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
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In the late 1980s Johnson owned a real estate company and a seafood restaurant, and led the Mets to six successive seasons of finishing first or second. Congratulating himself on making success look "awfully easy" in New York, D.J. says "six years is a veritable eternity in a place where everyone wants to gobble you up. In New York you must have a lot of confidence in your decision making."
Maybe he was too confident. Courageously differing with management over the retention of his coaches, he dared the Mets to "fire me, not them." Tensions increased when his contract difficulties were publicly discussed, and the Mets dismissed him in 1990. Now Johnson emotionally insists. "When the Mets wanted me to quietly slide out of town with no press conference, I went out the back door. I was very hurt, yet I didn't say a word. Does that sound like someone who's a lightning rod for controversy?" After being out of the game for three years, Johnson founded the Orlando Predators, an arena football team, and had lots of time to devote to his troubled children (a daughter suffers from mental illness, and one son has long battled drug addiction).
The strain of these family responsibilities, combined with his ouster from baseball, according to his friend David Jasmund, "took the spark out of his eyes. He loves working with players, so this was hardly the greatest time in his life." His fortunes turned when the Reds hired him to manage their struggling club in 1993. Again working his magic, he ignored owner Marge Schott's outrageous social and political pronouncements, and led the team into the playoffs in 1995.
"Davey just knows how to get the most out of players," says former Reds All-Star second baseman Bret Boone (now with Atlanta)."We had our squabbles, but now I appreciate him because he knows how to communicate with his players, and is always very poised. While he'd give a guy a handshake after he went 3-for-4, even more importantly he's there when you're scuffling, encouraging you all the time. Keeping players on this even keel is critical, a real talent, and why Davey is such a terrific manager."
There was nothing even-tempered about Schott, however. She bitterly complained about Johnson's living with his then-girlfriend Susan Allen after he got divorced, and asked him to groom Ray Knight to be his successor in 1996. Now married to Susan for five years, Johnson says, "while Marge was Marge, Susan became my terrific smoking buddy. When she first tried cigars, her face turned purple. But she's OK with them now. Especially if she's had too many glasses of wine."
After leaving Cincinnati, Johnson received a three-year, $2.25 million contract to manage Baltimore, and immediately spirited the O's to their first postseason appearance in 13 years. The club reached the 1996 league championship series against the Yankees, falling to the Bronx Bombers in five games. Success, however, still didn't disguise Johnson's strained relationship with Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
They clashed repeatedly over such matters as Johnson's refusal to defend Roberto Alomar after he spit at an umpire, Angelos's firing of a pitching coach, and Johnson's fining of Alomar for not showing up at an exhibition game. Johnson wanted that $10,500 levy to go to his wife's charitable organization, the Carson Scholars. Angelos angrily felt that that was a conflict of interest. Tensions remained high throughout the season, even as Baltimore hurtled towards the '97 playoffs. That wire-to-wire first-place dash won Johnson Manager of the Year honors. Wanting a vote of confidence from Angelos, he faxed him a letter asking for either an extension or a buyout. When the fax was made public, the Orioles boss viewed the act as "insubordination of the worst order."
"Was I going to eat mud and be the whipping boy again?" Johnson asks. He resigned, and lost $750,000 for ending his contract. "There comes a point when life is too short no matter what money is at stake. I just got tired of people being told I'm dumb, or that I messed up."
Now, as manager of the Dodgers, Johnson will be tested again. However that drama plays out, the TV sports shows will only highlight the tough exterior of this turnaround expert, the veneer meant for public consumption. There's also the very private, closed-mouthed Johnson, who, like his father, won't talk much about such personal traumas as his daughter's ongoing struggles with depression, and his son's fight against drug and alcohol addiction. Yet he's still the devoted family man, hoping to perform a few more miracles.
"Super tight with my three kids, Davey's been a great father to them, particularly to Jake [aged 22], who's deaf and blind," confides Susan, after Johnson has gone off to play golf. "Davey knows Jake will always have enormous, all-encompassing needs, and he's been there for him, lobbying at the Helen Keller National Center and on Capitol Hill for issues relating to deafness and blindness. He's taken on quite a burden bringing Jake into his own house. Most guys wouldn't do it. But that's my David, a real winner."
Edward Kiersh is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.