Davey no stranger to grooming young stars
Parallels exist between Nationals of 2012 and Mets of '80s
VIERA, Fla. -- Forty-five years after his death, Joe Haynes is something of a footnote in the history of the Washington Senators-Minnesota Twins franchise. He produced a pedestrian 14-season career as a right-handed pitcher in the American League from 1939-52, playing his first two and last four years with the Senators. He married the boss' niece and worked as a vice president in the front office of the club before and after the '61 franchise shift from Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis. Only now has his time with the Senators had some significant impact, albeit with a different franchise.
Davey Johnson is the manager of the Washington Nationals today because of Haynes.
It hardly is a row of dominoes that leads from Haynes as a Senators pitcher to Johnson as the manager of another transplanted team expected to assert itself in 2012. Haynes died a young man, at 49, in 1967, 44 years before Johnson moved into the Nationals' dugout and their on-field future. Had Haynes not lived in Johnson's neighborhood during the Senators' Spring Training camps of '51 and '52, though, Johnson probably wouldn't have developed such an allegiance to Washington baseball. And he may not have opted to return this year after serving in what was widely thought to be an interim role last summer.
"I've always had a special affinity for the game in Washington since I was a kid," Johnson said on Thursday in his office here, not all that far from his current home in Winter Park, Fla., or the site of the Senators-Twins Spring Training facilities 60 years ago. Tinker Field in Orlando was home to the franchise's camps as recently as 1990.
"We lived in the same block, across the street from Joe Haynes," Johnson said. "He was a neighbor, kind of an idol for me. I used to play with his son. When he came back [to the Senators], I was 9 or 10. He asked me if I wanted to be a batboy. That's when I decided I wanted to play in the big leagues."
Baseball awareness usually arrives before puberty. Obsession with the game often follows quickly. Johnson had reached the proper age in the early '50s. A lifetime in the game -- with success as a player, manager and Olympic coach -- has followed. He played in Baltimore, Atlanta, Japan, Philadelphia and Chicago. He has managed the Mets, Reds, Dodgers, Orioles and now the Nationals (nee Expos). He has three World Series rings and a reputation for applying his intelligence to the game and occasionally thinking outside the box.
"Because of Joe, I was there in their camp with them -- Eddie Yost, Mickey Vernon," Johnson says. "I was on the field with Johnny Mize [when the Yankees visited Tinker Field]."
Johnson was around Jackie Jensen, Jim Busby, Pete Runnels, Sam Mele and Bobo Newsome when he ended his retirement.
And now, at age 69, he embraced his geographical baseball roots, where the names are quite intriguing for him and fans in D.C. who have had one winning team since Calvin Griffith took Killebrew, Kaat and realistic hope out of town as part of the 1961 American League expansion. This year, realistic hope returns with the likes of Lidge, LaRoche and Lannan, Zimmerman and Zimmermann. And Strasburg. And Harper? And who knows?
"We've got a lot of young talent here -- that's what I like to work with," Johnson said. And he has players with potential to dominate. He likes that, too. People say Johnson did his best work with the Mets -- not in 1986, when they won 108 games and the World Series, but in the preceding two seasons, when he shepherded Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Rick Aguilera and Roger McDowell into the big leagues. The dominant talent took hold in '86.
Parallels can be draw between Johnson's 1984 Mets and the 2012 Nationals, the most conspicuous of which involves Strasburg and Gooden, of course. The manager makes no comparisons. It's better for all involved that he doesn't. He claims he doesn't live in the past, all his Washington allegiance to the contrary.
"What goes around comes back," Johnson says. He is quite pleased with his assignment and the challenge it presents, and he can't deny the similarities of where his team was in '84 and his team's coordinates today -- the intersection of "Here we come" and "You'd better watch out." The Nationals may become the Rays of the National League -- young and dangerous.
Johnson's affection for Washington -- an affection buoyed by the relationship he and Ted Williams developed while Johnson was the Orioles' second baseman and Williams was managing the Senators -- wasn't the only factor or even the primary reason he decided to return for 2012. But it unquestionably tilted the scales. And when his wife, Susan, approved of the decision, that was all he needed.
"She knew I liked challenges and that I was ready to do this again," Johnson said.
"When I started working here [in 2006], I saw they had good, intelligent people here. I like working with smart people. I liked their ideas. I liked that they were smart enough to hire me."
Johnson smiled when he spoke those words that were so reminiscent of what he said the day he was hired by the Mets in late October 1983: "I want to congratulate [general manager] Frank Cashen for being smart enough to hire me."
The plan last year when Jim Riggleman unexpectedly resigned as Nationals manager and Johnson replaced him was that Johnson was likely to return to his position as consultant this year. His primary responsibility after the season was to assess and recommend a candidate to manage for 2012 and beyond.
"And I did that," Johnson says. "I decided I was the best man for the job."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.