All Davey Johnson had to do in his first week as manager of the Cincinnati Reds was withstand a grilling from the media about his mysterious three-year exile from baseball, tap-dance around the fire storm that erupted after the shabby way his predecessor, Tony Perez, had been fired and take a sentimental journey to New York for a weekend series against the Mets, who canned him in 1990 after he had won nearly 60% of his games and one world championship in his six-plus seasons as their skipper.
Flashing smiles and optimism everywhere he turned, the tanned and relaxed Johnson handled it all with aplomb—which was a good sign, considering that he now works for a franchise burdened by player acrimony and front-office ugliness.
Although the Reds finished the week a daunting 8� games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants in the National League West, they had won two out of three from both the Atlanta Braves and the Mets to get to 24-26 on the season. Thus the 50-year-old Johnson had made a promising start on a formidable assignment: Deliver a divisional championship to Cincinnati. Not next year, this year. And he'll have to do it with a bunch of disgruntled players who couldn't be less interested in saving the job of 32-year-old general manager Jim Bowden. It was Bowden who on May 24 dismissed Perez—one of the most popular individuals ever to wear a Red uniform—just 44 games into the season, and by doing so put his own career on the line.
At week's end some players were still paying homage to Perez by writing his number, 24, on various parts of their uniforms—shortstop Barry Larkin inscribed it inside the C on his cap, on the sleeve of his jersey and on the toes of his hightop spikes—but Johnson wasn't taking it personally. "They'll get over it," he said. "They'll realize that the time comes when you have to stop beating a dead horse."
"We've got a new manager here, with his new staff, and we're going to go out and play as hard for them as we did for Doggie [ Perez's nickname]," said starting pitcher Tom Browning, who threw five shutout innings in Johnson's debut, a 5-0 loss to the Braves on May 25. "We have no ill feelings toward them coming in here. But we're always going to have bitter feelings toward the general manager and the way Perez's firing was handled.
"Forty-four games into his rookie season, we were four games under .500. It wasn't like we were in last place. It came as a shock. This is Doggie's team. We're going out to win with him in mind."
No one had to describe for Johnson the emotions attached to a manager's firing. Just hours before his debut in a Cincinnati uniform, Johnson noted that Riverfront Stadium was where the Mets had dismissed him almost three years earlier to the day. "As the plane flew in here this morning, I knew I was back," Johnson said. "I started looking for a Tums."
When the Mets axed Johnson after a 20-22 start in 1990 and he retreated to his business interests in Winter Park, Fla., it was widely assumed that he would have his pick of whatever managing vacancies came open. Instead, he didn't receive a solid managerial offer until Bowden asked him to take over for Perez.
Although Johnson says the pressure of managing the Mets contributed to an increase in his drinking and the breakup of his marriage, that wouldn't have been enough to keep a success-starved team from coming after him. One explanation, albeit one that Johnson now says he discounts, is that the Mets bad-mouthed him, telling other teams that his ego and his closeness to his players made him difficult for a front office to handle.
Although Bowden admits that Perez's closeness to the Reds "might have been one of the factors that led to his demise," he apparently isn't concerned that Johnson has a reputation as a players' man. "Davey is a proven big league manager," Bowden says. "I do not consider Davey Johnson the same as Tony Perez. They run a game differently. I wouldn't have made the change if I didn't think Davey was a better manager than Tony."