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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Thrust into the city's media spotlight, D.J. made mistakes. "Right from the start I had to impart confidence to guys who had known a lot of losing," he says. "To get their energy going, I had to try some 'Weaverisms,' like throwing bases and kicking dirt at umpires' feet. I'm not much of a hollerer, and as I discovered, those tantrums are only OK for a 5-foot, 8-inch guy. At 6 foot, 1 inch I was quickly told 'that crap doesn't work in the National League,' as the umpires suspended me."
But his tactical moves, coupled with the adroit handling of Dwight Gooden and the club's other young pitchers, paid dividends. By instilling fiery play among the likes of Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry, Mr. Fix-It led the Mets to a surprising second-place finish his first year at the helm.
New York repeated its second-place performance in 1985, then acquired the power-hitting Gary Carter (who says "Davey is a terrific leader, a guy who skillfully relates to his players"), and won its division and the pennant in 1986, with a stunning 108-54 record. Then came the "miracle" that still breaks hearts in Boston.
"We were done, cooked," Johnson says with a chuckle, remembering the sixth game of the World Series. "There were two outs, two strikes, and nobody on. Carter gets a hit, Kevin Mitchell gets on, then Mookie Wilson hits this slow roller to first which takes a real funny hop Bill Buckner just can't handle. Poor Billy. It was fate that we won that game, and the next one with another terrific comeback. When the avalanche comes, it's just plain destiny."
Whatever the reason for Johnson's good fortune, he was suddenly the king of New York, with a taste for expensive cigars. "It's a capitalist thing," he says. "I could now afford the best, and so I was doing the Cohiba thing more and more. Esplendidos, robustos, torpedos--you name it. They're a luxury, but to me, even a 50-cent cigar is a celebration, and also a reflective thing. I'll smoke out here [on the sun porch] with my buddies, enjoy a glass of wine, and savor real camaraderie."
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."
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