NEW YORK -- Under a gray, weeping September sky -- just the right theatrical backdrop to what has happened to the New York Mets' organization since his departure -- Davey Johnson returned to Shea Stadium last night for the first time since his firing May 29, 1990. Johnson even slipped into his old uniform, the one Frank Cashen would not let him wear when the franchise saluted its world championship teams on Oldtimers Day.
But the place and the uniform looked wrong this time. Johnson belongs in the Bronx wearing pinstripes. Davey Johnson should be the next manager of the Yankees.
If you are Gene Michael, you have three choices: you bring Stump Merrill back after more than a year and a half of stagnation, you roll the dice that 35-year-old Buck Showalter is Boy Wonder, or you hire a man with a .588 winning percentage who wears a world championship ring and is New York battle-tested. What that means is that you have only one choice, really.
"Davey's got the best credentials of anyone out there," Mets pitcher David Cone said. "If you've got a team in New York, there are two things you need to know about a manager: Can he win, and can he handle the pressure and media here? Davey's done both. He's a proven commodity. Instead of hiring a guy and wondering if he can make it, you've got a guy like Davey who's already done it."
Johnson made his appearance at Shea Stadium to film an instructional video for children, "Davey Johnson's Fundamentals of Baseball." Sitting in the same dugout whence he presided over the Mets' glory years, Johnson openly expressed interest in managing again as soon as possible, adding that "money is not my prime concern."
"Baseball is my life," he said. "I know I do it very well. I do a lot of things well, but I do this as well as anything. Any situation would be interesting, after having no situation at all."
Johnson said he has not been contacted about a job. He spends his time playing golf, running a resort and two restaurants and overseeing an arena football team. He installed a satellite dish at his Florida house to watch as many baseball games as possible. He usually watches the Mets, but, "I change the channel if they have a bad inning." He often switches to the Yankees.
"I've watched a lot of their games," he said. "You can see improvement and you just have to have patience. It looks like Stump has been real patient. This is not a city where you can have a whole lot of patience. I saw a number of pretty good players play this year. They're missing a few things. It doesn't take a lot in that division to make a difference."
The timing is perfect for Johnson to join the Yankees. He did his best managing in 1984 and 1985, when he nurtured a young team into a confident contender. One of Merrill's problems is that he never gained enough respect from his players. The Yankees won't have that problem with Johnson.
"Just look at the guy's record," one of the Yankees said recently. "How can you not respect that? He's one of the best managers around and I know he's especially good with young pitchers."
Said another Yankee: "I feel like we've wasted a year. We need somebody to help us win now."
We know Johnson won't wilt under the New York heat the way Bud Harrelson has. Johnson knows how to handle the constant probing from the media.
"I told Buddy in spring training, 'Look, they're all [jerks], but you've got to get along with them,' " Johnson said. "Hey, I was shot full of holes. You can't bleed, that's all. You can't bleed."
In 20 minutes yesterday he displayed more grace, humor and honesty under questioning than Harrelson has all year.
Johnson would win games for the Yankees, and he would sell some tickets. There is nothing wrong with that.
It is up to Michael to make this happen, to put Johnson back into the dugout and bring respectability back to the Yankees.