15 years after split, a chance for Peter Angelos, Davey Johnson to patch things up

Davey Johnson hadn't owned a home in more than a decade. But soon after being hired by the Orioles in 1995, he defied baseball managers' conventional logic by buying — rather than renting — a ranch house on the north side of Loch Raven Reservoir.

It was the sort of decision he would never make in a game — allowing his heart to triumph over his head — but Johnson was as smitten with the Orioles franchise from his playing days as he was with the Baltimore County property, which had a pool, a stream and plenty of rustic charm.

"It's not really wise for a manager to buy a home. They get fired too often," said Johnson, now the manager of the Washington Nationals. "But I was planning on staying there."

That didn't happen. Johnson resigned in a power tussle with Orioles owner Peter Angelos after a 98-win season in 1997. He sold the house. The Orioles have not had a winning season since.

But it turns out the story has a sequel involving personal tragedy, flowers and — perhaps — a reconciliation of sorts.

Last week, Angelos said he would like to resolve any misunderstandings that might linger from Johnson's two seasons as Baltimore's manager.

"I just think enough time has passed," the owner said.

Many Orioles fans mark the club's inability to hold on to Johnson as the unofficial beginning of the team's slide — a Baltimore version of the former Boston Red Sox curse. He resigned the same November day he was named the American League's Manager of the Year for leading his club within two wins of the World Series .

The chapter didn't end to Angelos' liking, either. Nearly 15 years after Johnson faxed his resignation letter, Angelos isn't apologizing for anything. But he would like closure.

There was a long pause after Angelos, now 82, was asked a week ago about parting with Johnson, whose Nationals are on an early-season track to post their best record since arriving in Washington before the 2005 season.

"Well, you'll have to talk to him first," the owner finally said in his deep, baritone voice. Told that Johnson had indeed been interviewed — and that he's still fond of the Orioles — Angelos, who rarely gives media interviews, opened up.

"He and I were friends," Angelos said. "The contention we didn't get along was false. Personally, I have a lot of affection for the guy. He was a great manager, and I was sorry to see him go."

Neither Angelos nor Johnson wanted to recount the multiple issues involved in their split. But there is a sense from Angelos of wanting to make certain the facts were recorded correctly.

Johnson had led the club to two straight AL Championship Series and believed he deserved a contract extension. He had completed the second season of a three-year deal, and media outlets reported that he sought either an extension or a buyout of his final season — essentially a divorce. "I felt I merited an extension," The Sun quoted the manager as saying.

Johnson was looking for a sign of support — of satisfaction — from his boss. But Angelos believed he was being presented with an ultimatum, and the owner balked.

"I'd like to get the thing factually established," Angelos said last week. "And then he and I probably go back to being, if not business associates, then friends. Then everybody gets back to being the way it used to be."

And maybe — if you believe in karma — the Orioles finally produce a winning record.

Johnson still loves the Orioles. They are the team of his youth. The infielder, initially attracted to Baltimore by the exploits of Brooks Robinson, signed with the club out of Texas A&M in 1962 when he was 19 years old and played his first eight big league seasons at Memorial Stadium, winning two World Series.

"I like to see the Orioles do well. I picked Baltimore when I could have picked any team in baseball. We didn't have the draft then," Johnson said as he donned his red jacket with the curly "W" in the tiny manager's office before a recent Nationals game. He is 69 and has overcome issues relating to his heart and appendix. He appears smaller — scaled down — than he did as a player.

For nearly 30 minutes, Johnson, who still has a trace of a Texas drawl, talked about Baltimore — about playing with Frank Robinson ("He kind of set the tone"), rooting for quarterback John Unitas and his Colts ("I watched every chance I had"), eating blue crabs, going to Little Italy and almost taking the Orioles back to the World Series in 1996 and 1997.

In 1996, the club — featuring Cal Ripken Jr., Rafael Palmeiro, Brady Anderson (50 home runs) and Roberto Alomar — made the postseason as a wild card and won a playoff series against the Cleveland Indians before being eliminated by the New York Yankees in the ALCS. "Angelos said I could do better than that. And I said, 'Yeah, I can. I plan on it,'" Johnson said.

In 1997, Johnson said, "I thought we had a great year. We went wire-to-wire and beat the Yankees [in the standings], who had a heck of a ballclub. Didn't get to the dance. I know that didn't please Mr. Angelos, among other things, I guess.

"They announced I got Manager of the Year [in November 1997] and also announced I was no longer with the Orioles. It was kind of a terrible day. Double your bang for your money for the TV stations," he said. "I got fired, or whatever you want to call it."

Angelos hired pitching coach Ray Miller as manager, and the club dropped to 79 wins in 1998.

Johnson had little reason to hear from Angelos after that.

But then, in 2005, he did.

It happened after Johnson's daughter, Andrea, a professional surfer earlier diagnosed with schizophrenia, was admitted to a Florida hospital with septic shock. She was placed on life support before dying. She was 32. He used to call her "my little surfer girl."

A bouquet of flowers arrived from Angelos. That made an impression on Johnson.

"When he sent flowers, I buried the hatchet," Johnson said.

Months after his daughter's death, he managed the U.S. team in the 2005 World Cup. He remains a baseball survivor — a beneficiary of the sport's penchant for allowing its managers to be reborn.

He has been present for some of baseball's enduring moments — the "Amazin' Mets" 1969 World Series victory (as an Orioles player) and Red Sox first-baseman Bill Buckner's through-the-legs, 1986 error (as Mets manager).

After his Baltimore breakup, Johnson missed baseball so much that he considered managing in Japan.

In 1999, he was hired by the Los Angeles Dodgers — his fourth managing job. His fifth came when Jim Riggleman quit unexpectedly last season and Johnson took over a promising, young Washington team 60 miles from his former Baltimore County dream home.

Johnson's .561 winning percentage entering this season was second only to former Baltimore skipperEarl Weaver's among living managers with 10 or more years experience.

The Nationals describe him the same way his players always have: candid, savvy, brash, genuine.

"He's the same guy every day in the clubhouse," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "That helps a lot of guys out because you know what you're getting from him every day."

Washington opens a three-game series against the Orioles at Nationals Park on May 18. It will be the teams' first meeting since Johnson became Washington's manager. The clubs play again in Baltimore in June. It's uncertain whether Johnson and Angelos will meet up.

It's a rewarding time for Johnson, who is pleased the Nats are winning, that he is in good health and that he is back in the region. He said the organization's stockpile of young talent reminds him of when the Orioles had Don Baylor and Bobby Grich in the pipeline in the early 1970s.

At this stop, though, Johnson is not buying a home. He and his wife, Susan, are renting in Northern Virginia.

"I'm not buying nothing," he says. But he is smiling when he says it.



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