It has been one year. June 23, 2011, fresh off a hot streak, Jim Riggleman resigned as manager of the Nationals, and Davey Johnson was asked to take over.
The Nationals were 38-37. After that day, the team finished 42-44 and have gone 82-72 since Riggleman resigned.
Flash forward 365 days. Under the direction of Davey Johnson, the Nationals have gone 40-28 this season and are 80-71 since that stunning Thursday.
“It was a very sad day for me,” Johnson recollected. “I like Jimmy. I hate to see anybody’s career managing go that way.
“It doesn’t feel like I have been here a year, it feels like 10 years (laughter). It feels more like a month or so. When you are back in baseball, it doesn’t leave you. You think about it year-round, the offseason and then the travel.”
As Johnson talked about building the team the way he wanted it constructed, he knew late last season he would need an offseason to talk to general manager Mike Rizzo and put together a 25-man roster that had strengths in several areas. But Johnson knew, even with two months left in the 2011 season, that the Nationals had a chance to be good.
“I felt in August, and I said this to you guys last year, I felt that if we played to our potential, we could contend and win our division,” Johnson said. “Rizzo also made some good moves over the winter that also enabled us to be more along on our way and enabled the guys to play up to their potential.”
The addition of Bryce Harper and a full season with Stephen Strasburg, plus the additions of starters Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, have been the big “splash” moves. Johnson said all these changes have been beneficial to the Nationals of 2012, but he believes they still can get better and feels good about where the franchise resides just one calendar year removed from Riggleman’s resignation.
“I thought we had been gradually getting toward that, playing up to our potential,” Johnson said. “We still have a ways to go as a team, we are still very young. We are still very inexperienced as a whole team. I am not surprised that we are playing like we are playing and where we are at, because I expected that.”
The team is playing well, but they also exude a confidence in the way they handle themselves on the field. A lot of that credit goes to the manager, too. According to veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche, Johnson is that type of manager who can be put in the category of one of the best. He said Johnson has several qualities as a leader that reminded him of the man that led him in Atlanta.
“I came up with Bobby Cox, who a lot of people will consider one of the best managers of all time,” LaRoche said. “You don’t really know why until you play for someone like that. And you see the amount of patience and the way they take their players side even if everyone in the world knew the player was wrong. Bobby was one of those guys who was going to get thrown out of a game for you or had your back.
“I think a lot of people wonder why you do that. You gain the respect of a team so fast by handing yourself that way. I think Davey has a lot of that in him. He played, and he managed for a long time. In a good way, he is not concerned about other people’s opinions and what other people think.”
LaRoche said Johnson will protect his players and his team’s interest. Some may disagree with his strategy in checking on Rays reliever Joel Peralta’s glove last week. But even as Rays manager Joe Maddon conceded, a manager will always protect his players. And in a sense, that is an example of what Johnson was doing when he asked the umpires to see if Peralta had pine tar in his glove.
“He is here for his players,” LaRoche said. “He is patient. If we go get swept somewhere, if anything, he might call a meeting and tell some jokes. He will totally get everyone’s mind off of baseball. He is not going to come in and lose his mind like some managers would.”
Is one manager better than another? Do some tactics work with veteran players and not rookies? Certainly a manager who has played and won a pair of World Series and managed a World Series championship team has the experience to know what to do in every situation.
Experience gets you started, but it is trust that keeps the team a cohesive unit. LaRoche believes that is what Johnson brings to the table.
“It is tough to explain a good manager and what makes them a good manager, other than they find a way to get the respect of the whole team,” LaRoche said. “That is all they need to do. Once they get that the rest is up to us.”