And, in this corner, Davey Johnson

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For someone with a reputation for being a player's manager, a guy who tries to keep everybody as relaxed as possible, Davey Johnson has had his share of fights with people a lot bigger than him.

He had a knock-down, drag-out in 1973 with his manager, Eddie Mathews. Seems Johnson and teammate Mike Lum got into a bit of a row over nothing of any great significance, and eventually Mathews brought Johnson into his room.

"Eddie said, 'C'mon, let's go, hit me,' " Johnson recalled. " 'Man-to-man. C'mon.'

"I said: 'I can't hit you. You're my manager.' He said: 'No, hit me. Let's go. Man-to-man.' "

Johnson remembers nudging Mathews, a big man. A tap. But when he saw his manager reaching back to throw a roundhouse punch, Johnson popped Mathews squarely, knocking him across the room. Others jumped in, and Mathews never got a chance to fire back.

"You can ask Hank Aaron and others on that team," Johnson said, laughing. "Eddie said his biggest regret [in his baseball career] was not having it out with me again. That one never got out. It never made the papers."

Then, as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Johnson had a couple of showdowns with Kevin Mitchell. One took place after the All-Star break in 1994. Mitchell reported late to the team after the break, missing a couple of workouts, and when the burly slugger returned, Johnson met him in the trainer's room to tell him he would be fined two days' pay.

"I was trying to handle that out of sight, and it got out of hand," he said. "I couldn't help it; it was a reaction. He didn't like the fact it was going to cost him two days' pay, and I told him in no uncertain terms if he couldn't be here on time, he couldn't get paid. That was my decision. He told me all his personal problems, and I told him, good, I'd like to help you solve them. But when he bumped me, I snapped. I tried to tear his head off."

Others separated them. But that was only Round 1.

"I had another deal was even worse than that, but the other one didn't get out [in the media]," he said. "Ray Knight [a Reds coach] was in the room, and if he wasn't, I probably would've gotten my head torn off. I mean, hitting Kevin Mitchell is like hitting a bowling ball. He hit me on top of the head, and I felt like I got hit by a bowling ball, and when I hit him, I felt like I was hitting a concrete wall.

"I probably could've been more famous and more successful [in reputation] if I had taken a harder tone with players publicly, instead of a firm hand out of sight."

A firm hand. Or, in dealing with Mitchell, a balled-up fist.

But, brawls aside, Johnson is a player's manager. He likes to keep the team relaxed, thinking that if the players are comfortable, they're bound to play better.

Want to go golfing? No problem. Want to play cards? No big deal.

"If a player can relax by playing 18 holes, then why would I want to take that away?" Johnson said. "There's enough pressure in this job as it is."

Most teams in baseball discourage players from bringing their wives on road trips, and some have unwritten rules limiting the number of trips a wife can take with the team. Johnson feels differently. His wife, Susan, often travels with him. "And we'll take them back [on the team plane], if we can accommodate them," he said.

"I went through a divorce, and I think maybe part of that can be attributed to the old Oriole ways -- players couldn't travel back to be with their wives when they had babies and that kind of thing.

"I want to give players an environment in which they can be comfortable. That, to me, gives them their best chance at success."

Another responsibility of being a manager, Johnson says, "is giving everybody a fair shot. I don't have a doghouse, per se. I'll give them opportunity. You have to be right in how you treat them, and you have to be consistent with how you treat a player.

"If that's a player's manager, then so be it, I'm glad I'm a player's manager."

Chicago boot camp

The Chicago White Sox are preparing for what manager Terry Bevington is calling a boot camp. Long workouts, long days. Bevington says he'll be tougher in spring than former White Sox manager Gene Lamont. "Spring training will not be a picnic," said first baseman Frank Thomas. "He's already phoned to let us know."

* Colorado reliever Curtis Leskanic heard the bullpen phone ring constantly for him last year, when he led the majors in appearances with 76. During the off-season, he says, he uses a machine to answer his phone. "I don't like to hear a phone ring," he said. "It's Pavlov's dog. When he heard the bell, he knew it was time to eat. When I hear the phone, it's time to get loose."

* No team improved itself with fewer moves this off-season than the Los Angeles Dodgers, who basically made two changes. Mike Blowers replaces Tim Wallach at third, and Greg Gagne replaces error-prone Jose Offerman at short. "I think this is the most excited I've been since I got to this team," said pitcher Tom Candiotti. "That was a huge addition getting Greg Gagne. That will make our pitchers so much better. . . . I don't want to go out and start ragging on Jose Offerman, but, hey, let's face it, there's a huge difference between Greg Gagne and Jose Offerman."

The new Albert Belle

Cleveland slugger Albert Belle is trying to change his image -- and what a timely decision it is, with his agent entered into contract talks with the Indians. Before Christmas, Belle purchased newspaper space to publish a poem dedicated to the fans, and on Feb. 10, he made an appearance at Mally's Chocolates in Cleveland. Mally's is the company that introduced the Albert Belle candy bar last summer, and you may recall that Belle blew off the inaugural Belle bar news conference, saying he was too tired. On Feb. 10, though, he chatted with a crowd of about 4,000 and stood for pictures. Belle wouldn't sign any autographs, however.

