The question came at Davey Johnson during a champagne shower in Toronto. Somewhere from within the celebration of the Orioles' first American League East title in 14 years came the query of who should be favored to take it all.
To some, the question would offer an opportunity to hedge, to show false modesty or even to deflect pressure.
Said the Orioles manager: "I always bet on me."
Unapologetically confident and forever prepared, Johnson offers little reason to do otherwise. He is the master gambler always aware of the odds, especially those stacked against him. The man Anaheim Angels coach Dave Parker once tagged "the mad genius" will wager his total recall against anyone's hunch play. Against certain left-handers, like the Seattle Mariners' Jamie Moyer, he is willing to fill his lineup with left-handed hitters, even in the much-scrutinized atmosphere of the postseason. He will sit a first baseman and his 110 RBIs. What he won't do is back down.
"If you're going to make a decision and you've done your homework and prepared to make your decision then you'll never second-guess yourself and you'll never look back and say, 'I wish I'd done this,' " says Johnson. "I can say in my career I can't remember something I'd change. If I ever succumb to that, that would mean I was not prepared and that I did something because somebody else thought it was right, not what I thought was right."
To some, even within his own organization, that can be interpreted as arrogance. However, Johnson is also supremely prepared. An hour before each game, he sequesters himself in his office. There he devotes the quiet time to delve into scouting reports, trends, matchups and opposing personnel. He has little use for critiques from those less informed.
"If you lose, you're going to be second-guessed," he says. "If you have a reason why you did something, so be it. Everyone else is going to have a reason why they wouldn't have. it makes the game interesting."
Johnson loves October and the stage it presents. He has won with the New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds and Orioles. While others may blanch, Johnson only accentuates his swagger.
It was 11 Octobers ago that Johnson's Mets clinched a World Series berth by beating the Houston Astros in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.
Coming off a 108-win season, the Mets were overwhelming favorites. Game 6 lasted 16 innings before Jesse Orosco retired Kevin Bass to end it. Still, Johnson reveled in the pressure cooker, at one point turning to pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to say, "Ain't this great?" Two weeks later, the Mets were down to their last strike before reversing a World Series against the Boston Red Sox.
Last week, the Orioles entered Seattle as underdogs against the Mariners and their Big Unit. Johnson answered with a brilliant tactical series. Before Game 1, he met with his coaches, general manager Pat Gillick and assistant general manager Kevin Malone to discuss whether to go with a "B-team" lineup that had worked three times against Randy Johnson during the regular season.
Davey Johnson argued firmly for a lineup including Jerome Walton at first base, Jeff Reboulet at second and Jeffrey Hammonds in left field, sitting Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar and B. J. Surhoff. Then he went before the media and insisted it was his "neck on the line" and that he was the one who would "take the fall" if the gambit failed. It won, 9-3, forcing Randy Johnson from the game after five innings.
"It probably would have been easier to go the other way," Malone says. "But he stuck with what he thought was right. You have to respect that."
"Davey was out there. He was in a no-win situation," says Reboulet, who answered with an important sacrifice bunt in Game 1 and a home run off Randy Johnson in Game 4. "If we lose with the regular guys out there, people would have ripped him for not going with what had worked before. If he goes with what had worked, he's ripped for not going with his best players. He was going to get ripped no matter what unless we won. Of course, we won."
Given the opportunity to change his mind before Game 4, Johnson remained firm.
"I think everybody had their own opinions about it," says third base coach Sam Perlozzo. "But Davey has the kind of personality when he feels strongly about something, you tend to go along with him."
Malone has lauded him as the "head puppet master." Gillick described him as having "a pretty good series" in Seattle. Even owner Peter Angelos called a truce in his spotty relationship with Johnson to guarantee he would be back for the final season of his three-year contract. (An extension will have to wait.)
Despite five first-place finishes, Johnson has never been named his league's manager of the year, yet he owns the best winning percentage among active managers at .575. Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox is second at .546. Since 1960, only Earl Weaver (.583) has crafted a higher percentage than Johnson. His greatest blessing and his greatest curse have been well-moneyed rosters with corresponding expectations.
"He's always managed teams that have been expected to win. But you look around, and there are a lot of clubs expected to win that don't get there. If you're managing some places and finish fourth, they pat you on the back. Wherever he's been, you finish fourth and you're fired," pitching coach Ray Miller says.
Reliever Randy Myers played for Johnson in New York from 1986 to 1989. When he signed with the Orioles as a free agent, he said Johnson's presence persuaded him to decline more lucrative offers. Myers wasn't looking for hugs and touchy-feely talks.
"I wanted to win. And Davey knows how to win. Forget everything else. He knows how to win," Myers says. "Davey manages for seven months. He manages to win 90-plus games. If the other team has a record above that, then they might make the playoffs like happened in '87 and '89 with the Mets. But he manages to put you in a position for the games in September to mean something."
This year, September games meant little. Instead of pushing for 100 wins, something he did with two teams in New York, Johnson rested regulars in anticipation of the postseason. When the club faltered, going 13-16, consternation arose over whether the team had lost its focus. Had the Orioles buckled against Seattle, Johnson would likely have been fired.
"I tried to refresh my guys toward the end. I got second-guessed for that, too. What else is new?" he says.
His approach with some veteran players, for one. In his first season, Johnson publicly tussled with Bobby Bonilla over his role as designated hitter and Cal Ripken over a shift from shortstop to third base. Johnson also pulled few punches when critiquing his players' performance, and the words bruised several veteran egos.
The manager has tweaked his approach this season. What appeared last season as a power struggle for control of a hardened clubhouse has transformed into a relatively pacific setting. Rarely has he publicly criticized players.
"If you can't play for this guy, you can't play for anybody," says Miller.
Rather than take on Ripken, Johnson supported his veteran cornerstone when persistent health-related questions surfaced about his performance. Johnson made it clear Ripken would determine his own playing time. A year ago, Johnson said he would probably be the manager to end Ripken's consecutive-games streak. Now, Johnson concedes that only Ripken can end The Streak.
He even paid Ripken the ultimate compliment: "I used to think I was the most stubborn guy around, but I'm nothing compared to Cal."
Pub Date: 10/08/97