Lightning rod? Orioles: Does he court controversy or does conflict follow him? With manager Davey Johnson, it's hard to tell.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just so you know, Davey Johnson says he doesn't mind a little conflict in his life, which is a good thing.

Because, as you might know, if Davey Johnson doesn't court conflict -- and that is still a matter of debate -- he doesn't exactly run from it either. And, in any case, it seems always to find him.

"Sometimes," Johnson says of his managerial style, "you have to bump heads to get to know each other better."

He says this on a cloudless, perfect Fort Lauderdale afternoon, two weeks before Opening Day, a day so relaxed that a manager would never feel tempted to reach for the Maalox or order up a nerve-calming, post-game cocktail. Spring is in the air, and every team still believes in its promise. And in the case of the Orioles, that promise should extend deep into summer and perhaps into fall.

It's on the same day that Sam Perlozzo, the Orioles' third base coach, who has worked for Johnson for years, is asked how it's going.

"It's quiet," he says. "Of course, this could be the calm before the storm."

With Davey Johnson, there's always a storm looming.

Maybe you remember last year, Johnson's first as Orioles manager. In that one, he battled Bobby Bonilla over his role as designated hitter. He also found time to get in Cal Ripken's iconic face on a semi-regular basis. And while he was at it, he took the Orioles to the playoffs for the first time since 1983, which might sound better to you than it does to some people. Because after the season, there were reports that Peter Angelos, who owns the Orioles, was dissatisfied with Johnson's performance and that Johnson might not return.

If it's calm today as a new season begins, be alert for a weather change. Here's what you should know about Johnson: He has the winningest record among active major-league managers -- not that it seems to matter. He led the New York Mets to five consecutive 90-win seasons and one world championship. And later got fired. He took the Cincinnati Reds to the divisional championship. And then got fired.

Maybe you can spot a trend here. And now in possession of what he calls his dream job, he works for an owner who is working on his third manager in four years.

"I'm driven," Johnson says, "but [Angelos] is driven harder than I am. I admire him for it. He has high expectations. I like high expectations and living up to them. I'm an optimist, and I'm confident. I'm confident in myself. I'm confident in everyone around me."

Here's how confident: Johnson actually believes it just might work out for him this time.

The Davey Johnson stories go way back, as far back as the '60s, when, as an Orioles player, he brought Earl Weaver computer printouts -- remember, computers at the time were the size of Camden Yards -- showing how the lineup would be more productive if Johnson batted higher.

His teammates called him "Dum Dum" because he was so smart. Not only had he gone to college, but he might have even studied while he was there.

Spend some time with him, and you're sure to hear him say: "I don't do too bad for a dumb, old baseball manager."

He's good at knowing what he wants and then pursuing it, including the Orioles job. Once upon a time, he was very happy managing the Mets, but the Mets were not always very happy with him. And in 1990, during their seventh year together, there was a particularly ugly and angry divorce. The Mets complained about his work ethic and even whether he drank too much.

It was in New York, too, that Johnson gained his reputation as a strong-willed manager, unafraid of confrontation, who was, as one of his bosses might have put it, a pain in the, uh, neck. This reputation stuck, and stuck so hard that it took Johnson three years -- the wilderness years -- to get another job. And that job meant working for Marge Schott and the Reds, which may count as one definition of desperation. But the years he was out of baseball taught him something.

"I learned I could live without baseball and that I couldn't live without baseball," says Johnson, whose 54 years all show in his face. He speaks with a drawl and with a certainty given to a man who believes he knows exactly what he's doing.

Reputation precedes him

One year into Johnson's tenure with the Reds, Johnny Oates was self-destructing in Baltimore. When Angelos fired Oates, Johnson went after the job. He interviewed before a committee that included Frank Robinson.

"His reputation came up," Robinson says from his home in Los Angeles. "What you want is someone who's willing to come in and work hand in hand with the front office. They said that was a problem for him in New York. It's one of the reasons they gave for him losing the job."

The committee made its recommendations to Angelos, and Angelos chose Phil Regan. Johnson offered a typically Johnsonian response to the rejection: "When I got hired by the Mets, I said I was really happy to be here because I like to work for people who are smart enough to hire me. When I didn't get the job [in Baltimore], I said I shouldn't be there because they're not smart enough to hire me."

