 2 1/2 years because of his scrappy reputation. "I
had to be made out to be a monster," he says. "I'm just not as
outgoing as most people. I don't know a lot of owners or G.M.'s.
I never have and I never wanted to.
"I guess I'm a product of my father. He was a tough Swede who
kept to himself. He basically left [his children] alone. He
loved us a lot, but he didn't know how to show it."
Frederick Johnson left to fight in World War II just as Davey,
his second son, was born. It was not until Davey was in his
early 20s that his father told him what happened overseas. As a
prisoner of war in North Africa, Fred escaped twice and was
recaptured twice, the second time in Italy, where his captors
performed dental work on him without painkillers. It was only
after sharing his experiences with other former POWs later in
life that Fred could reveal the nightmarish memories to his son.
One day in 1984, not long after Davey became Mets manager, Fred
complained of a muscle spasm in his back. Doctors discovered he
had bone marrow cancer. Davey rushed to a San Antonio hospital
to be with him. The doctors said Fred could live five, maybe 10
more years. Davey left to rejoin the Mets. And then, according
to Davey, one night at the hospital doctors told him they were
hooking oxygen tubes to his nostrils to assist his lungs, which
showed signs of filling with fluid. Fred refused. If he was
going to breathe at all, he was going to damn well do it
himself. He didn't make it through the night.
Such stubbornness is characteristic of Davey as well. He quit
the Baltimore job, which would have paid him $750,000 this year,
without speaking to his boss for the last six days before, in
effect, faxing in his resignation. The marriage between Johnson
and Angelos had less of a chance than the one between Michael
and Lisa Marie. "The insolent son of a bitch" is how Angelos has
referred to Johnson.
Johnson recalls a conversation in which Angelos told him, "I'm a
fighter." Johnson says he responded, "I'm a fighter, too. I
fought my way through school. I'm used to fighting. I'm stubborn
just like the next guy." Angelos says the conversation never
took place. Besides, he adds, "he's what he is. I am an
individual who speaks straight. I don't come at you obliquely. I
come at you straight on. There are two totally different people
here." Only in such an absurdly off-kilter relationship could an
owner who frequently levels off-the-record digs at his team
characterize as evasive a manager known to be notoriously blunt.
It took Johnson less than one month into his three-year contract
to anger Angelos. In 1996 Johnson criticized one of his players,
Bobby Bonilla, for balking at being a DH. Angelos called Bonilla
"next to Cal [Ripken Jr.], the most popular player on the team."
After Johnson took other jabs, though less pointed, at catcher
Chris Hoiles and pitcher Mike Mussina, Angelos telephoned and
firmly told Johnson, "I want to read no more criticisms of any
Orioles player in the newspapers. If you want to criticize them,
take them into your office and tell them."
After the Orioles lost in the 1996 league Championship Series,
Angelos fired Johnson's handpicked pitching coach, Pat Dobson,
and hired Ray Miller. "He called me and told me the pitching
coach should be the manager's prerogative," Angelos says. "We
tried his prerogative. It didn't work. I don't think he ever got
The downward spiral of the relationship accelerated--beyond
resurrection, as it turned out--when Johnson fined second
baseman Roberto Alomar $10,500 for missing a midseason
exhibition game last year and directed the money to an
educational charity for which Johnson's wife, Susan, worked.
Angelos found out where the money was going only after Alomar
had filed a grievance with the players' association. Johnson,
who notified general manager Pat Gillick of the fine, later
admitted it was a mistake not to have informed Angelos, too,
though he feels this should not have been "a hanging offense."
Angelos asked Donald Fehr, executive director of the players'
association, to keep the matter quiet until after the season.
But he never confronted Johnson about it. Why not? "That's a
fair question," Angelos says. "I spoke to the G.M. I could have
called him, and he could have called me. I didn't, and he
didn't. Maybe I should have."
Baltimore defeated Seattle in the Division Series with some bold
managing by Johnson, but dropped four one-run games to the
Indians to lose the league Championship Series. Nine days later
Angelos said, "There's no threat he's going to lose his job. He
has a contract that is binding, and I plan to fulfill the
conditions of that contract."
Angelos, though, knew Alomar's grievance could give him cause to
fire Johnson, perhaps even without financial obligation.
Johnson, sensing a lack of support, tried to take the offensive.
"I don't want to come back knowing I'm not wanted," he told his
attorney, Skip Dalton. "Let's give him a choice: Extend me or
buy me out."
They faxed that request on Oct. 27 to Angelos, who concedes
Johnson "probably" was finished as manager as soon as it came
across his desk. "I thought he had lost his mind," he says.
Three days later, in a 90-minute phone conversation, Johnson
told Angelos, "Look, I want to make you happy. What do you want
me to do?"
Angelos said he would get back to him. He never did. "Probably I
was going to call him," Angelos says, indicating he was busy. "I
practice law every day."
Six days of silence left Johnson feeling more anxious than
Damocles. Johnson thought, "He's going to fire me. But he's
going to wait and wait and wait and then fire me." Johnson knew
that the three managerial openings that existed at the time,
with the Blue Jays, the Devils Rays and the White Sox, would
soon be filled.
On Nov. 5 the call came that Johnson had been voted American
League Manager of the Year. Susan said he couldn't possibly come
to the phone. Davey was too busy polishing and faxing a letter
to Angelos, saying essentially, "If you don't want me, I'll
quit." Johnson's fax requested that Angelos respond by 3 p.m.
because Johnson would be leaving for a fishing trip in the
Florida Keys. At precisely 3 p.m., Johnson's fax machine spat
out the predictable reply: Resignation gladly accepted.
Less than 24 hours later Johnson retreated to Isla Morada. One
day manager of the year, the next day unemployed, dangling a
line into the water again. Nothing has changed since, except
Johnson plays a lot of golf and has more time for his children,
ages 16 to 30. Only the youngest lives at home with Davey and
Susan in Winter Park, Fla. The daughter being treated for mental
illness lives at a nearby facility. "It's been hard," Davey
says. "I'd like to be working. But since I'm not, I'm finding
another life to lead."
Johnson talked to Fox about doing color commentary but
ultimately decided only a managing job was worth the travel. A
computer buff with a math degree, he chatted with a computer
company about opportunities with ocean navigation systems. But
clearly there's only one reason he wants the phone to ring. "Who
knows what's going to happen?" he says about managing again.
"I'm going to try to have a happy spring, without the problems
you'd like to have. My only problem now is losing a $5 Nassau."
He laughed weakly at his own line, sounding like a man who knew
what a small portion of his joke was true.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JAMES BENNETT [Davey Johnson]
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA [Tony Tarasco in game]
THE JOHNSON EFFECT
Never has a Davey Johnson-managed team failed to improve
dramatically over its winning percentage for the five full
seasons before he arrived. After he left the Mets and the Reds,
they quickly reverted to mediocrity--or worse. Fans of the
Orioles (like Tony Tarasco, right) might be wise to adjust their
METS YEARS RECORD PCT
Before Davey 1979-83 324-447 .420
With Davey* 1984-90 595-417 .588
After Davey 1990-95 352-432 .449
REDS YEARS RECORD PCT
Before Davey 1988-93 437-416 .512
With Davey** 1993-95 204-172 .543
After Davey 1996-97 157-167 .485
ORIOLES YEARS RECORD PCT
Before Davey 1991-95 375-367 .505
With Davey 1996-97 186-138 .574
*Fired after 42 games in 1990.
**Hired after 44 games in 1993.