Tried, testy tale of O's Baseball: Davey Johnson's form held true in his two years at Camden Yards: a successful run on the field and a clash to the finish off it.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The willful behavior of hard-living general Ulysses S. Grant had become such an issue during the middle years of the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln was asked by his top advisers why he continued to put up with it.

Lincoln summed it up in two words.

"He fights."

Perhaps there is a lesson in there for all the owners who have hired and fired Davey Johnson. He obviously doesn't care whether he makes any friends in the mahogany-paneled offices of baseball ownership, but he wins at a rate unequaled by any current major-league manager and his presence almost assures regular attendance in the postseason.

Maybe there is someone out there with the temperament to accept that trade-off, but Johnson did not find approval in any of the three locales where he built his impressive credentials. He wore out his welcome in the New York Mets' organization, offended Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott and irritated Orioles owner Peter Angelos -- in each case leaving behind a string of playoff appearances and a lot of unanswered questions.

Like this one: What is it about Johnson that makes him baseball's most successful inactive manager?

He closed the 1997 season with the best career winning percentage of any active manager (.575) and never has finished worse than second in any major-league season in which he was employed from start to finish.

Yet he is unemployed on Christmas Day and apparently will open the 1998 season on the golf course, because he is -- along with being one of the best and brightest of baseball managers -- very much his own worst enemy.

How else to explain the ill-advised decision to send Angelos a fax demanding a contract extension at a time when the owner apparently was looking for any excuse to get out of the contract without paying Johnson for the 1998 season? How else to explain the decision at midseason to fine second baseman Roberto Alomar $10,500 and order him to pay the money to a charity that employed Johnson's wife as a paid fund-raiser?

"It's apparent to me that if it wasn't the fine, it would have been something else," Johnson said afterward. "For whatever reason -- and I don't know why -- I was never able to get the owner's respect. It was pretty clear he didn't appreciate the job I did. If that's the case, it's time to move on. I can turn the page."

Johnson had forced the issue by trying to put Angelos on the defensive, which only made things worse. Angelos characterized the fax as an act of "gross insubordination" but continued to insist that Johnson was not in danger of losing his job.

Meanwhile, information began to leak out of the Orioles' front office that the owner might try to embarrass Johnson by insisting that he make a public apology for his mishandling of Alomar's fine. Either that or allow a union grievance over the fine to go before an arbitrator, forcing Johnson to defend his handling of the fine in a quasi-legal setting.

Johnson apparently could see where it all was going. He also could see that there were several managerial openings still unfilled in early November. He faxed a letter of resignation to Angelos on Nov. 5, the same day that the Baseball Writers Association of America named him American League Manager of the Year.

Seven weeks later, all those managerial openings are full, although Johnson could be very much in demand as early as next summer if a large-market team needs a midseason turnaround.

'No personal antagonism'

Angelos still insists that Johnson was in no danger of being fired, and says now that he could have foreseen a scenario in which Johnson managed the Orioles not only in 1998, but also well beyond.

"I think so, sure," Angelos said last week, "if the problems that we were having and the things that occurred were not repeated. I didn't say that there wouldn't be any extension. I just didn't address it. I didn't have any trouble with his personality. There was no personal antagonism. He has a great sense of humor. He's good company. There wasn't that kind of friction."

That may be news to Johnson, who tendered his resignation in part because he was tired of the controversy that had greeted him at the end of a successful season and in larger part because he felt that his personal relationship with Angelos was irreparable.

"A big part of this is being appreciated," Johnson said. "I wanted it to work here. This is the first place I'd managed where I bought a house. I wanted to be here for the long haul. I asked [for the contract extension] for my coaches as much as for myself. Those guys deserved to know what was going on. I thought going into next season without [an extension] would have created a distraction, and I didn't want that."

Winning isn't everything

Johnson wins. There's no question about that, but in a big-money era when most clubs are owned by wealthy, results-oriented businessmen, that isn't always enough.

"The last five teams playing [in 1997] were the top five payroll teams," said Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden, who employed Johnson from 1993 to 1995. "If you do spend that kind of money, I think you better win the division and you better get to the playoffs. If you spent that much money, it's almost a given that you're going to get to the postseason, so you have to credit the owner. I think you have to put that ingredient in there. I think that's pertinent."

Therein may lie the secret of Angelos' discontent. Johnson's outstanding track record led everyone to believe that the success of the Orioles in 1996 and '97 was largely the result of Johnson's strong leadership. But it was Angelos who spent nearly $120 million in salaries during those two seasons to field one of the most expensive starting lineups in the history of baseball.

Angelos apparently had reservations about Johnson from the beginning. The Orioles nearly hired him a year earlier, but Johnson's reputation as a difficult employee persuaded Angelos go with inexperienced Phil Regan. When that didn't work out, he handed Johnson a three-year contract worth $2.25 million on Oct. 30, 1995.

Their relationship immediately got off on the wrong foot, when Angelos took offense to a couple of offhand comments that Johnson made during his introductory news conference, one of which cast doubt on the intelligence of the Orioles' front office for passing him over the first time.

Nine months later, Angelos vetoed a proposal in 1996 to trade away high-priced stars Bobby Bonilla and David Wells at midseason. The owner was then rankled when Johnson seemed to get more credit for the club's late-season resurgence. And it was Angelos who insisted that the club fire 1996 pitching coach Pat Dobson over Johnson's objections and hire Ray Miller, who was credited with turning around the club's flawed pitching staff last year.

