The last time Davey Johnson managed a playoff team, the year was 1997 and he was in Baltimore.
Johnson led the Orioles to a 98-win season and a spot in the American League Championship Series. He was named AL Manager of the Year after that season, and then, due to a disagreement with ownership, was promptly was out of a job the same day that he was given the award.
Fifteen years later, Johnson again has managed his team to the postseason and again finds himself in the Manager of the Year discussion. This time, however, he’d be just fine not being given the honor.
“No, that’s a bad sign,” Johnson said, as he and a roomful of reporters broke into laughter. “I’ve been there, done that. My vote is for (Reds manager Dusty) Baker.”
Johnson inherited a roster loaded with young talent this season, but his experienced hand has steered the Nationals to where they are today - playoff-bound for the first time in team history and closing in on a division title.
The 69-year-old Johnson - the oldest manager in the majors - took the reins last season after then-manager Jim Riggleman resigned in a contract dispute, and went about instilling a few key themes: He wanted his hitters to be aggressive, he wanted his team to stay on an even keel regardless of its performance and he wanted his players to take the field with a swagger.
That’s why he went out this spring and said that he deserved to be fired if the Nats didn’t make the playoffs. Johnson knew that if he expected his players to believe they could surprise the baseball world and make the postseason, they’d need to see their manager believed it, as well.
“He’s been the captain of this ship that’s turning around, doing a 180,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said. “His confidence, we feel it every time we’re out on that field. He has so much confidence in us (that) ... it’s tough not to go out there and perform when you’re playing for him.
“It’s been a while since he’s (taken a team to the playoffs), but he acts like he did it yesterday, and we all trust that.”
Players love suiting up for Johnson. His wealth of knowledge about the game, hands-off approach to managing and steadfast belief in his guys has won him far more admirers in major league clubhouses than enemies. Even through rough patches, Johnson constantly sticks with players that he believes in, and more often than not, he’s rewarded by those players performing to their ability.
This season, Johnson has juggled a mix of clubhouse personalities. He’s dealt with a 19-year-old rookie phenom, veterans in their mid- to upper-30s and a stud pitcher whose shutdown grasped the attention of the nation. He’s written out lineups which lacked, at various points, nearly every key offensive contributor due to injuries.
And he now finds himself back in the postseason yet again, with a team that fully appreciates what their skipper has meant to them this season.
“There’s a lot of people around here that you can point fingers at that had a lot to do with the change in direction, ... but none maybe bigger than Davey,” Jayson Werth said. “When I got here last here, this place was a mess. It was just upside down. And we had a lot of work to do. At times it felt like we would never get to this moment.
“But when Davey took over in the middle of the season and kind of did things his own way, and went about business the way Davey goes about business and he was the guy that he is, you could start to sense and see that the ship was turning around. I give him a lot of credit, I really do. I couldn’t be happier. I’m really excited, and I’ve got to give a lot of thanks and praise to Davey.”