Reporting David Elfin
During Major League Baseball’s 144 seasons, 675 men have stood in a dugout and managed. Their experience ranges from one game to Connie Mack’s record 7,679 (the grand old man couldn’t be fired since he owned the Philadelphia Athletics while he managed them for a staggering 50 seasons).
Of those 675 skippers, only 30 have won more games than Davey Johnson’s 1,284. But of those 30 ahead of Washington’s manager on the career victory list, only six have a higher winning percentage than his .564. Three of those six managers – Cap Anson, Fred Clarke and John McGraw were finished before Johnson was born in 1943. A fourth, Joe McCarthy, retired when Johnson was seven.
That leaves only Al Lopez — whose last season, 1969, was Johnson’s fourth as a feisty All-Star second baseman for Baltimore — and Earl Weaver — his manager for four and a half seasons with the Orioles and who last managed in 1986, the year that Johnson won the World Series with the New York Mets — as Johnson’s only near-contemporaries with more victories and a higher winning percentage.
What’s more, all seven of those managers ahead of Johnson in both victories and winning percentage are enshrined in Cooperstown. In short, Johnson seems destined for the Hall of Fame himself.
After all, the man has finished first or second during 12 of his 13 full seasons as a manager and has a higher winning percentage than such dugout luminaries as Casey Stengel, Sparky Anderson, Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, Tommy Lasorda, Joe Torre and Walter Alston.
Trouble is that you have to be retired to be so immortalized and Johnson seems to be having too much fun less than four months from turning 70 to even be thinking about walking away.
In fact, with the Nats — never better than a .500 team before his arrival a year ago June — boasting baseball’s best record and having won the National League East title, Johnson should be a shoo-in for Manager of the Year, an award he won in the American League with the 1997 Orioles.
Consider that Johnson didn’t have his ideal lineup for a single day this season. Catcher Wilson Ramos was done for the year with a torn ACL before left fielder Michael Morse returned from a strained muscle. Right fielder Jayson Werth will barely play in half the games. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and shortstop Ian Desmond each missed more than 15 games with injuries, too. Rookie center fielder Bryce Harper spent the first month in the minors for supposed seasoning.
And while the pitching staff has stayed much healthier, presumed ace Stephen Strasburg was shut down a month ago to protect his surgically repaired elbow and 2011 closer Drew Storen was sidelined until after the All-Star break following his own elbow surgery.
With all of those hurdles to overcome and showing a bunch of men less than half his age how to be winners on the major league level – most for the first time, Johnson has worked miracles to have the Nats sitting at 96-63 as they play their meaningless final two regular season games tonight and tomorrow against the team they unseated as division champs, the Philadelphia Phillies.
While Johnson actually achieved a bigger turnaround in his first season as a manager, lifting the Mets from a 68-94 cellar-dweller before his arrival into a 90-72 contender in 1984, there’s no arguing that he has done a remarkable job with the Nats, especially considering that – not counting his stints with Team USA – he hadn’t been in a dugout in more than 10 years before he took over after Jim Riggleman’s sudden resignation in June 2011.
Of all the decisions that Mike Rizzo has made since becoming Washington’s general manager two years ago this month, convincing Johnson to switch from consultant back to manager was the smartest. Now Rizzo just has to make sure that Johnson doesn’t decide to declare mission accomplished and retire if the Nats win the World Series.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin