Jun 28, 2011, 1:30 AM EST
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Davey Johnson walked into Angel Stadium at 11 this morning. First pitch between the Nationals and Angels was still eight hours away. But where else would he rather be?
“I’ve done it a lot my whole life,” the Nationals’ new manager said. “The ballpark is your home. … I feel very comfortable here.”
That feeling of comfort is what led Johnson back to the dugout, back to the manager’s office and back to Major League Baseball after an 11-year hiatus. Asked by general manager Mike Rizzo to take over for the rest of this season (and perhaps beyond) after Jim Riggleman’s surprise resignation, the 68-year-old didn’t have to think twice.
“It was not a tough decision for me to step in,” he said. “It’s really exciting to even have a chance to compete.”
Johnson has 14 years of big-league managerial experience on his resume. He’s won a World Series. He’s been named his league’s manager of the year. He’s skippered international competitions in Europe and China.
He acknowledges, though, he has never been thrust into a situation quite like this: Taking over the hottest team in baseball (winner of 13 of its past 15 entering tonight’s game) after a colleague and friend abruptly walked away in midstream.
“It’s definitely a first,” he said.
What tangible effect Johnson has on a club that has managed to play brilliant ball for more than two weeks and for two different managers remains to be seen. What is known is the tremendous respect Nationals players already had for Johnson when he boarded their charter flight in Chicago Sunday evening.
Johnson made a point to talk to every member of the team during the four-hour flight out west. He already knew most of them from his time with the club as a special adviser to Rizzo.
“Remember, he was with us in spring training,” utilityman Jerry Hairston said. “It’s not like a new guy coming in from another organization. He knows us. He knows the team. He knows what we’ve been doing. It’s not really that awkward, to be honest with you.”
But does he know how to handle today’s major-league ballplayers? Johnson first made a name for himself leading the wildly talented and wildly rambunctious Mets teams of the 1980s. In the ’90s, he moved on to Cincinnati, then Baltimore, then Los Angeles, where his career seemingly ended after clashes with management.
Surely, the game is not the same today as it was 11 years ago.
“The bases are still 90 feet, right?” pointed out infielder Alex Cora, a rookie on Johnson’s final Dodgers club in 2000. “The mound is, what, 60-and-a-half? The game is still the same. He’s going to keep preaching fundamentals, and he’ll be good for us.”
Johnson echoed those sentiments.
“The game hasn’t changed,” he said. “As far as managing, every team’s different. It’s a learning experience of the talent and the abilities of each of player and how you handle them. But no, the game’s the same.”
Though he always maintained a passion for managing — so much so that he took two months off from the Nationals to skipper in a summer college wood-bat league in Florida — Johnson never envisioned returning to a big-league dugout. Those who saw him this spring in Viera, though, noticed he seemed to have an extra hop in his step.
“I enjoyed being around the club in spring training,” he said. “I really felt honored that Mike Rizzo wanted me to do that. I got a chance to know a lot of the coaches and players. It was easier sitting over there, no stress, not having to make a pitching change or take a guy out of the lineup, watching somebody else make those decisions. But I was still managing right along with them.”
Johnson will make only one change to his coaching staff. Pat Corrales, who previously served as bench coach under Manny Acta and remained in the organization as a minor-league instructor and scout, will come back to serve as Johnson’s right-hand man. John McLaren, who had served as interim manager for three games, will take another position with the club and won’t return as a big-league coach.
As for changes to his lineup? Well, Johnson stressed that he prefers to maintain a regular batting order, not mixing and matching as much as Riggleman did. His in-game strategy? “I don’t like to give up outs.”
For now, Johnson is committed only to managing through the remainder of the season. He has signed a three-year consulting contract that will keep him in the organization through 2013, but there is a provision already written in that would allow him to return as manager next season at a predetermined salary.
Just don’t ask Johnson if he’s thinking about next year yet.
“No, no, definitely not,” he said. “I’m very happy to be here right now. I have a lot of challenges in front of me right now. I’m a problem solver. I want to get this problem solved, get better, get better, get better. I don’t worry about too far down the road. I take every day one day at a time.”
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