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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."  

"Only stand-up guys like Davey, managers who take the heat and fear nothing, survive," says Sam Perlozzo, the Mets' former third base coach (fired in 1989, now with the O's). "Davey took it upon himself to save my job, to battle management on my behalf. He didn't have to do this, to risk losing his own job. But that's him, totally self-confident, gutsy, principled--a fighter you'd want to have in the trenches."  

Military allusions aptly describe David Allen Johnson. Relentlessly driven by a code of honor, ever loyal to his players, and often undermined by a combative swagger, he personifies a soldier's story.  

An Army brat, moving from base to base in Germany, Georgia, Texas and Wyoming, Johnson grew up knowing that his father, Frederick, a highly decorated Second World War tank commander, had seen "some very brutal things." These battle experiences, which won his dad a drawer full of medals, weren't ever discussed. They just loomed in the background, along with all the salutes and knowing looks of respect from other military men that formed an impression on his young son.  

"Dad was very tough, a stubborn Swede on the outside but very caring down deep," recalls Johnson. "I'm stubborn, too. Yet even if he was hard, you still knew he was always thinking about his family, his soldiers, that he'd try to move mountains for them."  

His father's silence about his war experiences lasted throughout Davey's adolescence, from the time he was a part-time bat boy for the old Washington Senators, to when he starred as a sure-handed shortstop in high school and won a baseball scholarship to Texas A & M. "I had the greatest coach in the world, Tom Chandler, a real classic who taught me real respect for the game, and gave me an opportunity to show what I could do."  

At Texas A & M for two years, Johnson eventually recognized the difficulties of studying to become a veterinarian while playing winter ball, and left school to join the Baltimore Orioles' minor-league organization. His education continued, however, for along with taking computer and math courses at Johns Hopkins University, he finally learned about his father's wartime travails.  

"A true survivor, he escaped from an Italian prisoner of war camp where they pulled his teeth out without any Novocain," Johnson says with a sigh. "One day they tied him up, and by stashing a knife on his body, he cut himself loose. He went on to live with the Italian resistance--a real hero, and a guy who wouldn't talk about this stuff because he didn't want to inflict pain on others."  

Displaying his own mettle, a scrappy willingness to take hits at second base from sliding base runners, Johnson quickly moved up the minor-league ranks. He ultimately impressed O's manager Hank Bauer by barreling home from second on a routine fly ball in a 1966 exhibition game. Another no-fear firebrand, Bauer immediately converted D.J. into a second baseman and installed him in the lineup.  

"The game was very macho back then, and I showed Hank I wasn't afraid to stick my head in anywhere," recalls Johnson, who hit a respectable .257 in 1966 while earning $6,500. "You played hurt, even with strep throat, since Hank demanded this aggressive, bust-a-gut style of play. I still believe you've got to get the guys' energy going, put pressure on defenses and make things happen. As a manager you have to be this kind of 'juice man.' "  

While Bauer's exhortations led to a 1966 pennant and a World Series sweep of Sandy Koufax's Dodgers, life in the winner's circle wasn't all that charmed. At least not for Johnson, who in a rollicking, pennant-clinching celebration aboard a plane bound for L.A., paid dearly for the loss of his "virginity."  

"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.

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."

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.

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