Johnson honored with nomination
Former Mets skipper could find his way into Cooperstown
NEW YORK -- One was the manager of the team that averaged 96 victories in a six-season sequence of success; the other managed the team that was always in the way. One managed the team with power, pitching and sex appeal that the Big City hailed. The other directed that team that prospered because of speed, defense and execution and was embraced by the Midwest.
One was Ali to the other's Smokin' Joe, Bird to the other's Magic, the immovable object to the other's irresistible force. One was Davey Johnson, the other Whitey Herzog.
Arguments can be made that the best baseball played from 1984-89 was played in the National League East, and that the Mets and Cardinals were responsible for an inordinate share of it. Johnson and Herzog were the men in charge then, the bright mathematician who logged on long before the laptop was introduced and the baseball traditionalist linked to rodentia by his nickname, the White Rat.
The two were in opposite dugouts for only six seasons, but they often seemed to be on opposite sides of the same coin. Johnson's Mets won two National League championships and one World Series and finished in second place in the East in four other seasons. Herzog's Cardinals won two pennants, barely beating the Mets in each instance, and became the Mets' primary antagonists.
Now Johnson and Herzog are at it again. They are two of the 10 finalists in the new grouping for managers and umpires being considered for Hall of Fame induction by a revamped 16-member Veterans' Committee that is to vote Dec. 2. Twelve votes are required for election. The vote is to be announced the following day at the Winter Meetings in Nashville.
The ballot includes three managing contemporaries -- Gene Mauch, Billy Martin and Dick Williams -- long-time Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh, former Cardinals and Braves manager Billly Southworth and three umpires, Doug Harvey, Hank O'Day and Cy Rigler.
"I really mean it when I say it is an honor just to be nominated," Johnson said earlier this month from Chinese-Taipei, where he was managing Team USA in the International Baseball Federation World Cup. "To be mentioned with Whitey and Billy and Dick Williams, guys I learned from, it's very special.
"I played for Earl [Weaver] and learned most of my baseball from him. But managing against Whitey was always an education -- how he set up his ballclub and his bullpen."
No two of the 10 candidates are more readily associated that Johnson and Herzog. They managed 108 games against each other from 1984-89, with the Mets winning 60. They were rivals, but hardly enemies. The two and some Mets coaches were partners in a fishing camp at Celebrity Resorts in Orlando, Fla.
"It wasn't too far from Cape Canaveral," Johnson said. "Whitey and I were out one morning when the shuttle went up. He said, 'By June, they'll be a lot of people in New York and St. Louis wishing we were on that thing.'"
Johnson never was so colorful as Herzog. He had no real nickname, nothing as distinctive a nickname as Herzog's White Rat, though when Johnson was an Orioles teammate, Jim Palmer called him Dumb Dumb. But when the Cardinals fans referred to the Mets as pond scum in 1987, Mets second baseman Wally Backman gave his manager a temporary nickname based on Herzog's.
"That makes Davey 'Rat Poison.' Right?" Backman said.
Johnson chuckled when he heard of his player's retort. Johnson embraced the Mets' rivalry with the Cardinals, mostly because he enjoyed the challenge of the Cardinals and the manager he considered a mentor.
"Whitey made me better," Johnson said, "because I saw how he controlled the matchups late in the game. He always had those lefties for [switch-hitters] Howard [Johnson] and Wally, to turn them around."
Johnson was at his best when challenged, problems were fuel for his engine. He'd rather be forced to find an occasional solution than live problem-free. The fun is in the figuring.
Johnson found his first season managing (1984) so rewarding, though subsequent seasons brought greater success, because it was so challenging. The Mets hierarchy thought he did his best work that year when he inherited a young team with modest offensive skills and stunning pitching potential.
"I agree," he said nearly 24 years later. "We had weaknesses in the 'pen, and our lineup wasn't what it would become."
Those Mets became the first team to win at least 90 games while being outscored. (The '97 Giants and '07 D-backs are the only others.) That distinction has stuck with the manager. "I'm proud of that season because we were 18 [games] over [.500], and we were able to establish the young arms we had," he said.
The Mets teams that grew from the seeds planted in '84, all Johnson's teams, produced the best run in franchise history winning 98, 108, 92, 100 and 87 games. The '86 World Series championship team was so dominant that it outscored its opponents by 205 runs. The combined run differential of the other five National League teams with winning records that year was 206.
Johnson hadn't called it, not precisely anyway, but he had predicted dominance in Spring Training that year. The Mets had finished three games behind the Cardinals the previous year and made moves to correct the problems. Confident the moves would work, Johnson issued this preseason warning: "We're not just going to win, we're going to dominate."
