Sep 29, 2013, 9:21 PM EDT
PHOENIX — Davey Johnson had plenty of time to prepare for this, and he’d already formally been honored by the Nationals prior to his final home games one week ago, so by the time Sunday’s season finale was winding down the departing manager was, understandably, spent.
Perhaps a day or two or 20 years earlier, Johnson would’ve charged out of the dugout to argue an apparent missed call by umpire Tim McClelland in the bottom of the eighth inning, one that helped give the Diamondbacks the lead and send the Nationals to a season-ending, 3-2 loss.
“I was a little worn out by then,” he admitted.
So there wasn’t a fairytale end to Johnson’s career, one final celebration in the middle of the diamond following an uplifting victory, one final trip to the postseason with a Nationals club he believed all along was good enough to win the World Series.
Truth be told, Johnson never has been one to ride off into the sunset. His four previous managerial stints all ended in varying degrees of disappointment, whether in the won-loss column or in clashes with his superiors.
So this would have to suffice, a 2-hour, 29-minute ballgame in a cavernous dome, with a brief pregame recognition from the Diamondbacks, a lineup full of backups and rookies and one final trip to the mound to remove a reliever who couldn’t hold a late lead.
The Nationals finished a disappointing, though hardly devastating, year with an 86-76 record, four games shy of a postseason berth. They boasted baseball’s best record over the final seven weeks, going 32-16 to claw their way back into the fringes of the playoff race. But they still dropped 12 games from their division-title run in 2012 and and finished 10 full games behind this year’s NL East champions from Atlanta.
“It was disappointing, personally and team-wise,” said Adam LaRoche, who hit only .237. “It was just too little, too late. We did get it going, but that was for a month and a half, the last six weeks. The good thing is, it’s something to build off of and come into next year fine.”
The Nationals expect to keep the vast majority of their roster intact for 2014, but there will be a new face occupying the manager’s office. It could be a member of Johnson’s coaching staff, most likely bench coach Randy Knorr, who appears to have overwhelming support throughout the clubhouse and from his departing boss as well. Or it could be someone from the outside, whether an up-and-comer like Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams or an experienced skipper who might find himself available like Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire.
Whoever gets the job will have a hard time matching his predecessor’s vast knowledge, sharp wit and folksy charm.
Johnson already had put together one of the best managerial careers in baseball history when Mike Rizzo surprisingly came calling during the final week of June 2011. A special assistant to the general manager who hadn’t skippered a big-league team since the Dodgers in 2000, he was shocked to find himself boarding the Nationals’ charter in Chicago three days after Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned over a contract dispute, taking over a club that was in disarray at that moment but was bursting with young talent.
“I was fishing, and out of the clear blue, Riggs resigns,” Johnson said. “I felt like I was up for it, but I wasn’t planning on it.”
A four-time All-Star second baseman who won a World Series as a player with the Orioles and then 20 years later as manager of the Mets, Johnson brought instant credibility to a Nationals franchise that sorely needed it. He may not have lifted it all the way to a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, but he does leave it in far better shape than he inherited.
“You know, the managerial role as a whole is kind of an enigma,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, acquired by the Nationals in 2008. “You don’t really know what specifically somebody’s doing or not doing from an outsider’s perspective, what he’s doing well to have his guys succeed under him. But I know, just from being around this team and this organization and playing under Davey, that he was uncanny in showing confidence in his guys. And it never wavered.”
Johnson could be brutally honest, a trait that both endeared him to players and coaches and occasionally left them seething. (“I’m really going to miss that ass-chewing every day,” pitching coach Steve McCatty sarcastically said.)
But there was never a doubt how much those around Johnson respected him.
“Obviously, he’s a brilliant guy, a great manager,” said McCatty, who has now served under three Nationals managers and hopes to serve under a fourth. “He’s done so well throughout his career. You learn a lot of things from him. … He’s been great for me. He had me come back when I first got here. So I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
“Over the course of our relationship together, he’s always been very supportive of me and helped me in any way possible,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “I think it’s always going to be a nice relationship that we’re going to maintain hopefully throughout the rest of my career. Hopefully it’s not the last time I see him.”
It surely won’t. Johnson will remain a senior adviser to Rizzo, though his degree of day-to-day participation moving forward is somewhat unclear.
“Davey’s going to be a consultant for us, and we’ll see him throughout spring training,” Rizzo said Saturday. “He’ll be meandering through our minor-league system, not only looking at our players but also helping our coaches and managers, learning their craft, evaluating them and helping them improve. He’s going to be an important piece for us and a guy who I can bounce a lot of things off.”
Johnson does look forward to continuing his work with the organization, but he said Sunday it would be inappropriate for him to be a visible figure in Viera come February.
“Whoever is the manager, I think probably me being in uniform in spring training is not a good idea,” he said. “Just out of respect for who’s there. … Whoever is in this uniform next year, I want them to be putting it on without them thinking I want it back. Because I don’t.”
Johnson, who finishes with a career record of 1,372-1,071, insisted he won’t wear any big-league uniform again. If another club came calling and offered a job managing next season, he would decline because he wouldn’t feel like he knew its personnel well enough to take over. When the 2014 baseball season begins, he’ll be en route to Bora Bora for a long-awaited vacation with his wife, Susan.
So the final image of Davey Johnson as a major-league manager came at 3:39 p.m. Sunday, when pinch-hitter Corey Brown tapped a routine groundball to first base for the season’s final out. The Diamondbacks gathered in the center of the diamond to exchange high-fives while a crowd of 30,420 cheered and the loudspeakers at Chase Field blared. Johnson stood on the warning track for a brief TV interview, then walked down the dugout steps, waving at a handful of Nationals fans who saluted him before he disappeared out of view.
“It was a heck of a ride,” he said. “Great group of guys. Time to go home. Put me out to pasture.”
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