Few people in this world are as unique as my mother, now 74. Often, I marvel at her peerless insights into human nature. Other times, her devil-may-care unpredictability makes me want to scream.
Davey Johnson, the Nationals’ excellent skipper, is a lot like my mother.
Here are seven ways they are alike:
Unpredictability: My mother’s behavior and schedule are impossible to pin down. She could be anywhere at any time. For my sons’ birthday parties, she might show up before, during or after the festivities or not at all. It can be exhilarating - and infuriating.
Johnson manages the Nationals in a like, atypical manner. The count’s 3-0? Groove a fastball if you dare, but Johnson’s hitter might swing away. Pitcher having a great game with a low pitch count? Johnson still might hook him. Johnson usually outmaneuvers his rivals because no one, maybe not even himself, knows what he’s going to do next.
Spontaneity: My mother lives life as the wind blows. It works for her. One year, in two cars, we arrived at a Fourth of July parade five minutes before it began. While chaos ensued around us, my mom, no idea where she was going, found two parking spaces inches away from the route’s prime viewing spot.
While Johnson has more method to his madness, he often appears to make off-the-cuff decisions. During one game I recently attended (the first game of the home doubleheaders against the Miami Marlins), he removed a pitcher in the middle of an at-bat - twice. It works for him. The Nats escaped both jams and won the game.
Relationships: My mother knows people. From immigrants washing dishes at a local restaurant to attorneys, judges and captains of industry, people pour out their hearts to her. She cares deeply, listens closely, and remembers every word for years. Even vacationing in Hawaii, she ran into a friend.
Johnson also cultivates deep, trusting relationships of mutual respect with his coaches and players. They trust him. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post said it best in his online chat yesterday: “He has his players backs and doesn’t care if anybody has his. He’s unique.”
Johnson’s 100 percent taking of the blame after the Nationals’ worst defeat of the season, the blown 9-0 lead against the Braves, transformed his team’s season. His players, freed from condemnation, seemed ready to run through a brick wall for him.
Motivation: My mother helps some of her town’s most dysfunctional people turn their lives around. She even got the most notorious local drunkard to clean himself up, get a haircut and shave, and seek a job.
Johnson works similar transformative magic. This spring, Jesus Flores griped about his second string role. Johnson must have spoken to him, because the comments ceased. When Wilson Ramos suffered his season-ending injury, Flores filled in admirably until the fatigue of his first full season in four years wore him down.
Johnson also worked with Rizzo to transform the team’s bench, once the league’s weakest. Now, with Johnson’s full support, Washington’s “Goon Squad” has outperformed the league average for regular players. He instilled an espirit de corps that enabled these men to become the best bench in Nationals’ history.
Work with youngsters: For years, my mother nurtured our neighborhood’s teenagers through all their youthful tribulations. She helped everyone overcome obstacles, real or imagined, from the straight-A student to the most troubled.
Johnson has worked similar wonders with the Nationals’ rookies and young veterans. He has coaxed better-than-expected performances from Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi, despite erratic playing time and changing roles. He transformed the flawed hitting approaches of Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Roger Bernadina. All are more complete players than before. He has challenged and nurtured Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, helping them to manage controversy, overblown expectations and media hype.
Media relations: My mom deals deftly with gossips, naysayers and busybodies. She has a sixth sense for when to satisfy them with a morsel of useless information, but, when needed, has no trouble telling them, “Mind your own damn business.”
Johnson’s dismissive comments about “Tweeter” and the people sending those “Twits” was classic humorous derision. His players joined him in their disdain. He has a sixth sense for when to use the old baseball cliches and when to give the media a quote that, while revealing just a little, puts the pressure on him, not his players. His comments after Gio Gonzalez’s recent complete-game win inspired his pitcher while directing all blame to himself if the ninth inning unfolded differently.
Humor: My mother can defuse the tensest family situations with a joke or funny story. Her finest hour was the year she saved the Walker family Christmas. After hours of wrestling with our prize gift, a ping-pong table, my dad gave up and returned it in a huff to Toys “R” Us. As soon as he sped away, mom started telling jokes to turn our tears to laughter.
Johnson performed similar magic many times this season, none better than his terming Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon a “weird wuss” after the Nats lost to Maddon’s Rays despite busting Joel Peralta and his pine tar-laden glove. Suddenly, attention focused on the Johnson-Maddon feud, not Peralta or the Nats’ four-game losing streak. Johnson’s club won its next five, including a three-game sweep of Boston.
Already one of baseball’s finest skippers, Johnson has done some of his best work this season. Like my mother, he uses a variety of creative strategies to help those he leads to become their best.
Stephen Walker blogs about the Nationals at District on Deck and is the author of “A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators” (Pocol Press, 2009). His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.