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.”
Johnson’s crustiness belies the fact that even as a player with Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles he was among the first in the majors to dabble in computer programs and analyze statistics and keep books on trends. He jumped on board on-base percentage long before the sabermetricians. But when he talks these days it is more as sage, as when he embarked on a lengthy discourse recently about how teenage outfielder Harper has become a better centre fielder by changing his running style.
“Early on his strides were choppy – chop, chop, chop. Like pistons,” Johnson said, fingers tapping. “You see that, you worry about leg injuries. You want to see them glide to the ball. Bryce is starting to do that.”
There’s a lot going on when Johnson manages a game. His team went into the weekend with the second-fewest sacrifice hits in the National League (he abhors small-ball, so bless him again!) but through Thursday the Nationals were also hitting .302 in the pinch, a stunning 60-for-199.
“Never seen a guy get the matchups he gets,” said Knorr, shaking his head. “And his use of the bullpen is remarkable. Honestly, Davey’s so far ahead of the other team that my job most days is to keep him in the here and now.”
Bryce Harper is the all-world, 19-year-old rookie whose 20 home runs through Thursday are just behind Tony Conigliaro (24) for most homers in a season by a teenager. The baseball world knew about him before the season, just as they knew about Stephen Strasburg, the franchise pitcher who was controversially shut down with an innings limit in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery despite the fact that with him the Nationals had what amounted to major-league baseball’s nuclear rotation.
They knew about Jayson Werth, who went on the 15-day and then 60-day disabled list with a fractured arm and was out from May 8 to Aug. 2. They figured that a healthy Harper and a comeback year from Adam LaRoche would restore some balance to a right-hand heavy lineup.
Johnson said in spring training he’d deserve to be fired if the Nationals didn’t win the division. Not make the playoffs; win the division. Johnson replaced Jim Riggleman on June 26, 2011, when the team was, as Werth described it to mlb.com “upside down ... a mess.”
And so baseball in the U.S. capital gets ready for its first postseason since the 1933 Washington Senators of the American League lost a five-game World Series to the New York Giants. That’s some heavy firsts; ’33 for the city, ’81 for the franchise.
The duality of being the Nationals is driven home as the records fall by the wayside, as was the case when Gonzalez went on to become the franchise’s first 21-game winner on Thursday, after earlier becoming the first 20-game winner in D.C. history since Bob Porterfield won 22 games in 1953 and joined Earl Whitehill (1933) as the only D.C.-based left-handers with 20 wins.
He broke the 200-strikeout mark on that day, the first D.C.– based pitcher to do so since Walter Johnson struck out 228 in 1916.
Yes, that Gio Gonzalez: the guy the Oakland Athletics first dangled in the faces of the Toronto Blue Jays at the winter meetings in Dallas last year, only to have the Blue Jays balk, sources say, because the Athletics wanted two of gilt-edged pitching prospects Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez and Mike Nicolino plus two more players.
The Nationals and Blue Jays were in similar positions; the Blue Jays needed another starter to round out Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero; the Nationals wanted somebody to pitch with Jordan Zimmerman and Strasburg.
After Gonzalez’s 20th win, Johnson smiled as he leaned back and told reporters how pitching coach Steve McCatty came in from the bullpen to tell him that Gonzalez’s pen was not good. “Awful pen, I was told,” Johnson said, chuckling.
“But Palmer was like that. He’d come in and go, ‘Get me a bunch of runs, I got nothing.’ We knew that meant he’d throw a shutout.”
Gonzalez went back to the clubhouse and found his teammates had scattered $20 bills around his chair.
“He has been a great fit for us,” said Desmond, who was drafted in 2004 in the third round while the franchise was still in Montreal and who leads all shortstops in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. “He has some serious passion for the game and for his teammates. And Davey’s perfect for him; Davey lets him go out there and spin it like he knows how.”
This really is the here and the now. Playoff baseball is back in D.C., with a wise old hand leading the way.