Davey Johnson is kind of slouched off to the side a bit, his left hand resting on the desk in front of him, tap, tap, tapping every now and then for emphasis. He is 69 years old and has taken his fourth different team to what will be his sixth postseason as a manager.
Johnson’s Washington Nationals moved to D.C. from Montreal in time for the 2005 season, and not only will this be the franchise’s first year in the playoffs since Rick Monday’s bomb off Steve Rogers in 1981, you can make the case that the 2012 Nationals – deep breath, here – are the best team in franchise history.
That won’t play well in Montreal, of course. But the Nationals went into the weekend needing one more win to establish a franchise high for a season – the 1979 Expos had 95 wins – and if starter Edwin Jackson picks up another victory it would leave the franchise with five 10-game winners for the first time since, well, 1979, when Bill Lee won 16 games, Steve Rogers won 13 and Ross Grimsley, Rudy May, David Palmer and Dan Schatzeder each won 10.
On this day, Johnson is holding court before left-hander Gio Gonzalez becomes the franchise’s first 20-game winner since Grimsley went 20-11 in 1978. His voice is that of an older man, sometimes barely above a whisper, very matter of fact.
One of the scourges of the modern age is managers no longer drop their guard in informal, pregame media gatherings. The off-the-record aside is no longer allowed to hang in the air without fear of being regurgitated on some blog.
But for Davey Johnson – bless him – the microphone is a nuisance. So he leans back, voice going in and out. This is part chat, part lecture. It’s where sound-bites go to die. This is five minutes on Bryce Harper’s running style in the outfield. Johnson name-drops Hall of Famers, but so does everybody else.
The difference is that for Davey, they are peers. When he says “Jim Palmer was like that …” to draw comparisons to Gonzalez, you can take it as gospel. The gospel according to Davey.
Nationals colour commentator F.P. Santangelo played hard for Felipe Alou when he was a member of the Expos, and now whenever the Nationals get their first hit of the game, Santangelo will say “and there goes the no-hitter,” because that’s what Alou would always say in the Expos dugout.
You have to pick your way through things to find threads to the Expos in the 2012 Nationals. Beyond support staff, bench player Roger Bernadina and shortstop Ian Desmond are the only Nationals signed or drafted by the organization when it was still the Expos. You can buy the old Expos tri-coloured beanie ball caps at a collectables booth at Nationals Ballpark, and the names and in 2010 the numbers of Gary Carter and Andre Dawson are on the Ring of Honour unveiled by the Nationals on a façade at Nationals Ballpark.
But ask Santangelo is anybody here even thinks twice about the Expos, and his response is a simple “no.”
“And I don’t think anybody should be surprised about it, because there’s a great history of baseball in this town – bad baseball, yeah, but still it’s history,” Santangelo said. “So, what’s going on now has made it that much more special for these fans. They lost their team in the ’70s, so I can see why they don’t really care or know where this team came from. I totally understand it. I get it.”
Santangelo also played for Johnson’s Los Angeles Dodgers in 2000, when after the first full losing season of his managerial career in 1999 an unhappy Johnson brooded until he was fired.
“I didn’t see the similarities between Davey and Felipe then, because neither of us were happy, but what I’m seeing now is an older Davey, and it’s like what I saw with Felipe,” Santangelo said. “It’s a ‘been-there, done-that,’ kind of thing. They are no-panic guys, and they’re great for young players. They aren’t micromanagers; they aren’t in your face guys. They treat the young guys like men.”
Johnson’s bench coach is Randy Knorr, a catcher with a dry wit who spent four halcyon years with the Toronto Blue Jays and finished his career with the Expos. It is Johnson’s intensity that is surprising.
“He yells at me every day,” Knorr said, shrugging. “It’s fine. I’m used to it. It’s what Davey does. He yells at me. That’s the thing that’s been the most remarkable to me – how much he wants to win. That hasn’t changed with age.”