"I certainly will give him a certain amount of managerial competence," Angelos said later, "but if I had done what he had advocated in 1996, we would not have gotten to the playoffs. And if I let him keep Pat Dobson, we don't go wire-to-wire and make the playoffs in 1997."

Alomar intrigue

Then there was Robbie Alomar, who unwittingly became the catalyst in the bad chemistry that developed between Angelos and Johnson, and twice would play a major role in the deterioration of their relationship.

The growing rift between them became public knowledge late in the 1996 season, after Johnson stepped between Alomar and umpire John Hirschbeck and landed right in the owner's doghouse.

The Alomar/Hirschbeck controversy has been well-documented, but what actually was said before Alomar spit in the face of the umpire has never been published.

There was speculation that Hirschbeck used a profanity that was interpreted by Alomar to mean that he had a sexual relationship with his mother, but Hirschbeck denies that, Alomar won't comment and the only other person close enough to know for sure refused to join the debate.

Johnson was standing right between the two when the incident occurred, but he refused to come to Alomar's defense, contending that taking sides in such a no-win situation would set his team up for reprisal from every disgruntled umpire who passed through Baltimore in 1997.

Angelos didn't care. He has spent his career taking on difficult causes, and he eagerly took on the impossible task of trying to balance the public perception of the Alomar incident.

His displeasure with Johnson bubbled over after the Orioles lost to the rival New York Yankees in the 1996 American League Championship Series. Angelos stood in the owner's box at Camden Yards and watched while hundreds of Yankees fans celebrated their team's six-game victory, then placed the blame for the Orioles ALCS defeat squarely on the manager.

Rumors surfaced quickly that Angelos was considering a managerial change, but Johnson still had two years remaining on his contract worth a total guarantee of $1.5 million. There was little justification for considering a change, but Johnson would change that eight months later with his handling of another incident involving Alomar.

Daveygate

Johnson fined Alomar $10,500 last July for missing the club's midseason exhibition game against the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings and an earlier club function, which probably would not have raised any eyebrows if the fine had been collected in accordance with club policy.

Instead, Johnson ordered Alomar to write a check to the Carson Scholars, a charitable organization that employed Susan Johnson as a paid fund-raiser, creating the perfect pretext for Angelos to rake him over the coals at the end of the season.

Alomar, who was not afraid to exploit the protective nature of the owner, reported the incident, and Angelos was furious. He quickly made a deal with the players union to delay payment of the fine until the end of the season to avoid creating a distraction while the club was cruising toward its first division title since 1983.

The diversion of the fine money -- probably enough to persuade an arbitrator to void the disciplinary action -- did not become public until early November, the day after agent Skip Dalton faxed a letter to Angelos demanding that the Orioles give Johnson a contract extension or buy him out of his final year.

Johnson conceded in his resignation letter that the disciplinary action could have been handled better, but he has maintained that he did nothing wrong by directing the money to a specific charity.

He reportedly tried to do the same thing with a large fine in Cincinnati in 1993 but was quietly instructed by the team's front office to abide by club policy. Angelos could have handled the situation the same way, but Daveygate finally gave him justification for his enmity toward Johnson.

"If he had let me know he had a problem with it, something could have been worked out," Johnson said. "It could have gone somewhere else."

Walking away

Technically, Johnson resigned the first week of November, but both he and Angelos have pointed to a July article in The Sun as the flash point for the final act of their two-year relationship.

Johnson said during a pre-game chat with reporters in Minnesota that he felt his job security depended on the club's reaching the World Series, then charged that those comments were blown out of proportion. Angelos responded only with an angry "No comment" at the time, but he later would describe the Johnson quotes as "a self-fulfilling prophecy."

The situation would simmer until October, when Angelos twice gave Johnson a public vote of confidence and Johnson responded with his extension-or-buyout ultimatum, then his offer resignation.

"I said on two occasions that he was coming back, that was the end of it," Angelos said. "When I said I would abide by his contract, I meant it. I had no intention to terminate him. Legally, we were bound by that contract."

Nevertheless, Angelos could not have been happier to accept Johnson's resignation, taking the opportunity to send a return fax further chastising Johnson for his poor judgment and ill-advised public comments.

It was a strange ending to what was a very successful two-year relationship. The Orioles went to the postseason both years after failing to reach the playoffs for 12 consecutive seasons.

"You knew the personalities were not going to work," said one high-ranking baseball executive. "Davey knows how to manage a game as well as anyone, but he's not a disciplinarian. He's going to get his time in on the golf course. You just can't evaluate him the way you evaluate somebody in the business world."

Johnson has long had a reputation as a "5 o'clock" manager, a guy who showed up at the clubhouse the same time as the team bus, usually in his golf togs. No one in Baltimore publicly questioned his work ethic before his resignation, but it was clear that he felt results were more important than appearances.

"Was that something that was causing me a problem with Davey, I don't think so," Angelos said, "but I was aware that there were times when it seemed like he was more committed to his golf game than the game that was scheduled."

None of this comes as a great surprise to his former employers in New York or Cincinnati.

"The only parallel I saw, a lot of the problem with the Mets concerned the public airing of his contract difficulties," said former Mets executive Joe McIllvaine, "and in Baltimore, it seemed like the public airing of his contract situation got him in trouble. It happened in New York, constantly, and it could have been handled easily behind closed doors."

Bowden, who was there when Johnson fell out of favor with Schott, suspected that the marriage of two such strong personalities might become a problem.

"It doesn't surprise me that they won," Bowden said, "and it doesn't surprise me that they had differences. For the most part, when you win, it takes care of all the other problems, but sometimes it doesn't."

Pub Date: 12/25/97

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°