WASHINGTON — The Baltimore Orioles players used to call Davey Johnson “Dum Dum,” because he was so smart. That’s how baseball nicknames work sometimes, irony and all, you know … big guys called “Tiny,” and so forth. Johnson wasn’t just smart, he said smart things all the time — things that baffled everyone else. Dave McNally, the old Orioles pitcher, tells Jim Kaat this great story about the time he was pitching and Johnson walked over from second base and picked up the rosin bag.
“You’re pitching from an unfavorable deviation,” Johnson said.
“Huh?” McNally replied.
“You keep pitching to either side of the plate. That’s an unfavorable deviation. The way your ball is moving, it should offer a favorable deviation. You should throw to the middle of the plate and let it move to either side. That’s a favorable deviation.”
Then, Johnson threw down the rosin bag, jogged back to second base and left McNally on the mound with that cartoon bubble full of question marks hovering over his head.
Well, Johnson loved that statistical stuff — so much so that he studied at Johns Hopkins and Texas A&M and eventually got his degree in mathematics from Trinity. He has said many times that in his playing days he did not think about being a manager, and yet, at the same time, he CONSTANTLY thought about being a manager. That is to say that he did not have any concrete plan to manage, but every game he thought: Why is he pulling the pitcher here? Why isn’t he bunting here? Why is the defense shifting that way?
For most of his playing career, the “he” Johnson observed was Earl Weaver, perhaps the greatest strategic manager the game has known. Johnson didn’t ask many questions — it was his efforts to talk deviations with Weaver that got him the “Dum Dum” nickname in the first place — but he marveled at the way Weaver would manage a game, marveled at how often the right guy seemed to be coming to the plate or the way the baseball would so often get hit at the Orioles’ best defenders in the key moments. He found himself filing stuff away, because that’s the way his mind worked.
When his playing career ended — this after playing in Japan for a while — he was desperate to stay in the game, and he was hired to manage the Miami Amigos of the short-lived Inter-American League (which had teams in Panama, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela). His team won 51 of 72 games before the league folded. He managed the Mets’ Double-A team, then managed the Mets’ Triple-A Tidewater team that had Darryl Strawberry and Ron Darling, then he became manager of the New York Mets.
And for some reason, Davey Johnson — who as a player had been called Dum Dum for his overbearing smarts — was suddenly viewed very differently. Suddenly, and it has been this way now for about three decades, people stopped talking about how smart Davey Johnson is. People stopped appreciating how statistically minded he is, or how well he sets up games or, honestly, how good he is at his job.
In fact, for all these years people have found themselves wondering: “How does this guy win everywhere?”
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You probably know the Johnson record. But in case you don’t, here’s a quick glance:
New York Mets
• The year before he took over the Mets, the team went 68-94.
• He led the team to a 90-win season in his first year, 98 wins in his second, and the next year he managed the 1986 Mets, one of the greatest teams in baseball history, to 108 victories and a World Series title. The Mets won 92, 100 and 87 games in his final three full years, and he was canned after 42 games in 1990.
• The year after he was fired by the Mets, the team lost 84 games, then 90, then 103.
• Reds general manager Jim Bowden fired Cincinnati hero Tony Perez 44 games into the 1993 season. To call those Reds, owned by Marge Schott, kind of dysfunctional is to call India “kind of populous.”
• After finishing out that season, Johnson led the Reds to a 66-48 record during the strike season (they were in first place in the division) and then an 85-59 record and an appearance in the NLCS against the Braves. Johnson was promptly let go for reasons that had nothing to do with baseball; I was working in Cincinnati at the time and was told by numerous sources (and this was also reported by others) that Schott did not approve of Johnson living with his fiancée before the wedding.
• The year after Johnson left, Ray Knight took over as manager and the Reds finished .500. They then had two consecutive losing records, and did not make the playoffs for 15 seasons.
• In 1995, the year before Johnson took over, the Orioles had a losing record and had not been in the playoffs since winning the 1983 World Series.
• The Orioles won 88 and 98 games in his two years as manager, reaching the postseason in both years. As if working for Marge Schott had not been enough, now Johnson worked for Peter Angelos, and the two openly despised each other. Johnson got into a complicated argument with Angelos over a Roberto Alomar fine, but according to people close to the situation, if it had not been that it would have been something else. Johnson resigned under pressure.
• The year after Johnson left, the Orioles had a losing record … and would for the next 13 years.
Los Angeles Dodgers
• The year before Johnson took over, the Dodgers had a winning record, but two managers.
• Johnson suffered his first losing record as a manager in 1999 and led the Dodgers to 86 wins in his second year. It was not enough to keep his job.
• The Dodgers stayed at about that level the next year, winning 86 games again.
