Davey Johnson leaned over the railing in front of the home dugout at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., in mid-March 2010 and pondered the question: Would he ever want to manage again?
Johnson had joined the Nationals as a senior adviser to then-new general manager Mike Rizzo. He had been in self-imposed exile since being fired as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2000 season. He'd been involved in baseball since then - managing the Dutch national team, serving as bench coach for the U.S. in the 2005 World Baseball Cup, a turn as bench coach for the U.S. in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, skippering the the Americans at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, mentoring summer league players near his Winter Park, Fla., home - but his glory days seemed a distant memory.
Johnson worked the ever-present chaw of tobacco in his cheek, shook his head slightly from side to side and let an imperceptible smile cross his weather-beaten face.
Manage again? After compiling a .564 career winning percentage in stints with the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers? At the age of 67, when most senior citizens are settling into their golden years?
No, said Johnson. He'd continue to teach the kids in the wood-bat league, help Rizzo evaluate talent. But he'd probably leave the past in the past.
"I think I would have to be really comfortable with ownership, which at times has been somewhat difficult," Johnson said, remembering some of his contentious battles with owners. "I love making things better, and I never say never, but that's probably a 5 percent chance."
Looks like the slimmest of margins and another request from Rizzo have intersected at the unexpected resignation of Nats manager Jim Riggleman on Thursday. Johnson will take over the Nats on Monday in Anaheim, once again filling a void at the behest of an organization that has now hired him three times - as a consultant to now-departed GM Jim Bowden in 2006, to sit on Rizzo's staff in a retooled front office and now at the managerial helm.
What kind of manager are the Nationals getting in Johnson?
In a lot of ways, he's a carbon copy of Riggleman - a baseball lifer who loves to teach and values an aggressive style of play that emphasizes durable starting pitching, speed and defense. Long before there was an Internet or sabermetrics, Johnson was crunching numbers on a clunky computer the size of a bullpen dugout and trying to convince his Hall of Fame manager with the Orioles, Earl Weaver, that computer-generated statistical compilations were a step up from the index cards that Weaver used. Johnson is a classic student of the game and his understanding of what happens between the lines is unparalleled.
There's actually a lot of Weaver in Johnson. Like Weaver, Johnson likes those three-run homers, though the incoming skipper is adept at being a diamond chameleon, able to tailor the right style of play to the team he has to work with. If he needs to get by on small ball or push the envelope and pressure the defense, Johnson is more than willing.
Johnson is a traditional field general, delegating other duties to his coaches and worrying more about the in-game machinations. Because he's won everywhere he's been - and because he's improved every team he's ever managed and won a World Series with the Mets in 1986 - Johnson has credibility that Riggleman, a good old-school baseball guy renowned as an instructor and tactician, didn't possess. And besides the 14 seasons he's managed in the majors, Johnson boasts a 13-season playing career in which he won three Gold Gloves, made four All-Star teams and went to the postseason five times, winning World Series titles with the Orioles in 1966 and 1970.
He's neither a players' manager nor a puppet for ownership; Johnson will hold his charges accountable and will stick to his guns when he thinks he needs to. Some managers can deal with veterans but not rookies, or work well with youngsters but not more experienced players. Johnson can connect with both audiences because of his past and because he's remained entrenched in the game at a variety of levels since his last major league gig. He has history with Stephen Strasburg, and that relationship forged during the 2008 Olympics, cannot be overlooked. There's a comfort level between the burgeoning star recovering from Tommy John surgery and the veteran manager. In fact, Strasburg's impending ascension was one of the reasons Rizzo reached out to Johnson before hiring him in November 2009.
Johnson will keep the media on its toes, and there's a lot to be gleaned when reading between the lines in listening to him spin a baseball yarn. Johnson doesn't talk to hear himself speak; there's always an underlying meaning, even when one isn't readily apparent. He's blunt, honest to a fault and won't pull punches - with his players, his staff, his bosses, reporters, anyone. Likewise, Johnson respects honesty and hard work, and expects the same from his players and staff. He's sometimes folksy, even casual, but there's a fire in his belly and when he's hot, when he needs to lead by example or stand up for his guys, he will do it in unmistakable fashion.
He's also got a sense of humor, culled from years of managing from places like Miami in the ill-fated Inter-American League in 1979 to shepherding Dwight Gooden through Mets' minor leagues, to the Big Apple and L.A.
Two springs ago in Viera, as StrasburgMania was in its infancy, Rizzo was driving Johnson on the minor league fields when fans recognized Johnson and swarmed the pair. No one paid Rizzo much mind, but people thrust scorecards, hats and balls toward Johnson for autographs. Rizzo sat sheepishly in the driver's seat until the crush subsided, then motored away.
"I guess they remember me," Johnson said later. "It's nice to be remembered."