WASHINGTON – The picture is faded, but the memory is clear. On my eighth birthday in 1972, I had the chance to meet Orioles’ second baseman Dave Johnson in the team’s locker room before a game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium against the Cleveland Indians.
The rest of the night was kind of a blur. The time Johnson gave me as he readied for a game is a memory that has lasted a lifetime.
He made a nervous kid comfortable. He posed for snapshots and gave me a photo, and I can still picture him neatly autographing it.
Since he had “my name,” I wanted to be a second baseman. I ended up in the outfield and eventually out of youth baseball.
After that ’72 season, Johnson was traded to the Atlanta Braves. I stayed an Orioles fan even though I was crushed.
I also stayed a Johnson fan.
When Johnson belted 43 homers in 1973 with the Braves, I was proud. That was back in the day when it was a weekly routine for stats of all the players to be printed in the Sunday Sports page.
Johnson’s playing career was over by 1978 after stints with the Cubs, Phillies and even in Japan.
By the time I was in college, I was back following Johnson. The New York Mets promoted Johnson from Triple-A affiliate Norfolk to Major League manager in 1984. The general manager with the Mets, Frank Cashen, was in Baltimore when Johnson played there.
Two years later, Johnson guided the Mets to a World Series title.
Johnson managed veterans and managed young stars like Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry. Johnson’s Mets never finished lower than second place, but his run in New York ended 42 games into the 1990 season. In seven years, he had almost 600 wins with the Mets.
Back in the dugout in the middle of the 1993 season with the Reds, Johnson authored another success story. Before a falling out with owner Marge Schott, Johnson guided the Reds to two first-place finishes in 1994 and 1995.
Cincinnati’s loss was Baltimore’s gain.
Johnson managed the Orioles to 186 wins over two seasons, and in 1997 led the team to a first-place finish. It seemed the perfect fit. Johnson was back where he belonged in an Orioles uniform.
But on the day he was named 1997 American League Manager of the Year, Johnson was fired by the Orioles.
Let’s face it, the Orioles have not been the same since.
It was not the same for Johnson. He managed the Dodgers for two years starting in 1999, finishing with an 86-76 record and a second-place slot in 2000.
It didn’t seem like we would see Johnson in a Major League dugout again. Time moves on. His knowledge and feel for the game were still the same, but now there were newer names on the managerial carousel.
Still, Johnson stayed connected to the game. He managed the Dutch national team in 2003, and started an involvement with Team USA in 2005 that lasted until 2009 and included the 2008 Summer Olympics. After Team USA, Johnson was found in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, where he managed the Deland Suns and Sanford River Rats.
Major League Baseball was in Johnson’s rearview mirror, or so it seemed. After a lifetime in the game, there would be more time to spend with his wife, or just to go fishing. Instead, Jim Riggleman’s desire for a contract extension and the Nationals not being ready to give him one changed everything.
Riggleman made an abrupt exit last season and Johnson’s vacation was over. But the game had not passed him by. Johnson made an immediate connection with a young team, and by spring training of this season, he was expressing a confidence in the Nationals that didn’t seem realistic.
Johnson said he should be fired if the Nationals failed to make the postseason this year. When he played for the Orioles, manager Earl Weaver called Johnson “Dumb Dumb.” It was actually because the college-educated Johnson was smart, but now was he crazy, talking about the Nationals being ready to contend?
With 49 wins and the best record in the National League, Johnson no longer seems crazy. With the additions of Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez, Johnson boasted from the beginning that the Nationals had as good a pitching staff as any in the National League East. At the break, the Nats led the majors in team ERA at 3.20.
Johnson knew what the Nationals had even before the players realized it themselves. With his confidence as a foundation, the Nationals have been able to survive injuries to Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen and Ryan Zimmerman. In the first half of the season, the Nationals were forced to place a player on the 15-day or 60-day disabled list a whopping 18 times.
But the players have played through, Johnson has managed without smothering and the team has grown.
When he signed his picture for me back in 1972, Johnson wrote:
“Happy Birthday to David Johnson. Best personal wishes always, Dave Johnson.”