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Davey's Destiny

Fiery Manager Davey Johnson Has a Reputation for Speaking His Mind, while Getting Results. Now With Los Angeles, He Has the Chance to Turn Around His Boyhood Idols
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

The ball was headed for Yankee Stadium's left field seats, and the sight of Yogi Berra racing around first base in the seventh game of the 1955 World Series seemed to signal another long, mournful winter in Flatbush of crying "Wait 'til next year."   But just as all hope seemed to be lost, Brooklyn Dodgers left fielder Sandy Amoros came running in to spear the ball, and 12-year-old Davey Johnson in San Antonio, Texas, became a believer in the Miracle of 1955.  

"In terms of my love for baseball, I've had lots of defining moments, times when I just knew I'd be a big leaguer," says Johnson, now 56, a battle-scarred veteran of many diamond wars and arguably the game's preeminent manager. "That Brooklyn win, though, was absolutely thrilling, for all through my youth I felt the Dodgers were baseball. Every time I grabbed my glove and headed to a ballfield, I fantasized about playing for them and being a part of their glorious tradition." 

Destiny would ultimately work its charms. After an outstanding career as a second baseman and successful managerial stints with the New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles, Johnson was chosen last November to lead the franchise he rooted for as a boy when Fox TV owner Rupert Murdoch's Los Angeles Dodgers gave him a three-year, $3.5 million contract.

While hardly Hollywood, the no-nonsense, interview-shy D.J. was a logical choice to inherit the battered, yet still mystical mantle of Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda. Entering the 1999 season, he had compiled a 985-727 managing record, his .575 winning percentage being the best among active managers and third among all those who've managed at least 1,000 games. As shown by his World Series win with the Mets in 1986, and by the Reds' (1995) and the Orioles' (1996 and '97) runs at the championship, he's "win right now," a take-charge guy in the mold of Billy Martin and Earl Weaver with a talent for turning beleaguered franchises around. Almost instantly.  

"The Dodger heritage is being the best team in baseball, and now that we have [pitcher] Kevin Brown, it will be amazingly exciting to be part of L.A.'s resurgence," Johnson confidently predicts. He's sitting on the back porch of his adobe-styled, Winter Park, Florida, home, next to a black Labrador named Buck and a humidor stuffed with Cohibas. Gazing at a speedboat parked behind his swimming pool, he puffs a robusto and adds, "Though I've had a lot of great moments in baseball, two World Series wins as an Oriole player, and 1986 with the Mets, this is my dream job. Unlike New York, where callers to radio shows blasted me as an 'idiot,' and frequently portrayed me as the bad guy, I only see good things happening in L.A.. I always expect to win the pennant going in, so there won't be any pressure on me to deliver a championship. The only pressure on me is that I wish I was a little better looking, more the Hollywood type."  

Said with a sly smile, Johnson's comments go to the crux of his managerial style. He'll often be self-deprecating, for this is an artful alternative to degrading the play of his teams. He hates the term "player's manager" ("this signifies the players run everything"), but Johnson has been his players'--and coaches'--trusted advocate, their tireless protector and defender. Such unshakable loyalty has exacted a heavy price. All too often, while shielding a player from a club owner's intrusion, he's bluntly spoken his mind, and figured in disputes leading to his exile. In 1997, a long battle with Orioles owner Peter Angelos ended with his resignation (the third job he'd lost in eight years).  

Johnson insists this recent hiatus "changed" him. "I hope I've altered my ways enough to make Rupert Murdoch love me. If he wants me to jump off Dodger Stadium, I'll jump. This is a volatile business, very political, and while I haven't always been that good at the political stuff, I want him to be proud of me."  

Even if Johnson overcomes his reluctance to attend a few social gatherings with management and generally accepts that his head will always be in a noose, he will remain a fiery blend of maverick and old-line traditionalist.  

"I don't look at anybody as monsters. I've even loved Marge Schott [the controversial Reds owner], but whatever the team, it's my neck; I have to do what I think is right for the organization and my players," says Johnson. "I might be stubborn, and not as outgoing as most people. Yet owners shouldn't want me to be wishy-washy. They're entrusting me to lead, and the essence of leadership is to get guys to overcome their fears. The only way to do that is to constantly build them up, sticking by them, even if that means a difference of opinion with an owner, and putting yourself in the line of fire."  

Though Reds general manager Jim Bowden praises Johnson's ability "to run a game and bring along young pitchers," critics have viewed his guerrilla fighting as "manipulative," "self-centered" and "self-destructive." Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, recently writing about Johnson's battles with owners, suggested he's "become Billy Martin."  

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