Johnson stayed with the Reds, who won the division. The Reds fired Johnson anyway. And, of course, at the same time, the Orioles were firing Regan and, just for good measure, the entire front office. Angelos hired Johnson this time, basically all by himself. Suddenly, the Orioles got smarter.

It makes for an interesting mix, and maybe a volatile one, too.

"Davey is a very intuitively intelligent person," says Jim Palmer, who has known Johnson since they played together in the Orioles' glory years. "He could have gone somewhere easier to manage. Do you think he didn't know that Peter has a reputation, in some people's minds, for interfering? He knew exactly what he was getting into."

He did. "I love being around smart, dominant people," Johnson says. "Sparks may fly, but that's good."

Even privately, Johnson says that he respects Angelos. But does Angelos respect him?

Angelos could not be reached for comment. But at the end of last season, he was reportedly second-guessing Johnson's managerial strategy and had criticized Johnson for publicly criticizing his players. He also forced a new pitching coach on him.

It is a volatile mix, and one to which you can add Pat Gillick, the general manager and another strong-willed individual who apparently had his own problems with Angelos. Maybe volatile isn't a strong enough word for this combination.

"There is a mix there," Gillick says, "and the public and media might view that as a problem. But I don't think that dissent, I don't think that discussion, I don't think that even argument is unhealthy. The problem is when people hold grudges or can't put things behind them. I think that with Davey and that with everyone here, we discuss, argue it, make a decision and then move on."

Can you spot another trend here?

Making changes

Last season, the Orioles started the season by winning 11 of 13 games and appeared to be headed for glory. Then it all went wrong. The starting pitching fell apart. The bullpen never came together.

Johnson decided he needed to make some changes, which wouldn't have been so strange except that Johnson found the need, of all things, to change Cal Ripken.

And it wasn't just that Johnson considered moving Ripken to third base. For years, people have been trying to move Ripken to third base, and for years Ripken has been proving that he's still an All-Star-caliber shortstop.

Johnson had other concerns.

"When a manager comes in," Gillick says, "he has to establish that he's in charge of the club, that, from a player's standpoint, the buck stops with Davey Johnson and not with anyone else. He had to at least broach the subject of Cal moving to third. I think that was a big step forward. It took a lot of leadership. That showed a lot of guts on his part."

Palmer, who makes clear he is not taking sides on this issue, puts it more bluntly: "I think maybe Davey realized that Cal had a lot of influence on the club, and maybe he didn't agree with a lot of the things that went on."

It appears Johnson felt he had to make a statement, and what bigger statement than challenging Ripken? And so the baseball season turned into a movie of the week. When Johnson sent Manny Alexander in to pinch run for Ripken, the first time Ripken had come out of a close game since the invention of cable, the story was Page One the next day. No one will forget the look on Ripken's face as the television cameras trained on him in the dugout. He sat tight-lipped with Alexander at his side after Alexander, in his big chance, had gotten himself picked off first base.

"I didn't understand the depth of reaction," Johnson says. "I mean, everybody's mouth fell open, like, 'What's this idiot doing?' "

But soon, Johnson was discussing with Ripken, in confidence, a possible move to third so the team could look at Alexander at short. Except Johnson broke the confidence -- "Why risk a leak?" he says now -- and told the media. Again, all hell broke loose.

In a weeklong experiment, Alexander flopped. Then Ripken went back to short. It was traumatic for everyone, a trauma that only deepened when Angelos publicly declared that Ripken wasn't showing sufficient leadership. Which was it: Did he lead too much or not enough? Johnson had his own ideas.

Taking the heat

"Any time you have a player of his magnitude -- larger than life, conscientious, caring, stubborn, opinionated, and to me these are all good qualities -- there's going to be a following," Johnson ,, says. "But Cal's job is not to manage the club. That's my job. But if you look at his intelligence and legendary feats and everything else, who are you going to go to -- the rookie manager or Cal? You'd go to Cal. I would, too. It's like going to confession.

