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Davey Johnson Will Be Remembered as an Overrated and Underachieving Manager

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Davey Johnson Will Be Remembered as an Overrated and Underachieving Manager
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Davey Johnson was an overrated and underachieving manager whose reputation was inflated by one World Series victory that in reality have been two or three.

Washington Nationals' fans may not want to hear this right now, especially after their departing manager received a warm sendoff from the home crowd at Nationals Park on Sept. 22. But once he makes it official after the last game of the 2013 MLB season, Johnson should retire from baseball with the legacy he rightly earned, not the false one that has been bestowed upon him.

To do so, Johnson the manager must not be subjected to neither a revisionist history or a knee-jerk reaction. Rather, his managerial career should be analyzed with unwavering objectivity. His career cannot be touched up with a paint brush. Instead, it must be examined under a microscope to discover its true nature.   

For starters, Johnson had an excellent record in the regular season. His .561 winning percentage is the ninth-best among all-time managers with a minimum of 2,000 games managed. And yes, Johnson did win a World Series, leading the 1986 New York Mets to an improbable World Series title in only his third season as an MLB manager. 

However, Johnson's managerial career should not be judged by what he did accomplish, but rather by what he failed to accomplish. 

Beginning in 1984, Johnson compiled a managerial record of 1,370-1,070 in 2,442 games over 17 seasons and a winning record in 13 of those seasons. Johnson's teams qualified for the postseason six times and reached the league championship series five times. Yet Johnson reached the World Series only once.

That's right, once. 

True, Johnson won the only Fall Classic he appeared in, the aforementioned 1986 World Series. But even after his team compiled a 108-54 record in the regular season, Johnson needed a gift from the Baseball Gods in the form of Bill Buckner's glove to defeat the 95-66 Boston Red Sox and claim the only World Series of his career. 

That should have been the first of Johnson's two world championships with the New York Mets. Instead, Johnson suffered the first major underachievement of his career just two years later. The 1988 Mets had a 100-60 record and faced the 94-67 Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 NLCS. New York lost in seven games, and never made the playoffs again under Johnson, who was fired during the 1990 season. 

Johnson then moved on to the Cincinnati Reds, whom he managed for three seasons, from 1993-1995. His tenure there was disjointed to say the least. It began partway through the 1993 season, and was further interrupted by the strike of 1994, which kept his ball club from qualifying for the postseason despite a 66-48 record.

So, Johnson made the playoffs only once with the Reds (1995). That team finished with a 85-59 record, and swept the 78-66 Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1995 NLDS. But Johnson and the Reds were swept by the 90-54 Atlanta Braves in the 1995 NLCS.

That was Johnson's final season in Cincinnati. 

Johnson's next job was with the Baltimore Orioles. It lasted only two years, but his tenure should have boasted more hardware than it did.

The 1996 Orioles are known more for how their season ended than for anything they accomplished. Peter Botte of The New York Daily News recounts the events that transpired in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS, involving a now-infamous incident involving an 11-year-old New York Yankees fan by the name of Jeffrey Maier:

The Orioles led that night, 4-3, in the bottom of the eighth inning at the old Stadium when Jeter lifted a drive to right field. Baltimore’s Tony Tarasco raced back to the fence, but Maier reached over the wall and pulled the ball into the seats for what right-field umpire Richie Garcia ruled a game-tying home run. Tarasco furiously argued fan interference, and Baltimore manager Davey Johnson was ejected, but the Yanks won the game on Bernie Williams’ home run in the 11th. The Orioles’ protest of the game was denied, and the Yanks went on to win the series in five before defeating the Braves in the World Series for their first of four titles in five years.

 

It would be unfair to blame Johnson for the Orioles losing the ALCS. That team was not good enough to win the World Series. The same cannot be said for the following season, however. 

The 1997 Orioles were baseball's sixth wire-to-wire champion, according to Sports Illustrated. Four of the first five wire-to-wire champions won the World Series, but with their loss in the ALCS, the '97 O's became the first such champion to not at least appear in the World Series.

This dubious distinction is arguably the biggest failure of Johnson's career. 

The shortcomings did not cease at Johnson's next job, as he managed the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1999-2000. The 1999 Dodgers finished with a 77-85 record, marking the only full season in Johnson's managerial career to end with a losing record. Johnson's Dodgers finished 86-76 in 2000 but missed the playoffs, leading to his dismissal. 

John Nadel of ABCNews wrote at the time that "Davey Johnson was fired as manager of the Dodgers after failing to make the playoffs in his two years despite having one of baseball’s highest payrolls." Another dubious distinction.

Johnson's time in L.A. is often dismissed as an aberration, merely the exception to the rule. Instead, it was simply a harbinger of things to come, the beginning of a pattern that would directly impact the future of the next franchise to offer him a job.

