This was the summer the Johnsons of Winter Park, Fla., Susan and Davey, were finally going to take that Alaskan fishing trip they had been talking about for the last 10 years. August, that’s when they would go. She could close down her fashion boutique for a few weeks. He could carve out some time in between special-assignment scouting trips for the Washington Nationals. He tracked down a glossy brochure. She put in a call to a tour company. That was last Wednesday.
On Thursday, Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned as the Nationals’ manager, and Susan Johnson’s first thought was: “Oh, we’re never going to go on that Alaskan fishing trip.” The next day, when Davey approached her and said she may want to sit down for what he was about to tell her, she already knew:
Davey Johnson, 68, was getting back in the game, back in the uniform, back in the dugout, back in the major leagues. He will begin managing the Nationals on Monday in Anaheim, Calif., as an almost cosmic confluence of life-changes and unexpected opportunity lured him out of the comfort of semi-retirement, nearly 11 years after he last managed in the majors.
“It’s almost shocking to me,” Susan Johnson said in a telephone interview from Winter Park. “It’s not where we thought we’d be on June 24, to say the least.”
For the Nationals, what a stroke of good fortune: At a time of wild upheaval — Riggleman’s resignation over his contract situation came on a landmark day for the franchise, as the Nationals had just risen above .500 as late as June for the first time in six years — they had in their ranks a former managing star such as Johnson.
A four-time all-star second baseman as a player, he was perhaps even more accomplished as a manager. He is a former American League manager of the year (1997, with the Baltimore Orioles). He won a World Series title (1986, with the New York Mets), and four division titles. He has never finished worse than third in a full season as manager. The moment he sets foot in the dugout Monday at Angel Stadium, he becomes the second-winningest active manager in the game, in terms of winning percentage (.564), behind only the New York Yankees’ Joe Girardi (.565).
“The guy’s a fantastic manager,” said Rick Dempsey, who served as Johnson’s bullpen coach in Los Angeles and now works as an Orioles broadcaster. “Watch and see. Not that Riggleman didn’t do a great job, but they’ll take off with Davey. There’s something special about him. He has an intuition that not too many managers have, when to be creative and when to go against the book. He has a strength about him.”
“He’s very smart; he was always a step ahead of everyone else,” said Pat Gillick, who was the Orioles’ general manager during Johnson’s tenure in Baltimore. “And above all, the man can run a pitching staff. There’s nobody better.”
But the Nationals’ fortune, in having Johnson at the ready, was almost certainly more than dumb luck. When Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo brought him on board as a special assistant in Nov. 2009, not long after Riggleman had been made the full-time manager, Rizzo’s respect and affection for Johnson was obvious.
Hiring Johnson, Rizzo said at the time, “is huge for me. He has a brilliant baseball mind.” Whether it was ever said or not, it was understood: If the Nationals ever got in a bind, they might be able to turn to Johnson.
The biggest question with Johnson was whether he wanted to manage in the big leagues again. In the years since his firing from the Dodgers, he had turned down several offers to be a bench coach, and several opportunities to interview for managing jobs. He was occasionally quoted in the media as saying he had no more aspirations to manage in the majors again. He admitted to a case of burnout.
He seemed content managing in smaller doses — a wood-bat collegiate summer league in Florida, the Netherlands team in the world championships in 2003, Team USA in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (where one of his pitchers was Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg) — and living the domestic family life.
“For the first time, we were really part of a community, here in Winter Park,” Susan Johnson said. “We had both assumed we’d probably never go back [to managing], and we were fine with that. We were very happy here.”
Davey Johnson had also had some health scares, including a ruptured appendix in 2005 that nearly killed him after it went untreated for months, having walled itself off in his midsection. Doctors had to drain the infection for three months before they could even operate.
This spring, on Valentine’s Day, Johnson underwent cardiac ablation — in which a catheter is inserted through a vein to the heart — to correct an arrhythmic heartbeat. It was within weeks of that procedure, as Johnson headed over to Viera, Fla., to join the Nationals at spring training, that people who knew him well began to sense something: