When Davey Johnson was hired to be the manager of the New York Mets prior to the 1984 season, no one expected much from the former major leaguer. Although he had had some managerial success in the Mets' minor league system, he had never held a job as a skipper in the major leagues. In fact, the only thing many Mets fans knew about him was that he made the final out of the 1969 World Series, lifting a long fly ball into that settled gently into the glove of a genuflecting Cleon Jones.
But Davey Johnson had a plan. And his plan helped turn a moribund franchise around. After a 1983 season in which the Mets finished with 68 wins under managers George Bamberger and Frank Howard, Johnson insisted on Wally Backman becoming his everyday second baseman. He also convinced the front office that a raw, but über-talented 19-year-old pitcher was ready for the big show. Johnson got his wish when Dwight Gooden became one of his five starters.
Behind the leadership skills of Johnson and the perfect combination of talented youth and grizzled veterans, the Mets won 90 games for only the second time in franchise history in 1984. That number increased to 98 in 1985 and 108 in 1986, when the Mets won their first World Series title since Johnson flied out to Jones seventeen years earlier.
Eventually, the '80s ended and so did general manager Frank Cashen's patience with Johnson. After the 42nd game of the 1990 season, Davey Johnson was relieved of his managerial duties, but not before leaving a legacy that has yet to be surpassed in Flushing.
Many people said that Johnson only did well as manager of the Mets because of the players he was given. It's true that Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, Ron Darling, Jesse Orosco and others were already wearing the orange and blue before Johnson managed them for the first time. But it took a players' manager like Johnson to get them to become a team, something that hadn't been seen in New York since George Frazier was the Mets' manager in 1976. The Mets were better because of Johnson. And since he left New York, other teams have seen just how good a manager Johnson can be.
Following the exodus of Reds legend Tony Perez from the manager's seat nearly two months into the 1993 season, Johnson was hired to be the skipper in Cincinnati. In his first full season as Reds manager in 1994, Johnson had the Reds in first place in the NL Central, but the players' strike wiped away any postseason dreams for the Queen City. The following season, Johnson did lead the Reds into the playoffs, directing Cincinnati to its first postseason appearance since winning the World Series in 1990. But alas, Johnson wore out his welcome once again and he was let go by Reds owner Marge Schott following the 1995 season. The Reds would not return to the playoffs again for 15 seasons.
Although he was run out of two cities, Johnson did not have to wait long to find another managerial position in the major leagues. Soon after his release from Cincinnati, he was scooped up by the Baltimore Orioles, who had not made the playoffs since 1983, when they won the World Series. That all changed once Johnson arrived. Baltimore made the playoffs in both seasons Johnson was at the helm, winning the wild card in 1996 and the AL East division title in 1997. But once again, Johnson and ownership (in this case, Peter Angelos) did not see eye-to-eye on many fronts and Johnson resigned as Orioles manager following the 1997 season, a year in which he won the Manager of the Year Award, an honor never bestowed upon him prior to 1997 despite numerous postseason appearances. Not coincidentally, the Orioles have not finished with a winning record since Johnson's last year in Baltimore.
After a year off in 1998, Johnson returned to a big league dugout in 1999, managing the Los Angeles Dodgers. But for the first time in a full 162-game season, a Davey Johnson-led team finished with a losing record, going 77-85 in 1999. The Dodgers did recover to win 86 games in 2000, but finished eight games behind the Mets for the National League wild card. That was it for Davey Johnson as a major league manager, or so we thought. It took him 11 years, but Johnson finally returned to the big leagues in 2011 as the manager the Washington Nationals.
|His hair may be grayer, but his managing style isn't. Davey Johnson has been a winner wherever he's managed.|
The Nationals had never finished with a winning record since moving to Washington in 2005. The Expos/Nationals franchise had also never finished a full 162-game season in first place in their first 43 seasons. (The Expos made their sole playoff appearance in 1981, winning a split division title during the strike-shortened campaign. They were also in first place in 1994, but a season-ending strike ended any chances of the Expos returning to the playoff stage.) But that appears as if it's going to change in 2012, with Davey Johnson leading the way.
Entering Sunday's rubber match against the Mets, the Nationals own the best record in baseball, with a 74-46 mark. With 22 wins in their final 42 games, Washington will set a franchise record with 96 wins, surpassing the 95 wins achieved by the 1979 Expos. It would also give Johnson his fifth division title as a manager.
The Mets had finished with seven consecutive losing seasons from 1977-1983. Davey Johnson took over in 1984 and led them to six consecutive winning seasons, including two division titles and one World Series championship. The Mets have not won a World Series since Johnson left town.
The Reds had made one playoff appearance since the end of the 1970s before Johnson took over during the 1994 season. Their playoff drought ended in 1995, when Johnson led them to a division title. It was one of only two postseason appearances the Reds made in a 31-year span.
The Orioles went 13 seasons without making the playoffs before Johnson came aboard. They crashed the postseason party in each of Johnson's two seasons at the helm. They haven't sniffed October in a decade and a half.
The Nationals had never done what they're doing this year. They are now. And it's all with Davey Johnson taking them to unprecedented heights.
Only 33 managers have won more games than the 1,262 won by Davey Johnson. Furthermore, only 18 managers have a higher career winning percentage than Davey Johnson's .563 mark.
Ten managers have won 1,000 or more games and had a winning percentage of at least .560. Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame. The only one who isn't is Davey Johnson. But the way things are going for the man who started his major league managerial career with the Mets, that should eventually change once he hangs up his uniform for good.
Davey Johnson has taken teams to places they've never been or places they hadn't been in years. When Johnson leaves those teams, they tend to suffer in the standings. That's not a coincidence. That's a testament to his skill as a leader, motivator and manager. Davey Johnson belongs in the Hall of Fame once he retires from baseball. His ticket is as good as punched.