Davey Johnson was still in his 20s when he was the second baseman on an Orioles team that went to three World Series in a row. He was 30 when he hit the most home runs in a single season (43 in 1973) of any second baseman, a record that stood until last season. He was 43 when he managed the 1986 Mets, one of the best teams in the history of New York City baseball and maybe the most entertaining, to one of only two World Series championships the Mets have won.
Johnson was nearly 70 when his Nationals won the National League East in 2012, making it four teams across both leagues that Johnson had taken to the postseason. And the one time he didn’t make it, he finished second with the Dodgers. Johnson turns 79 years old today and ought to make the Hall of Fame as a manager some day very soon, which would be a fitting way to cap off a big league baseball life that lasted more than 50 years.
I once pointed out to Johnson that he didn’t get nearly enough credit for the 1986 Mets, and he grinned.
“Did we win?” Johnson said.
The truth is that he didn’t get enough credit for a team that won 108 games during the regular season, then eight more in the postseason -- including the last two -- at old Shea Stadium, where his Mets came back in the bottom of Game 6 against the Red Sox, came back from being one out away from going home, before a ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs. They waited through a night of rain and then won Game 7 after falling behind once more.
There have been some better one-season teams in the history of New York baseball, in the Bronx and in Queens. But there was never one as entertaining as the 1986 Mets, as much of a show with that much swagger. They had Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, two closers in Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco and dirty uniforms like Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman. And they had more than that, too. But it didn't happen the way it did without a great manager, and Johnson was all of that.
He was on the Today’s Game Era Committee ballot five years ago and didn’t have the votes. Harold Baines did, as did former Commissioner Bud Selig and John Shuerholz, one of the legendary front office men in baseball history.
Johnson didn’t make it that time. It makes you think that one of these days the Hall of Fame should expand the possibilities for baseball executives and managers and put them on a separate committee. Maybe that would help Lou Piniella, another deserving manager and another man who led a remarkable baseball life from the time he was a kid in Kansas City, and Jim Leyland, who has a glittering managerial résumé of his own.
But so does Johnson, who won in New York and won his division in Cincinnati, who came back to manage the Orioles and, who knows, might have had a different outcome against the Yankees one October if a kid named Jeffrey Maier hadn’t reached over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium and turned what would have been an out in Tony Tarasco’s glove into a Derek Jeter home run. And that isn’t even the biggest what-if for Johnson, who thought his Mets were on their way back to the World Series in 1988, about to pull ahead of the Dodgers three games to one before Gooden walked the unwalkable John Shelby and then gave up a game-tying home run to catcher Mike Scioscia, someone else who turned out to be a tremendous manager.
Then, in the last managing job Johnson had, he put the Nationals on top in the NL East, doing what he always did by using his whole roster as well as anybody could. With the 1986 Mets, Johnson somehow made it work with two center fielders, Dykstra and Mookie Wilson, and even managed to find more than 300 at-bats for Kevin Mitchell, who would become one of the heroes in the bottom of the 10th against the Red Sox by getting one of the Mets’ two-out base hits.
“They don’t hire you just to manage the nine guys on the field,” was another thing Johnson told me once, because I was lucky enough to be around that 1986 team all the time. “They hire you to manage them all. And if you don’t know how to do that, you’ve got no chance.”
If you take away his partial seasons, including when he got fired by the Mets in 1990, Johnson managed 14 full seasons in the big leagues and finished below second just once. Frank Cashen, the general manager who also came from Baltimore to New York, assembled the Mets of the 80s and hired his old Orioles second baseman to manage them, was a great baseball man himself. So too was his manager.
Happy birthday to Davey Johnson. One of these days baseball should give him one last gift: A trip to Cooperstown.