Five days from now, Davey Johnson will manage his final game for the Nationals before heading back to Florida retirement at age 70.
The statistics say that Johnson has led Washington to a 222-180 (.552) record compared to its 168-334 (.418) in 402 games from the start of 2009 until he took over in its dugout on June 26, 2011, just three games after manager Jim Riggleman had shockingly resigned because he hadn’t been offered a contract extension.
“We were a team in distress,” general manager Mike Rizzo said when the Nats honored Johnson in a ceremony before Sunday’s doubleheader that closed the home schedule. “Our young team, while talented, was suffering a crisis of confidence and needed a steady hand. You were that steady hand, Davey.”
Johnson, who hadn’t managed in the U.S. since 2000, was more than that for a franchise which hadn’t had a winning season since 2003 when it was still the Montreal Expos. Johnson was voted National League Manager of the Year when he guided the Nats to a major league-best 98 victories and the NL East title in 2012. He has produced a second straight winning season this year, albeit one that will fall far short of his “World Series or Bust” declaration from spring training.
Johnson convinced the young Nats, led by outfielder Bryce Harper and right hander Stephen Strasburg, both former top overall draft choices, that they could win and then helped them as near-neophytes. Harper was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2012 at age 20. He was picked for last summer’s All-Star Game along with Strasburg, then 23, lefthander Gio Gonzalez and shortstop Ian Desmond, both then 26. Harper and right hander Jordan Zimmermann, 27, were selected this year. That’s six All-Stars in two years compared to Washington’s eight during the seven summers prior to Johnson’s hiring.
And it’s not just the All-Stars whom Johnson has helped. Right fielder Jayson Werth, who seemed like a huge free agent failure in 2011, is having a career year at 34. Last summer at 32, first baseman Adam LaRoche has his best year since 2006. New center fielder Denard Span’s 29-game hitting streak was baseball’s longest this season. Wilson Ramos has blossomed into one of the game’s top hitting catchers. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has regained the power he seemed to have lost in 2011. Right hander Ross Ohlendorf saved his career in 2013.
“Davey leaves us far better than when he took this job,” 2008 World Series champion Werth told The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell.
Of course, Johnson has been a winner throughout his baseball life. He was a rookie second baseman on Baltimore’s first World Series winner in 1966 and remained in that position – winning three Gold Gloves for his fielding excellence — as the Orioles won another championship and three American League pennants over the next six seasons.
Traded to Atlanta in 1973, Johnson promptly belted 43 homers, more than twice as many as his best for the Orioles, and was chosen for his fourth All-Star Game. In 1977 after two years in Japan, Johnson hit .321 in a part-time role for NL East king Philadelphia. He finished his playing career the next year by batting .306 for the Chicago Cubs at age 35.
After three years managing in the minors, Johnson was promoted to the majors by the New York Mets in 1984. He averaged 96 victories during his six full seasons, leading the Mets to the 1986 World Series title and the 1988 NL East crown. Johnson skippered Cincinnati to the top of the NL West in 1994 and 1995 and Baltimore to the top of the AL East in 1997 when he was voted AL Manager of the Year. During the 16 seasons in which he managed at least 43 games, his teams finished first in their divisions six times, second seven times and third twice.
Johnson is 28th all-time with 1,370 victories. Seventeen of the managers with more are enshrined in the Hall of Fame and a few of the others might also wind up with plaques in Cooperstown. Johnson’s .561 winning percentage is better than all of those ahead of him on the list except for: his Orioles’ boss, Earl Weaver; John McGraw and Fred Clarke, who retired before he was born; Joe McCarthy, who last managed in 1950; and Al Lopez, whose final season was 1969. Joe Girardi of the New York Yankees is the only active manager with at least 500 games in dugout with a higher winning percentage (.566) than Johnson.
As was the case when Joe Gibbs retired from the Redskins in January 2008 at age 67, Johnson put the Nats on the right path but it’s going to be up to a successor to complete the transformation into a champion.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.