The infamous Mets arrogance -- "arrogant" seemingly displaced "New York" as a prefix -- was born that day. The adjective reflected their manager as much as it did any or all of the players.
His arrogance in place -- he thought he was merely confident -- Johnson didn't merely expect success, he planned for it. And he essentially demanded that posture from his players. Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter recalls the first day of Spring Training in 1986, when Johnson contradicted baseball's time-honored "play 'em one at a time" mantra and looked beyond a mid-April home series against the Cardinals to a four-game series in St. Louis in late April.
In 13-plus seasons as a manager, Davey Johnson's teams won 1,148 games. His .564 winning percentage is the 13th highest in Major League history.
"That's the one Davey wanted," Carter recalls. "He said that's when we'd assert ourselves."
The Mets swept the series.
A month later, Herzog publicly conceded the division race to the Mets.
"No one [is] gonna catch them," he said.
"That was one of my proudest moments," Johnson says now.
Johnson had demonstrated his arrogance well before his first game as a big league manager, the day he was appointed, during the 1983 World Series. Before he predicted success would happen, he publicly praised general manager Frank Cashen "for being smart enough to hire me."
When Cashen dismissed Johnson on May 29, 1990, the manager's seven Mets teams had produced a .588 winning percentage, still the highest in franchise history and one exceeded by the career percentages of merely seven managers in history.
By the time Johnson's managerial career had ended, following successful tours with the Reds, Orioles and Dodgers, his percentage stood at .564, the 13th highest in history. His resume included a World Series championship, five first-place finishes and six second-place finishes. Until this year, his Orioles team of 1997 was the only American League East team to finish ahead of a Yankees team managed by Joe Torre.
He didn't lose too often; hence the nomination, one the caught him as he rarely was as a manager -- unprepared.
"When they told me," he said, "I said, 'You got to be kidding.' I figured I was short. I had a good record, but I didn't win 2,000 games."
Indeed, he managed 2,039 games, the second fewest among the seven managers on the ballot, in 13-plus seasons. His teams won 1,148, the fifth-most among the seven.
Though Johnson, now 65, managed 15 more games with the Reds, Orioles and Dodgers than he did with the Mets, his legacy with the Mets is more powerful. He put his stamp on that franchise. The Mets' image changed during his 1,012-game tenure. And chances are, if he is elected, his Hall of Fame plaque will depict him in a Mets cap.
Johnson had been the record-breaking second baseman for Orioles teams with air-tight infield defense from 1966-72, yet he was an offense-first manager. "You can't win if you don't score runs, no matter how good your defense is," he would say. And he managed accordingly -- oft times outside the box. He liked to consider himself brash, bold and independent. The words were apropos.
Although Davey Johnson 15 more games with the Reds, Orioles and Dodgers than he did with the Mets, the club's image changed during his 1,012-game tenure.
His independence didn't always play as well as it might. But his teams succeeded and he is on a ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"I must have done something right," he said.
Johnson boldly shifted third baseman Hubie Brooks to shortstop in 1984 to enhance the Mets' offense and more than occasionally started third baseman Howard Johnson at shortstop -- more than 160 times from 1985 through May of 1990 -- for the same reason. And more often that not, the Mets prospered.
And people who recall the robust physique Kevin Mitchell had when he won the National League MVP Award with the Giants in 1989 may have forgotten Mitchell, somewhat slimmer, had started at shortstop and center field for the '86 Mets. But Johnson started him in those defensively-challenging positions only when Dwight Gooden or fly-ball starter Sid Fernandez pitched for the Mets and the demands would be less.
And Johnson spit in the face of conventional wisdom when he summoned Fernandez and his quirky left-handed delivery to face the Red Sox in Fenway Park in Game 5 of the '86 World Series. A left-handed, fly-ball pitcher in Fenway? Johnson must have been crazy. "If you've never faced Sid, he's real hard to time," was Johnson's rationale. Fernandez pitched four scoreless innings.
It had been Johnson who also canceled the Mets' workout at Fenway on the off-day between Games 2 and 3, raising eyebrows and also the ire of the media, because he didn't want his players facing negative questions after they had lost the first two games.
"I wasn't trying to go against the grain," Johnson would say weeks later. "I was trying to make it easier for my team to win the World Series."
That was his mission, to make the game easier for his players, "to put them in situations where they can shine," he used to say. "If you do that, they'll take care of the winning."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.