The idea of chemistry between players and managers is practically extinct in the big leagues. Personal relationships? Please. It’s all about statistical analysis these days — it’s the only currency that counts.
But what happens when you take an old-school manager, whose leadership gene was forged in the un-PC ’80s, and pair him with a brash, can’t-miss rookie — who is a teenager, to boot? That’s a match made in dugout-heaven.
Case in point is Davey Johnson and Bryce Harper, who, at first glance, have had little in common in the Nationals’ surprising sprint to first place. Davey is ending a fine 16-year managerial career; at 69, he’s ready to pull back and serve the Nationals in an advisory capacity in 2013.
Harper, on the other hand, is 50 years younger than Johnson, and only beginning to rule the universe. He’s loaded with bat-speed and macho-helium, a combustible mix that could potentially challenge a lesser manager than Davey.
Indeed, the generation gap between the two is undeniable, but that doesn’t mean Johnson and Harper aren’t in sync. To the contrary: Davey is the perfect guy to usher in the Age of Bryce because he’s that much older, and because he learned about managing when charismatic players were the rule, not the exception.
Look at the back of Johnson’s baseball card and suddenly you remember he was at the helm of the wildest team in the game’s history — the ’86 Mets, the original Wild Bunch who were on a first-name basis with an entire city. Johnson corralled the likes of Doc and Daryl, Nails and Mex. Even the roster’s resident intellectual, the Yale-educated Ron Darling, would be considered a rogue today.
Johnson developed a style that is distinctly out of fashion today — giving his young stars a wide berth, refusing to force-feed the company line of “watch what you say” and “tone it down.”
“Davey was the kind of manager who worked around a player’s personality instead of the reverse. That’s why he’s perfect for someone like Bryce,” said Darling, now a broadcaster for the Mets’ SNY network. “Davey learned how to make young players comfortable so their talent could flow.”
Johnson didn’t have many rules back in the day; being on time was about all it took to stay on his good side. If you won — and the Mets did plenty of that — he left the clubhouse to the players themselves. Of course, times have changed, and the code of conduct that governs major leaguers’ behavior is more closely monitored than ever. The Internet, Twitter and cell phone cameras have made sure of that.
But Johnson has never lost his rebel demeanor. He fears nothing, and expects the same from his team. More than anything, Davey still treats his players as adults, and allows them to speak their minds without fear of retribution. One thing the Mets always knew about Johnson: He was on their side, even when they were 100 percent wrong.
Any Flushing historian can recite the legend of the plane ride home from Houston after winning the ’86 NL Championship Series. Game Six of that showdown was practically Biblical in its enormity, and not just because it lasted 16 innings. The 7-6 victory spared the Mets a Game 7 matchup against Mike Scott, whom they feared.
The celebration at 35,000 feet was a flying Animal House — only worse. The Mets caused so much damage to the plane, they were handed a $10,000 invoice by TWA. Then-GM Frank Cashen wanted the players to pay for the repairs, handing Davey the letter from the airline.
Johnson gathered his team in the middle of the clubhouse, read the letter aloud — and tore it to pieces. “There wouldn’t have been a plane ride if it wasn’t for us,” he said.
That’s what Darling was talking about when he said, “Davey has a history of fighting for his players. When push comes to shove, they know he’s in their corner.”
The Nats won’t have any similar disputes in 2012, but there’s still room for disagreement. Management, after all, wants to limit Stephen Strasburg to 160 innings, regardless of the team’s pursuit of its first playoff berth. And who knows whether Harper will be allowed to play through an extended slump without being sent back to the minors?
Johnson isn’t crazy about the way the Nats are swinging the bats lately; they’re 14th in the NL in runs, and have lost four of their last five. But Davey believes so strongly in Harper that he flatly likens him to a young Mickey Mantle. Wisely, no one in the Nationals’ front office is taking issue with the manager.
“(Davey) really loves molding a young career, that’s probably the biggest reason he took this job,” said GM Mike Rizzo. “He saw the talent base, the youth, the excitement, the athleticism. And he wanted some of his fingerprints on it.”
In the clubhouse, the Nationals feel the same way.
“We respect Davey a lot because everything he asks us to do, he did as a player himself,” said Mark De Rosa, currently on the DL. “There aren’t many managers who’ve accomplished as much as him, including winning a Gold Glove (three times) and being a guy who hit 43 home runs (in 1973).”
Even with that resume, it takes a unique ability to manage a 19-year-old superstar — who beneath the layers of psychological flesh is still struggling with his own immaturity. Johnson understands these frailties, having once guided another 19-year-old prospect through his rookie year in New York.
His name was Dwight Gooden.
In retrospect, Johnson admits he could’ve (and should’ve) done more to prepare Gooden and Daryl Strawberry for life on the other side of midnight. The failed careers of the Mets’ two best players of the ’80s sticks with Davey to this day. Although on the field, in the game’s purest moments, Johnson instilled in the Mets the belief that the world was theirs.
With Strasburg and Harper, the Nats feel the very same way. Funny how history repeats itself.