August 1, 2021

His Game to Win

November 3, 2011 by · 3 Comments 

Tony LaRussa retires and Davey Johnson returns. It might seem that the trade off leaves the managerial ranks about the same, but there is a changing of the guard occurring in the leadership of Major League Baseball. LaRussa’s 33 years as manager is unequalled except by Connie Mack–whose 53 years in the dugout is one of those records no one will break.

LaRussa joins Joe Torre and Bobby Cox as long-tenured managers who have hung it up. Their names were synonymous with winning baseball and there are few names of equal gravitas to replace them. Those three retirees account for eight World Series wins in the past two decades. Add Cito Gaston to the list–who also retired in 2010–and there are ten WS rings accounted for in the past 22 years. Add Lou Piniella who left in 2010 and you have half of them.

So many familiar names gone, so much change at the top of baseball in the past few years. Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post pointed out on Tuesday that Davey Johnson is the oldest manager in the game currently at 68. When Frank Robinson came over as manager of the Washington Nationals in 2005, he was 70. It seemed an advanced age but then there were other similar managers from his generation. Bobby Cox and Torre were both 64 at the time and Jack McKeon was 74. Charley Manuel may seem older than dirt, but he is only 67.

Those men would have tipped the average age of managers well above the current figure of 54 years. LaRussa by himself would tip the average tenure of managers well past the current eight years.

Today’s managers are generally not only younger, but do not have the experience in the game that Davey Johnson has. Manny Acta and Freddi Gonzalez define a youth movement of men who did not have to end long and successful playing careers to begin managing. Neither made it to the majors and both started managing early after their minor league careers ended.  Acta is the youngest manager at 42, but Eric Wedge is only 43. Joe Girardi, Freddi Gonzalez and Ozzie Guillen are all 47 and anchor the youth movement.

Davey Johnson is the oldest manager, but Jim Leyland is the longest tenured of the remaining senior managers. He has 20 years of experience, primarily with the Pirates and Tigers. There are only two other managers with service time to rival Leyland and Johnson: Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy with eighteen and seventeen years of service respectively.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman did a number on Art Howe in “Moneyball” that cannot be good for the overall reputation of the job title. He was only working off Michael Lewis’ harsh assessment of the role of manager in the book.  When Lewis introduces Art Howe in the book, it is to say–on page 109–“as in all personnel decisions…Howe has been…left entirely in the dark.” In the book Howe’s greatest talent is his ability to look comforting to his players standing rock-like on the upper dugout steps. Even his position in the dugout is dictated, according to Lewis, by Beane. In Moneyball, Howe fares only slightly better than a life-size blow up doll.

Then there are managers like Davey Johnson, Jim Leyland and Dusty Baker. They carry the torch of Connie Mack and Clark Griffith. Leyland has another fine team in Detroit for 2012, but Baker will be hard-pressed to compete in the NL Central. Baker’s job will be made easier because personnel will come from Walt Jocketty, one of the game’s best GMs over the years–the one who preceded Beane in Oakland.

While Baker will not have an easy task in Cincinnati, Davey Johnson’s job in Washington is made easy only because of the low expectations. Finishing this season at a single game below .500–and not quitting halfway through the season–has put considerable stars by his name in DC. But what is different is the apparent relationship with Mike Rizzo. This spring when the Nationals were visiting other parks, Rizzo sat in the first row behind the plate with owner Mark Lerner. Then immediately behind him came Davey Johnson. When Bryce Harper took the field for the first time in Hagerstown, MD, Davey Johnson was there watching and evaluating.

Davey Johnson has the confidence of GM Mike Rizzo and will play a far different role with the team than Art Howe. Johnson may not make the personnel decisions, but he has not been hired because he looks good, his jaw jutting forward “like Washington crossing the Delaware.” Johnson knows the Nationals players from the developmental side of the game and will be key to the team’s success in 2012.

