VIERA, Fla. — Davey Johnson is standing at the edge of the dugout, eager to get out on the field. That’s where he feels most comfortable. That’s where he feels at home.
Ke$ha blares from the speakers in the mostly empty stadium with a song that is both totally out of place and wholly appropriate for baseball’s oldest manager.
“Let’s make the most of the night,” the pop-rapper wails, “like we’re gonna die young!”
In a sense, that’s how Johnson approaches every day at the ballpark, even though he’s long since passed the youthful stage. The 70-year-old never plans too far ahead. Even now, when he’s getting ready for his final season as manager of the Washington Nationals before returning to what passes for retirement, he can’t get his mind around something that’s at least seven months away.
“Shoot,” he said Wednesday, before a spring training game at Space Coast Stadium. “I’ve thought the last bunch of years it was my last year. Well, here it is, my last year again. It doesn’t faze me one way or the other. I love baseball. I’ll be involved in baseball until they put me underground. Whether it’s a college wood-bat league or minor league ball, it doesn’t matter. I love putting the uniform on and relating to the players. It’s what I do.”
It’s something he still does well, even when he’s old enough to be their grandfather.
“I’ve just got to stay out of their way,” Johnson said nonchalantly, “and every once in a while solve a problem.”
Last season, he guided a team that had never had a winning season since moving to Washington to a major league-leading 98 victories. He has already declared “World Series or bust” for this year’s Nationals, who — in an interesting bit of symmetry — are led by two of the game’s best young players, 20-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper and 24-year-old pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
Johnson won’t let his players fret about that hideous Game 5 loss to the Cardinals in the NL division series. The Nationals squandered an early 6-0 lead and couldn’t hang on to a 7-5 advantage in the ninth, even with St. Louis down to its last strike.
Turns out, he doesn’t spend much time looking backward, either.
“You’ve got to walk before you can run,” Johnson said. “I thought we were walking pretty fast last year, from day one all the way through. We just didn’t get it done.”
He was named the NL manager of the year shortly after the Nationals announced his return for one more season in the dugout. Johnson will move into a consulting role in 2014, though he doesn’t sound ready to leave the field just yet.
“Whenever I leave an organization, I want to feel like they’re in better shape than when I got ’em,” he said. “I feel like this organization’s in great shape and probably no longer needs me. If they don’t want me next year, that’s fine with me, you know what I mean? I’m sure there will be other challenges in 2014 for me. I have no idea what it’s going to be.”
Johnson may turn up in the minor leagues. Or a high school or college. Maybe even another country (he once managed the Dutch national team, helping them qualify for the 2004 Olympics).
But he will be on a ball field somewhere.
“I don’t have a huge ego,” Johnson said. “When you love the game of baseball, it doesn’t matter what age they are.”
That mantra led him into a yarn about coaching in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, where he learned the less-accomplished pitchers usually start on Tuesdays, in non-conference games, while the best pitchers are saved for league games on the weekend. But he’s just as likely to rip off a story about Sandy Koufax, as he did after Wednesday’s game, remembering how the Hall of Famer never liked to pitch against AL teams in spring training.
“Whenever you put on this uniform,” Johnson said, “it’s always a learning experience.”
That, in a word, is what’s kept him relevant. He doesn’t waver from his core beliefs, but never loses sight of what the player might be thinking.
“The guys seem to love him,” said Dan Haren, who signed with the Nationals in the offseason and already is impressed with the way Johnson handles the team. “He seems like the ultimate players’ manager.”
Johnson’s style is definitely laid-back and loose, but he expects the players to reciprocate. For instance, he’d rather go through a fielding drill for five minutes at full speed than spend 20 minutes on it with the guys loafing around. He also spends a lot of time just talking with his players — on the field, in the dugout, even in the weight room — listening out for any off-the-field troubles or issues that might affect a player’s performance.
“He’s personable,” Haren said. “You can talk to him about stuff other than baseball, which is refreshing. Sometimes, it’s more fun just to talk about life and have someone get to know you as a person.”
When Johnson played second base in the big leagues, he was already preparing himself for the next stage of his career, the one where he would truly leave his mark. He was always intrigued by those who played the game and those who ran it from the dugout, always wondering why the manager did certain things.
“I graded managers just like everybody else did,” he said. “I knew their strengths and weaknesses.”
Even today, Johnson picks up tidbits here and there, little grains of knowledge that help him understand the game a little better than he did the day before.
“If you quit learning,” he likes to say, “you go the other way.”
Johnson makes his role sounds so mundane, but it’s not. He wouldn’t be on his fifth managing job if he didn’t know how to maintain the delicate balance among 25 different personalities in the clubhouse. He wouldn’t have led four of his teams to the playoffs. He wouldn’t have endured only full season with a losing record in all those years on the bench.
“My main rule of thumb — every day — is no matter what I’ve done, where I’ve been, where I’m at, I’ve got to gain their respect and trust,” he said. “And vice versa. They’ve got to gain mine, too. It’s really pretty simple.”
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