VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – When a man is in the eye of the hurricane, he is sometimes blissfully unaware of the turbulence all around him.
Such was the case with Davey Johnson, both as the manager of the Washington Nationals last season and as a trailblazing Yomiuri Giants player in the 1970s.
Latest storm of controversy first: The Nationals’ shutdown of young pitching ace Stephen Strasburg in 2012.
Before last season began, Johnson — an ex-MLB star — and the Nats brass put Strasburg on an innings limit because the phenom was coming off Tommy John elbow surgery.
Strasburg reached his pre-set 170 innings in September and was promptly closed down for the campaign.
When the Nationals proceeded to make the playoffs, though, many expected the Nats’ honchos to rescind their earlier proclamation.
After all, who knew when Washington would again be in this position?
A D.C. ballclub had not won a World Series since 1924, when Hall of Famer Walter “Big Train” Johnson pitched the Senators to a Game 7 win over the New York Giants.
But, no, Davey and Co. stood by their earlier precautionary plan, enraging many long-suffering Washingtonians in the process.
For much of last century, when D.C. still had the Senators, the popular joke in the U.S. was, “Washington: first in war, first in peace and last in the American League”.
Fan angst only grew when the Nats were then ousted in five games by St. Louis.
When MAS spoke to Johnson earlier this season, he asked him about the controversy surrounding last year’s shutdown of Strasburg.
Davey was literally taken aback. His head and torso jerked back in mild surprise and Johnson said: “Controversy? What controversy?”
He wasn’t irritated; in fact, he seemed mildly surprised that there would be any mention of flack in the first place.
His demeanor was that of a person who expected Nats faithful to fully understand the wisdom of the decision.
“To me, there was no controversy,” Davey said without a trace of rancor. “We did what we felt was best in the long run for both the player and the team.”
Case closed to Davey Johnson’s mind.
Davey was equally at ease speaking of his two rather tumultuous seasons with the Yomiuri Giants in 1975 and ’76.
When MAS asked Davey if he was OK with a few questions on the topic, Johnson answered with a welcoming “Sure, whatcha got for me?” As in: Tumult? What tumult?
Some background: In 1974, Yomiuri’s fabulous V-9 run ended. The Giants’ astounding streak of nine straight Japan Series crowns — achieved without the services of a gaijin “helper” — was no more.
So, in ’75, Yomiuri — with much fanfare — opted to finally “go gaijin” and bring in Johnson, who had belted 43 homers two years earlier for Atlanta.
Adding to the drama, Davey would succeed the retiring Shigeo “Mr. Giants” Nagashima at third base.
Davey’s first season with Yomiuri created, at the very least, a baseball tropical depression.
Johnson struggled mightily, hitting only .197 in limited duty — due mostly to a shoulder injury he maintains was not properly treated.
Meanwhile, the Giants finished dead last in the Central League and much of the blame was heaped on Johnson.
His disappointing debut earned Davey an undesirable name tweak. He became “Dame (No Good)” Johnson.
Things improved greatly Davey’s second campaign. Johnson — back at his natural second base — hit .275 and smacked 26 home runs, including a pennant-clinching, sayonara grand slam.
“That was a big thrill,” said Davey. “It ranks right up there with winning the World Series with the Orioles and Mets.” (The latter as a manager in 1986.)
But Johnson’s NPB career ended on a down note.
He contracted strep throat before the Japan Series and, weakened, went hitless in his first 13 at-bats.
He never saw the field again as the Giants lost the series.
“The Japanese believe that if you start out good, it means you’ll do well — in a game or series,” explained Johnson. “And vice versa.”
“They told me, ‘You don’t have it right now; it’s best you sit’.”
During his NPB time, Johnson feels he learned to play by Japanese rules.
But to some, he came off as a malcontent or malingerer, due to his injuries and time off.
“I wasn’t aware of that,” says Davey. “I loved playing in Japan — the people, my teammates and the Yomiuri organization.”
Johnson left after just those two campaigns to play for the pennant-contending Philadelphia Phillies.
Depending on who you believe, he either asked for too much money, was not invited back or was fed up with Japan.
According to Davey, it was none of the above. “It was mutually agreed that it was best I not come back with the Giants,” said Johnson.
Fittingly, Johnson also knew nothing of all the speculation and gossip his departure created in the ubiquitous Japanese sports dailies.
Fast-forward to the present, and wouldn’t you know it, a storm may now be brewing over Washington’s disappointing .500 record this season — due mainly to injuries.
Once again, any negative whispers are harmlessly zooming over Davey’s head.
“I told them this would be my last year, anyway,” the 70-year old skipper revealed to MAS.
“When I agreed to manage, it was just to right the ship and get it going in the proper direction — which I think we are.”
So, what will Davey do then?
“Don’t know — I’ll just wait for a new challenge,” he replied.
You can call that wait “the calm before another storm” — and when it hits, the unflappable Davey Johnson won’t have a single hair blown out of place.
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