by Kyle Sullender
The Washington Nationals were the joke of the NL East for years while they patiently waited for their farm system to make them relevant. Then, with pitcher Stephen Strasburg making his debut in 2010, and teenage phenom Bryce Harper in 2012, they suddenly became favorites for 2013.
In 2011, the Nationals, seeking new management, hired former World Series winning manager Davey Johnson; Johnson played second base in the MLB for 13 years before retiring to become a manager. His first stint with the Mets resulted in a 1986 World Series championship just years after his first coaching job.
Since ’86, Johnson has been to three league championships with the Orioles and Reds, and has lost each one. His last coaching attempt in Los Angeles lasted just two years; his tenures typically only last two to three years in length, minus his time in New York where he stayed for six seasons. With the Dodgers, Johnson made little difference, finishing third and second in the NL West, and failing to make the postseason.
Now as coach of the Nationals, Davey Johnson, 70, has young talent and a chance to add another World Series to his resume. But when he doesn’t, the Nationals can kiss their winning aspirations goodbye.
Washington flaunts young and talented players, but talent is something Johnson is familiar with. His first squad in 1994, Cincinnati, boasted three hitters who batted over .300, including SS Barry Larkin. The following season Larkin was the NL MVP and led the team to the NLCS, a common road for Johnson’s teams, where they lost in six games. Larkin was awarded a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award in both 1994 and 1995, and was later elected a third ballot hall of famer in 2012. A career .295 hitter, he is among the elite who have 2,000 career hits (2,340).
In ’96, Johnson met fellow Hall of Fame players Cal Ripken Jr. and Roberto Alomar. Alomar hit .328 and .333 in the two years under Johnson and he, too, received Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors in ’96. Ripken Jr. was respectfully past his prime by the time he and Davey met in Baltimore, but in that time still managed to drive in 186 RBI.
So a talented roster isn’t something that’s been missing from Johnson’s teams in the past. Despite them, he has not been able to win a championship series since the ’80s. Today he totes All-Star caliber outfielders Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, along with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. His inability to win with future Hall of Famers is off putting when the Nationals took the long road to get where they are, but winning is hard to replicate continuously in baseball. The Yankees and Red Sox are watching their dynasty teams fall apart due to age and trades, and the Phillies face a similar dilemma after five straight division championships. Washington showed enormous patience in building their roster, but would like to win sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, without defying history, Davey Johnson is not going to win a pennant in Washington and they will have to look elsewhere for the manager that they do so with.
But that won’t be the end of Johnson’s impact on the franchise. None of the teams Johnson has managed have won a championship since he was there. The once “great” manager creates excitement for his team for only a short duration, and leaves them with nowhere to go but down, which they all eventually do.
If there is a bright spot for Washington, it comes in the age of the players. Washington lines up each night with considerably young talent. Harper, 20, is among the youngest in the league and is still far from his prime. The players Johnson had been given in Cincinnati and Baltimore were once great players, but were those who had seen their best days long before Johnson got a chance with them. Both Baltimore and Cincinnati, however, played as if they were young and unexpected players put together impressive seasons. By the time Johnson was out, the teams were ready to rebuild and not continue winning, so bringing him in may be seen as a “win-now” kind of maneuver. Los Angeles gave him an opportunity, a young Adrian Beltre and primed Eric Karros contributed to the budding roster that he was supposed to take to the top of the NL West. But he never did.
Bringing in Johnson was a move that the Nationals thought could push them to the next level quickly, but there is no part of his history that instills confidence in his ability to do so and keep them there. The Reds were a World Series winner just a few years before he arrived, and he was able to get them so close with that 1995 NLCS but just couldn’t close the deal. The following year he was gone, and since, the Reds haven’t jumped that hurdle without him either. Baltimore observed the same skid after Johnson got to two ALCS series in as many seasons. With a veteran lineup and solid pitching they got so close to another title. After Johnson left following the 1997 season, the Orioles played fifteen straight losing seasons.
There’s something peculiar about Davey Johnson. He’s just not a World Series manager, not since ‘86 anyway. The Nationals will continue to win and play well but won’t win a World Series under him, and history suggests they may be looking far, far ahead before they do with anyone else.