It's also a pattern that would permanently alter his legacy.

How would you describe Davey Johnson as a manager?

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The Washington Nationals offered him the team's managerial job through the 2011 season, more than 10 years after he was fired by the Dodgers. Perhaps it was this extended time away from managing that affected Johnson's performance in Washington. Whatever the reason, his tenure in D.C. will draw comparisons to his tenures in Cincinnati, Baltimore and Los Angeles.

The 2011 Nationals finished 80-81, and Davey Johnson is given almost all of the credit for keeping the team in wild card contention until the very end. Upon closer examination of this season, however, one can conclude that Johnson has in fact received undue credit for Washington's play that year. The 2011 Nats were 40-38 when Johnson took over just shy of the halfway point of the season, yet they went 40-43 the rest of the way. This marked the second time in Johnson's career that he inherited a team with more than half their schedule remaining, and each of those teams finished with a sub-.500 record under his guidance. 

During the 2012 season, the Nationals had the best record in all of baseball at 98-64, and it marked Johnson's best season since the 1997 Orioles.

That should have been interpreted as a bad omen. 

Nationals' fans will not want to relive the end of the 2012 season, nor should they place all the blame for the Nationals' demise on reliver Drew Storen. Instead, they should focus on this excellent passage by Harper Gordek of Nationals Baseball at ESPN's SweetSpot Network, who places the blame for the Nationals' NLDS loss on someone else entirely, which all started in Game 3 of the series: 

...what happened in game 3? In that game Storen came in 8 runs behind. Why did he come in 8 runs behind? To get work in.  Davey didn't use him in Game 2 and there was a day off between games 2 and 3, so to keep Storen "fresh" Davey wanted him to throw...The problem is this unnecessary use in Game 3 set-up a dangerous situation. What if Storen was needed in Game 4 and Game 5?  They were scheduled to be played back to back, which would mean he'd pitch in 3 consecutive days...What if he had to pitch a whole inning in his 2nd appearance and labored through it?  Wouldn't that set-up a no-win situation where either a tired Storen would have to come in for the 3rd game in a row or you'd have to go with a arm you believed in less?...In the last game, he was set up to fail by a series of dumb decisions by Davey Johnson leading up to Game 5, leading up to the last inning of Game 5, and in the last inning of Game 5.  If you told me Davey's ultimate goal was that he wanted Storen to lose this game, I could almost believe you. And eventually, after almost getting out of it, Storen did lose it.  

This season, the Nats will not collapse in the NLDS. Thanks to their maddeningly inconsistent regular season, they will not even qualify for the postseason.

Johnson took the blame for his team's disappointing performance, admitting as much to The Junkies on 106.7 THE FAN (transcript via Chris Lingebach of CBSWashington.com) on June 5, when the Nats were 29-29 on the season: 

I’ve been terrible. Horse bleep. My job is to put guys in situations where they can do well, and obviously I have not done my job because guys haven’t performed well. That’s a problem. 

 

This coming from the same man who declared “World Series or bust” to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post on Dec. 4, 2012. Johnson added “that’s probably the slogan this year. But I’m comfortable with that.”

Well said, Davey: that is exactly the criterion that should be used when judging the success of MLB managers, yourself included. After all, legends are born in October, with gestation occurring from April through September.

The manager must then deliver on expectations. 

With October in mind, here is a categorization of MLB managers based on World Series victories, with a description of each category along with historic and contemporary comparisons: 

Categorizing MLB Managers by World Series Wins
CATEGORY DESCRIPTION WS WINS HISTORIC COMPARABLES CONTEMPORARY COMPARABLES
Master Rarified air attained by only three men so far. 5+ McCarthy, Stengel, Mack N/A
Expert Plays chess while his opponent plays checkers. 3-4 McGraw, Huggins, Anderson Torre, LaRussa
Prodigy Instantly successful, often at expense of another's reputation. 2-4 Alston, Murtaugh Francona, Bochy
Overachiever Does more with less, yet remains underrated. 2-3 WIlliams Lasorda
Underachiever Does less with more, yet remains overrated. 1 Durocher, Weaver Cox, Leyland
Novice Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. 0 Grimm, Shotton Hargrove, Washington

Baseball-Reference

You see, Davey Johnson falls into the final category. His career will forever be known for what could have been. Just like Leo Durocher, Earl Weaver, Bobby Cox and Jim Leyland, Johnson should have multiple World Series titles to his name. Johnson and the other "underachievers" consistently authored winning seasons and frequently led powerhouse teams into the postseason.

In all but one instance for each of these flawed managers, they came up painfully short. 

Unfortunately for Davey Johnson, his final season will end before receiving one more chance to rewrite his own legacy. 

 

Note: All statistics updated through Sept. 26 courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless noted otherwise. 

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