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A Baseball in Florida and Arizona when the first flings of pitchers pop the stiff leather of catchers' mitts. But when that annual percussive fanfare began at spring training camps last weekend, Davey Johnson could hear none of it. One of the most successful managers in baseball history remained oddly out of earshot.
Hopeful? Of course. Johnson is hopeful that one of his six children from two marriages can hold down a job rolling silverware into napkins despite being blind and deaf; that another of the six can prosper after a year at a drug rehabilitation center; and that another, a former champion surfer battling mental illness, might someday leave the assisted-care facility where, for the past year, she has been treated for depression. For himself, he's hopeful that it will not be too long before the people who run baseball stop thinking of him as this glowing chunk of uranium. Having lost three jobs in eight years, Johnson is radioactive.
"Who knows, we might be wrong," says Toronto Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash, the only man who interviewed Johnson for any job after Johnson quit the Baltimore Orioles on Nov. 5. "We were interested in a guy we felt would be here a long time. Davey's track record indicates that after a couple or three seasons he's usually found in some kind of controversy, and not necessarily ones of his own making."
Ash chose Tim Johnson, a prototypical late-1990s hire: zero big league managerial experience but expected to be a company man and a "good communicator." The last four major league managers hired fit that description: Tim Johnson, Jerry Manuel of the Chicago White Sox, Tony Muser of the Kansas City Royals and Larry Rothschild of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Davey Johnson has become Billy Martin. He's a career winner sitting just one phone call away—if only some club can muster the gumption to accept a maverick. It's not because of his record that Johnson is unemployed. Only two men alive who have managed at least 1,000 games in the big leagues have better winning percentages than Johnson's .575 mark (985-727)—67-year-old Earl Weaver (.583), who hasn't been in a dugout in a dozen years, and 89-year-old Al Lopez (.584), who last managed in 1969.
In 24 major league seasons as a player and manager Johnson, 55, has been associated with only four teams with losing records: the 1967 Orioles, the '73 Atlanta Braves, the '78 Chicago Cubs (with whom he played only two months) and the '93 Cincinnati Reds (whom he began managing in May). Johnson has guided all three teams he has managed—the New York Mets, followed by the Reds and the Orioles—at least as far as a league Championship Series. In each of his 10 full seasons as a skipper his team has finished first or second. Every organization he has worked for was worse off without him before and after his arrival (chart, right).
Then again, Johnson has so rankled front offices that each of his three departures prompted more than a smattering of internal applause. Mets general manager Frank Cashen and his assistant, Joe McIlvaine, thought an increasingly careless Johnson, who later admitted to drinking too much at the time, lost his grip on the club. Reds owner Marge Schott chafed about a then unmarried Johnson living with his girlfriend. Orioles owner Peter Angelos detested the swagger that emboldened Johnson to criticize players and ask for a contract extension. (Of course, falling out of favor with his two most recent employers doesn't mean much. Schott has gone through five managers in the past six years. Angelos has had four in the past five years.)
Johnson has a defiant streak that serves him well in the dugout—the Orioles beat Randy Johnson and the Seattle Mariners twice in the 1997 postseason when Johnson benched Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and B.J. Surhoff—but frequently undermines him with his bosses. Never a smooth talker or socializer, Johnson isn't interested in befriending the suits who do the hiring. After he won 595 games in a little more than six years with the Mets, he could not get another job in baseball for 2½ years because of his scrappy reputation. "I had to be made out to be a monster," he says. "I'm just not as outgoing as most people. I don't know a lot of owners or G.M.'s. I never have and I never wanted to.
"I guess I'm a product of my father. He was a tough Swede who kept to himself. He basically left [his children] alone. He loved us a lot, but he didn't know how to show it."
Frederick Johnson left to fight in World War II just as Davey, his second son, was born. It was not until Davey was in his early 20s that his father told him what happened overseas. As a prisoner of war in North Africa, Fred escaped twice and was recaptured twice, the second time in Italy, where his captors performed dental work on him without painkillers. It was only after sharing his experiences with other former POWs later in life that Fred could reveal the nightmarish memories to his son.