Baseball's best manager, without even a semblance o discussion or debate, is Dave Johnson. And he doesn't have a job. A sad commentary and certainly a sorry indictment in an endeavor where teams supposedly are trying to win. That a man of his extraordinary skills remains among the unemployed is an embarrassment to a business that prefers to call itself a sport.
Johnson has intelligence and credibility. He doesn't deal in a two-faced manner with players. They are kept aware of what's expected but, at the same time, not dunned. They are treated as men, and encouraged to respond.
His judgment and communication skills are exceptional, which is important in a modern manager, since being able to deal with the media has become a daily essential. Johnson is 49 years old, and in six seasons with the New York Mets, finished second four times and in first place on two other occasions, including a world championship in 1986.
The Seattle Mariners were to interview him today, and if general manager Woody Woodward wants to do a favor for a franchise that has been subjected to some atrocious leadership in the past, then he ought to be receptive to Johnson. He can manage.
In fact, the Cincinnati Reds would probably have made Johnson their pick if they didn't decide to stay in-house and elevate coach Tony Perez. A strange part of the Cincinnati interviewing process happened when another managerial applicant, Bobby Valentine, was asked if the tables were reversed and he were doing the hiring, instead of being a candidate, who would he hire?
The immediate answer he gave was Davey Johnson. The fact Johnson hasn't been hired since the Mets parted company with him in the early part of the 1990 season means he isn't a part of the notorious "old boy" network. But Johnson isn't a politician or a boot-licker.
You can mention any manager in the major leagues currently employed and, from objective evaluation, we'll still take Johnson. He's living in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., the owner of a restaurant/night club called the Cowboys' Saloon and desirous of returning to baseball.
"I don't think there's a rap against me because I never did anything I know to harm the game," he said. "I asked Frank Cashen [the soon-to-retire New York Mets executive] if the game had blackballed me. Frank said: 'Of course not. If I had a team, I'd hire you.' And that's the premise I'm living with, that baseball still wants me. We have to find each other."
The Mets, of course, haven't won since Johnson left. It's not a thought he advances because there's has never been a manager, except Charlie Dressen, who believed he could think runs across home plate. Johnson has always been his own man, something players know and respect.
What about the practice of promoting from within, moving a coach into the top job?
"I have no quarrel with it," Johnson answered. "I love to see friends get the chance, but if you're a coach, it's a buddy-buddy arrangement with the players. You become a manager and it's different when you take a ball out of a pitcher's hand or the bat out of the hands of a hitter.
"One thing you can't do. You can't vacillate or waffle. Put it this way. My name is Dave Johnson, not Bill Clinton. It's important to have a strong opinion and stay with it. As a manager, you prepare a team professionally, treat the players as grown men with not a lot of childish rules and help them relax at game time, ready to produce their ultimate."
Would Johnson take a job as a coach? "Absolutely," he says.
Maybe the Orioles, the team that signed him to his original contract, will be interested since they have a vacancy.
Dave Johnson is inherently bright, as indicated by the fact he was a mathematics major at Texas A&M; and could figure a batting average without the assistance of a tutor or a computer. While a teen-ager, he learned to fly an airplane. Leadership, articulation and a profound understanding of the game are among the important characteristics he brings with him.
It's such a paradox. Baseball's best manager doesn't have a job.