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
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
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"It was the first time I had ever drank Champagne or smoked cigars, and mixing the two, I quickly turned green," laughs Johnson, now a veteran smoker with a penchant for enjoying a Cuban with friends, his wife, or a John Grisham novel. "I don't remember if it was a Swisher Sweet or a Hav-A-Tampa, but it really did me in. No wonder I didn't do all that well in the Series. I was still suffering the after-effects of those cigars."
Only making $12,000 in 1967, Johnson had to settle for more of those drugstore cigars once he started smoking "seriously." Though money continued to be a worry--he was forced to work in the off-season at a computer school and as a builder--Johnson got married and had the first of their three kids.
"I held out and held out for that $12,000," says Johnson, who became one of Earl Weaver's favorite ballplayers once the feisty, dirt-kicking, umpire-baiting legend took command of the O's in '68.
While Frank Robinson was celebrated for clutch home runs, and Brooks Robinson dazzled crowds with his game-saving acrobatics at third, Johnson was entrusted to be the "glue" in the infield, the leader who flashed defensive signals and comforted shell-shocked pitchers.
"While I never thought I'd become a manager, I always paid attention to choices managers made: when they took out pitchers and how they set up defenses," says Johnson. "The consummate innovator and genius of the human psyche, Earl regularly tried to seize advantages, so I tried to convince him to computerize his notecards. I'd say 'Earl, do you know anything about predictability, standard deviation charts?' He probably looked at my stuff at night, but first he'd throw it in the garbage, and order me back to second. That's how I wound up being called 'Dum-Dum.' "
Now Weaver says, "Having a lot of talent, Davey was a can't-miss prospect in the minors, who was interested in knowing everything he could about baseball. He asked a lot of questions, and that relentless quality helped him become very successful. You can never tell if a player with managerial ambitions will be able to handle management or all the adversity the game throws your way, but I knew early on there was something special about Davey."
When the Orioles won the pennant again in 1969, Johnson hit .280 and was a "Hoover-matic" gobbling up balls in the infield. With such dominant pitchers as Jim Palmer and Dave McNally, the Orioles were clear favorites in the World Series against the Mets. Only this time, he was on the wrong side of another "miracle."
"I'm still flabbergasted we lost, that destiny made all sorts of funky things happen," rues Johnson, who hit a woeful .063 in the Series against the "Amazin's," a ninth-place club in 1968. "Gusts of wind blowing balls back to their outfielders, [Ron] Swoboda's diving catch, Al Weiss hitting a home run; our winning just wasn't meant to be. While we won the next year against the Big Red Machine [Reds], 1969 was a big disappointment. The stuff of bad dreams."
D.J. would lustily rebound by hitting .281 and 10 homers in 1970, with a .313 mark in the Series. But with the exception of a phenomenal performance in 1973 (99 RBIs and 43 home runs) with the Braveshis numbers began to slip. By 1978, after a year in the Japanese League and a stint in Philly, he became a rarely used utility man with the Cubs. Playing out the string with an aching back, he'd often sit next to Bill Buckner, not knowing their paths would cross again when destiny would deal his former teammate the cruelest of hands.
Johnson left his flourishing real estate business in to manage the start-up minor-league Miami Amigos of the Inter-American League. He went on to pilot the Jackson Mets to a Texas League championship, impressing the parent club's hierarchy and earning the unenviable task of rebuilding the New York Mets, a team that had posted a 324-447 mark from 1979 to 1983.
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