"I had a similar situation in Cincinnati with [Barry] Larkin. Everyone went to Larkin. I had to tell Barry, 'You don't need that. You just play shortstop.' It kind of lifted a burden off of him.

"I think it kind of lifted a burden off of Cal, too. By us being at odds on a possible move to third, I think it broke a lot of tension. You vent your anger on the opposition. There's no longer the responsibility of maybe helping to run the team, which every superstar is confronted with. I think he concentrated more on just playing the game of baseball. Barry Larkin was MVP that year. And Cal had a great year, too."

Ripken reluctantly agreed to give his side of the story.

"There were a lot of mini-controversies last year that could have been avoided," Ripken says one day, sitting in the clubhouse after an exhibition game. "I don't understand why they did exist, but they did. It's ludicrous to me that, at one point, the theory was that I had too much influence on the team and, then, a short period later, that I didn't have enough influence on the team.

"The third base situation was never controversial as far as moving over there. It was just a matter of how it was ultimately handled. I don't know if there's any meaning behind the decision or the move. Only certain people can know that. I just want people to be straight with me. It's not that I deserve any special treatment. It's what anyone deserves, to know what's going on.

"Looking back on the season, it's a shame that people look at the controversies and the ballclub doesn't get the credit that it deserves. We went to the playoffs. We had a great season. It seems to me that should be the story, but everything else is the story. And that's sad."

Well, the Orioles did eventually have a good season. They did make the playoffs. And maybe the turmoil wasn't that destructive.

Brady Anderson is probably Ripken's closest friend on the team. And he offers up this baseball truism: "The last thing I think about when I step into the box is whether Davey handled the Cal situation right."

An arrogant manner?

Johnson's reputation preceded him to the clubhouse. Rafael Palmeiro said he expected the arrogant manner Johnson projected as leader of the oh-so-arrogant Mets.

"I saw him as a controversial manager," Palmeiro says. "I saw him as an intimidating figure. I saw him as arrogant. But when I got a chance to play for him, I saw he has a lot of respect for players. I'd call him a players' manager."

Gillick says: "Definitely a players' manager."

And Johnson sees himself the same way. That's why he was amazed when Angelos criticized him at the end of last season for publicly criticizing his players.

"If I say in the media that [Mike] Mussina is not pitching the way he's capable of pitching, that's just being, uh, candid," Johnson says, laughing. "He had a bad stretch last year. We're grown men. We have a certain responsibility, a certain level of performance, we put on ourselves. I try to emphasize the positive. I never talk about what a guy can't do, only what he can do.

"I was a little shocked for being criticized for that. I've been a players' manager wherever I've been. In fact, that's probably the stigma that I've got -- that I'm a players' manager, not an owner's manager. So when I got criticized for that, I like to fell out. I thought, 'Jeez, maybe I'm improving.' "

Johnson says Angelos, as the owner, has the right to criticize him. But it's not that simple. Even for Johnson, who describes himself as strong-willed, there are costs.

New York remains a sore point for him. The pressure to please, to win, caused him to drink too much. "I was never drunk," he says. "I didn't drink before games. But I was drinking more than I wanted to." Now, he pops antacid pills. The pressure remains.

"With the Mets, I spent a lot of time trying to make sure the problems off the field didn't interfere with what happened on the field," Johnson says. "I probably didn't spend enough time explaining how good I was to upper management. If Weaver had managed the team I had in New York, he would have gotten the credit. As it was, [general manager] Frank Cashen got the credit."

He concludes: "The only way I'm going to get into the Hall of Fame is to get invited to somebody else's induction."

Does it sound like it rankles? Sure. Johnson will say in one breath that he doesn't care what people think of him. He'll say in the next that he cares too much.

"There's a good book called 'The Erroneous Zones,' " Johnson says. "Basically, it says I'm not going to let you dictate how I feel about myself. If everything you say about me is going to make me feel one or way or the other, then you're controlling me. I'm not going to let that happen. I'm not going to allow that."

Certain things are beyond his control, of course. But for now, Ripken is playing third. Bonilla is gone. The pitching staff looks better than a year ago. Many people are again picking the Orioles to win. And Johnson does have two years remaining on his contract.

It's a brand-new season, a brand-new start. Hold on tight.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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