Johnson offers Angelos the change he's looking for

October 09, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

The Governor's Cup was at stake in 1983, and tempers were running high. Davey Johnson was managing the Tidewater Tides, Johnny Oates the Columbus Clippers. What made the brawl that broke out unusual was it was started, not broken up, by the managers.

"He had one of our players hit or something," Johnson recalled. "We stole a base with a six-run lead in the fifth, and he didn't think we should be running. I told him, 'Johnny, I tell you what, you can manage your team and I'll manage mine.' We started fighting and everyone joined in."

Johnson's team went on to win the Governor's Cup and the Little World Series, the same year the Orioles won the World Series, 11 years ago. And it was 11 years after Johnson and Oates were traded with Roric Harrison and Pat Dobson for Earl Williams and Taylor Duncan, a one-sided swap in favor of the Atlanta Braves.

Here in the autumn of 1994, Oates' and Johnson's paths almost cross again. Standing at the head of a crowded field, Johnson qualifies as the favorite to succeed Oates as the Orioles' fourth manager since 1988. Johnson and Oates are cut from different cloths. Oates is a baseball man by the book. The book says thou shalt not steal with a six-run lead in the fifth inning. Oates cherishes the friendships he has with other managers. He enjoys being part of that fraternity.

In contrast, Johnson is his own man who does things his own way. Where Oates' struggles through 1994 inspired compassion his peers, Johnson's success at times has inspired jealousy.

"We were the best, and we made no bones about it," Johnson said of his Mets teams.

The same book that says thou shalt not steal with a six-run lead in the fifth inning also says to look the other way when a pitcher is using pine tar to improve his grip on the curveball on a rainy day. Sandpaper, Vaseline, fine. Those type of cheaters can be policed. But pine tar? Everyone does it. Just wink, spit that tobacco juice, flash a few signs and sit down.

Not Johnson. When he saw Jay Howell using pine tar to improve his grip on a rainy day at Shea Stadium during the 1988 National League Championship Series, he called him on it, and the move resulted in the Dodgers' best reliever getting tagged with a suspension.

Unlike Oates, who to a fault cares about what people think of him, Johnson follows a course he sets and lets others do the agonizing. In his dealings with the media, Oates felt confused, almost cornered. He received counseling from media coach Andrea Kirby. Johnson's thick skin weathered six-plus seasons of tabloid terrorism in New York. He probably could coach Kirby.

Aggressive, yet thorough. Strong-willed, yet charming. Extremely self-confident, yet down-to-earth. Serious, yet blessed with a disarming sense of humor. A maverick who is very comfortable making difficult decisions. And, above all, successful.

Those qualities describe both Johnson and Angelos. If Angelos craves another Oates, then Johnson is not his man. If he wants a near polar opposite, Johnson fits the description.

This hiring represents a crossroads in the Angelos ownership of the Orioles. If he hires Johnson, he can put to rest the meddling charges. If he doesn't hire Johnson or Oakland's Tony La Russa, the charges will continue to surface.

Two Johnson responses to questions after he was interviewed suggest an Angelos-Johnson union would be fear-free and full of mutual respect.

"I know that he is very intelligent, very aggressive, very successful," Johnson said of Angelos. "That's not a bad combination. I like talking to intelligent people."

And, when asked about potential meddling: "I'm really not concerned with that. I'm confident in my own abilities."

Because of the probability that La Russa will not be available, Johnson shapes up as the favorite for the job. In the seven seasons Johnson has managed a team from start to finish, he has produced three first-place finishes, four second-place finishes.

From 1984 through 1989, the Mets averaged 96 victories under Johnson. They went 108-54 and won the World Series in 1986. Yes, those Mets were loaded, but they also had Rafael Santana at shortstop and a platoon of Wally Backman and Tim Teufel at second base.

Johnson's past with the organization would not inspire as much fire in Orioles fans as would candidate Rick Dempsey's, but he did play in four World Series for the Orioles.

On paper, Johnson appears to be a slam dunk. But this decision won't be made on paper. It will be made after an exhaustive first-round interview process recently concluded by Roland Hemond, Frank Robinson, attorney Russell Smouse and vice chairman of business and finance Joe Foss. And after Angelos meets with two or three finalists.

This being Angelos' first managerial hire, there is a certain amount of intrigue involved. How much influence will Robinson have? Who will Robinson tout? How heavily will Angelos bank on the input of Smouse, his No. 1 confidant?

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