* Reds general manager Jim Bowden, who dealt David Wells to the Orioles this off-season, wants to move John Smiley or Mark Portugal during spring training. The two pitchers will cost $8.6 million between them this year.

* Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan sees no reason Rick Aguilera, who converted from a starter into an All-Star closer, can't convert back to a starter. "We're asking him to throw 100 pitches every five days," Ryan said. "He's a good athlete, he stays in good shape, he's got pitches and the experience. I know it's a gamble, but we have reasons for taking that gamble." The biggest reason of all is to rekindle the Twin Cities' interest in the Twins.

This isn't a put-down

One reason closer Dennis Eckersley is excited about his move to St. Louis is what he sees as a higher quality of umpires. "Not to put down the American League [umpires]," Eckersley said, as he prepared to do just that, "but I think the National League umpiring is much better."

* Don Mattingly is still available, and he could be interesting for the Orioles, who don't have a full-time designated hitter. Mattingly remains a terrific contact hitter who could fill in for Rafael Palmeiro occasionally. But he doesn't hit with pop (only seven homers last year, despite playing at Yankee Stadium and swinging for that short porch in right field), and some who know Mattingly wonder whether he would be happy playing a part-time role.

* Melvin Nieves, who the Orioles tried to acquire from San Diego last week, would be a much better fit. He is a 24-year-old switch-hitter with awesome power, and if the Orioles gave him 500 at-bats, he would hit 35 homers. Nieves also would strike out 180 times, and he might hit .220-.230. He's a poor outfielder, as well. But that would be OK from a guy who probably would hit eighth in the lineup. So long as the team doesn't need to depend on him, Nieves would be a terrific pickup. The Padres asked for one of two pitching prospects: either Billy Percibal or Calvin Maduro, but after the Orioles agreed to part with Maduro, the Padres backed off, indicating that they might talk with the Orioles later in the spring.

* There are those in the San Diego organization who believe manager Bruce Bochy may be in trouble if the team starts slowly. There is pressure on the Padres to win this year, and win fans back, and they signed free agents Bob Tewksbury and Rickey Henderson and traded for first baseman Wally Joyner. If Bochy is dumped, there is an interesting name available for a team desperate to establish an identity: Sparky Anderson, who lives in nearby Los Angeles.

* Signing Mo Vaughn was extremely important for the Boston Red Sox, who have enough to worry about (the Orioles and New York Yankees) without having a contract dispute with a local hero.

* Orioles catcher Gregg Zaun says Scott Erickson's sinker is the heaviest pitch in baseball. In other words, it has a hard drop that is tough for hitters to lift. Whenever Zaun catches Erickson, he wears a special protective device for the thumb of his glove hand. "Doesn't really matter," Zaun said. "He still gets me at least once every time I catch him, right on the thumb."

the numbers

* Since last season, the St. Louis Cardinals have acquired four players 38 or older -- Rick Honeycutt, Willie McGee, Dennis Eckersley and Gary Gaetti.

* Dennis Martinez has 231 career wins, Eckersley 192, Roger Clemens 182. And the 30 pitchers invited to the Detroit Tigers' camp for spring training have a cumulative total of 188 career victories.

* The current active leaders in: batting average (Tony Gwynn, .336), games (Eddie Murray, 2,819), runs (Rickey Henderson, 1,719), hits (Murray, 3,110), home runs (Murray, 479) and RBIs (Murray, 1,820). Cal Ripken is third among active players in career RBIs, with 1,267.

* The current career active leaders in: wins (Martinez, 231), saves (Lee Smith, 471), ERA (John Franco, 2.62), winning percentage (Mike Mussina, .703) and opponents' batting average (Sid Fernandez, .209).

* If you're looking for a sleeper NL MVP candidate, how about Houston's Derek Bell, just 27? In the first five years of his career, Bell's average has gone from .143 to .242 to .262 to .311 to .334, his RBIs ascending (with a blip in the strike year), as well -- 1, 15, 72, 54 and 86. And during the past three seasons, he has stolen 77 bases.

* The Orioles' three top relievers -- Randy Myers, Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell -- have 531 career saves among them.

* As Murray begins his 20th year in the majors, think about these numbers: He never has had fewer than 141 hits in any full 'D season, except for the two strike years (111 hits in 1981, 110 in 1994). He never has hit fewer than 16 homers, never has driven in fewer than 82 runs in any full season (a league-leading 78 in 1981, and 76 in 1994). He has stolen at least one base in each of his past 18 seasons, and has 105 for his career. He hasn't been hit by a pitch since 1990.

* As Orioles manager Davey Johnson sorts through how he'll use his players -- who will play against right-handers and against left-handers -- he'll be armed with two interesting facts. Right-handed-hitting Jeffrey Hammonds has hit righties better than lefties during his career, batting .297 against right-handers, .239 against left-handers. And the left-handed-hitting B. J. Surhoff is better against lefties -- he has hit .293 vs. lefties the past five years, .276 vs. right-handers.

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