• The year before Johnson took over, the Nationals lost 93 games, and 100 in each of the two seasons before that. He was hired in the middle of the 2011 season when manager Jim Riggleman resigned over a fight with management. At the time, there was a lot of talk about Johnson being too old, too out of touch to manage again.
• This year, he led Washington to the best record in baseball and the city’s first postseason appearance in almost 80 years.
Of those who have managed 1,000 games since 1900, only Joe McCarthy, Bill Southworth, Frank Chance, John McGraw, Earl Weaver, Al Lopez and Fred Clarke have a higher winning percentage than Davey Johnson’s .584. Do you know what those seven men above him have in common? Right. All seven are in the Hall of Fame.
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Maybe it’s because Davey Johnson doesn’t have a noticeable quirk that people have overlooked his astonishing managerial record. He doesn’t hit pitchers eighth, he doesn’t kick dirt on umpires*, and he doesn’t have a certain style that follows him from team to team. His best Reds team led the league in stolen bases. His 1986 Mets were 10th in the league. His 1988 Mets were second in the league in complete games and first in ERA. This year’s Nationals were 10th in complete games (only three all year) and first in ERA.
*He tried some of that anger stuff when he first came to the Mets and found that it didn’t work for him.
He has never been much for sacrifice bunts (“I don’t like giving up outs”) but he’s not obsessive about it. He’s usually near the bottom in intentional walks too, but again, not so much that it makes him stand out. With the Reds, he used a lot of defensive replacements; with the Dodgers, almost none.
So what marks him as a manager? Well, I covered him for those two years in Cincinnati, and I remember so many little things — his calm when the team lost, his consistency in every situation, his ability to defuse little problems before they got bigger, his knack for staying in the background except when the team needed cover. It was so subtle that I really didn’t notice it until the year after he was gone, when the friendly and well-meaning Ray Knight simply could not replicate his success.
More than anything, though, I remember how he just kept going through the madness. Those Marge Schott Reds teams — never been any other like them. Before each game would start, Schott would come down to the field with her dog and have this exact exchange with Johnson:
Schott: Hi honey.
Johnson: Hello Mrs. Schott.
Schott: Say hello to Schottzie.
Johnson: Hello Schottzie.
There was a lot of craziness like that. To simply get through that kind of goofiness would have tested anyone … but Johnson didn’t just get through it, he led the team to back-to-back first place finishes, even though he knew the last few weeks that he would be fired “How’s it going today Davey?” I would ask him.
“Not too high, not too low,” he would say, with a hint of a smile on his face.
In other words, what I remembered was his presence more than his strategy. He was strategically sound. He ran a good bullpen. His teams played energetic baseball. But it was that presence that has stuck with me.
And maybe that hasn’t changed. I asked a close Nationals observer what Johnson has done so well this year, and he told a little story that has a lot more to do with presence than anything else. In July, the Nationals were a huge surprise … but there were plenty of people who did not expect the winning to last. Washington started a four-game series against the Braves, the team in second place at the time, and promptly blew a 9-0 lead, eventually losing 11-10 in extra innings.
How did Johnson respond? He told the press that he had managed the worst game of his life. He could not believe how bad he had been as a manager. “Obviously, when they score 10 runs, that’s my fault,” he said. And “I’ve got to live with it.”
“It was genius,” the observer said. “He took every bit of the responsibility. He didn’t say a single word about the players. He didn’t say a single word about how they had to move on and forget it. He took all the blame. He talked about how he had let the guys down. And they split the series, and took off from there.”
In August, Johnson said that if the team didn’t win the National League East, they could fire him.
And here in October, the Nationals suffered crushing back-to-back losses to St. Louis, the second of those on the biggest baseball day in the city’s history. Davey Johnson has not won a World Series in 26 years. He has not managed in the playoffs in 15 years. He has bounced all around the game — managing amateur teams (including the Netherlands national team) and an Olympic teams and summer league teams. He has been fired for feuds he did not want. He has been crushed on the back pages of the New York Post. He has won everywhere he has been. He started this managing thing when he was 40. He’s now almost 70.
And what did he do after those losses? He did nothing. There was no team meeting called. There were no key changes in the lineup or the schedule. “I don’t believe in having pep rallies,” he said before Thursday’s NLDS Game 4. There was a time when Dum Dum Johnson would try to dazzle everyone with his mathematical knowledge and baseball intelligence. That time is long gone. “My job is just not to screw ’em up,” he says.
His Nationals went out and played a tight, crisp game, winning 2-1 on Jayson Werth’s homer in the ninth. The series goes to Game 5. What happens now? No way for Davey to know. He only knows this about baseball after all these years: Not too high. Not too low.