As numerous WashPo articles asserted, Johnson is not only close to Rizzo, the two men share a fierce competitiveness that was on display when Rizzo was fined for arguing balls and strikes with an umpire in September. It may be the first time a GM has had that particular line added to his curriculum vitae. Johnson will not be thrown out of as many games as Bobby Cox, but he exudes an intensity in the dugout. That closed demeanor opens in a quick and genuine smile, however, when his charges succeed.

If as expected, Mike Rizzo is successful in the off-season in adding key pieces to the Washington Nationals, there will be added pressure for the team to win in 2012. Getting key players like Mark Buerhle or Grady Sizemore signed will be Rizzo’s job. If that happens, the pressure will switch to Davey Johnson. He could have a lineup almost as good as when he managed a few miles up the Parkway in Baltimore; when he was last named Manager of the Year for the Orioles in 1997.

Expectations will likely be higher for Davey Johnson in 2012 than when Clark Griffith took over in the Washington dugout 100 years ago. The Old Fox knew the expectations would be low and it was why he took the job. Davey Johnson may not have quite the same cushion. But he will have the same opportunity to define his place in the history of the game. Success in Washington could be more than a feather in the cap for Davey Johnson. It could cement his place as one of the best managers in the history of the game.

He stands deadlocked with Charley Manuel with a winning percentage of .561 and the contest between those two men will define much of the 2012 season. But it is not only this season, but the longer view that must intrigue Davey Johnson. Almost all of the managers who made 20 years in the game are in the Hall of Fame. Those that are not, likely will be in the future. This is Davey Johnson’s chance: to add the capstone to his career, to go out a winner where everyone else has failed.

Five years from now, when Davey Johnson logs his 20th season, will his winning percentage still be there? If it is he will be celebrated in this town like no other manager since Clark Griffith or Bucky Harris, just to name a couple of other DC Hall of Fame managers.

Yes, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre have walked off the mound. They have left a huge hole in the game. On their way out they handed the ball to Davey Johnson. They can only watch. Davey’s in the spotlight now; it’s his game to win.


3 Responses to “His Game to Win”
  1. Fred Flintstone says:

    Nice article. I am little less enthusiastic about the place of LaRussa in history. It is pretty clear he “managed” during a period of player enhancement (see Oakland with the Bash Brothers and then one half later in STL) and was seemingly oblivious to these issues. As intense as he supposedly is, it is hard to believe he did not know about those issues. I don’t see Johnson getting into the Hall — even if he lasts for five more years — which I also doubt is likely given his age. It is not very clear that most successful managers have been successful in the majors so I do not see that has a good explanatory variable for managerial success.

  2. Ted Leavengood says:

    The three variables I introduce in the article: 20 years of service, win percentage, and entrance into the Hall of Fame, are all almost perfectly corelated. Davey Johnson has become the manager of the Nationals at a most propitious moment in time. If he wins with the Nationals in 2012, he will be back for 2013 when Bryce Harper, Tony Rendon and other top prospects are likely to play their first games in the majors. So the outlook is very bullish. Many of the very best managers have remained in the major league dugout well into their 70’s. So I disagree. Davey Johnson has a “significant” chance–and I mean that in the most statistically correct manner–to manage for 20+ years, win the first post-season series for the Nationals, and perhaps even their first World Series. When that comes to pass, Buck Showalter will be a fading memory in Baltimore, Fred.

  3. Fred Flintstone says:

    Mr. Leavengood –

    Well, as folks often point out, correlation does not prove causality. Those factors are not explanations of success but measures of success. In fact, I think Mr. Johnson, who was a math major at Trinity University, would counsel you on those issues. You are confused. I suspect you are also a proponent of the ocular comparison method. As you suggest, by using that big word propitious, the success of a manager has a lot to do with luck — being in the right place at the right time. You may well be correct about Mr. Buck in Baltimore. I think the outlook you have indeed is bullish — but would shuffle some of the “ish” letters and add a “t.” OK, off to woods for a walkabout.

    Yours in Bedrock…. Fred

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