Johnson gets optimal job A year later, number comes up with Orioles

October 31, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Long before he ever thought about managing a major-league team, Davey Johnson was playing the game by the numbers. He was a mathematics major in college and a believer in all things statistical, so much so that, as a player, he used to borrow time on the computer system at Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger's brewery.

"I used to work on this program I called 'Optimizing the Orioles Lineup,' " Johnson said, "and I would run it through the computer and bring the data to Earl Weaver. I found out that if I hit second instead of seventh, we'd score 50 or 60 more runs and that would translate into a few more wins. I gave it to him, and it went right into the garbage can."

It is a true story that tells a lot about Johnson and one of his mentors. Weaver probably had a few choice words for his back-seat skipper, but he soon was predicting that Johnson someday would be a successful major-league manager.

Johnson, who was introduced yesterday as the new Orioles manager, has hadsuccess everywhere he has been. He managed the New York Mets for six-plus years and never finished lower than second place. He managed the Cincinnati Reds for three seasons and finished first twice. He owns -- along with three division titles and a World Series championship -- the highest winning percentage (.576) of any active manager. And it was all on that computer printout 25 years ago. Weaver was just reading between the lines.

"Davey was always the type of player that was inquisitive," Weaver said yesterday. "He always wanted to know what I was trying to do and why I was trying it and everything else. That is the type of player who is going to be a successful manager.

"I'm happy to see him get this job. I would be happy to see him get any job, but especially Baltimore. He's earned it with the Mets. He's earned it in Cincinnati. He's earned it wherever he's been. Davey's going to be good for Baltimore."

He already has made a significant contribution to the Orioles organization as a player, starting at second base from 1966 to 1972 and playing on four World Series teams, but his teammates didn't know what to make of his esoteric intellectual pursuits. They nicknamed him "Dum Dum" because of his slow Southern manner, but they knew there was a lot going on inside his head.

"I guess, looking back, we used to call him 'Dum Dum' because he was an Aggie [at Texas A&M]," said former teammate Jim Palmer. "He was a guy who was always thinking about things. Very cerebral, maybe even to the point of over-analyzing a situation, but I think that has become one of his strengths as a manager.

"He was a good player. Came out of the minor leagues as a shortstop . . . had a good arm and was quick. Not a great home run hitter. He'd hit 15-18 home runs, though he did have that one big year with the Braves."

That one big year was 1973, when Johnson hit 43 homers to set a major-league record for second basemen and combined with Hank Aaron and Darrell Evans to become the only trio in baseball history to hit 40 or more homers for the same team in the same season. But he always was considered a solid hitter and a fine defensive player -- winning four Gold Gloves in eight seasons with the Orioles.

The Orioles would trade him away after the 1972 season because Weaver felt that he had given up too much defensive range in his quest to bulk up at the plate. He went to the Braves along with three other players -- including former Orioles manager Johnny Oates -- for catcher Earl Williams and a minor-leaguer.

"You never really thought about him becoming a manager," said friend and former teammate Brooks Robinson, "but you never know what somebody's thinking. When he decided to become a manager, he went for it. I think this is the best thing that could have happened to the Orioles."

It would be a seven years before Johnson embarked on the second half of his baseball career. He spent two successful seasons in Atlanta, but left in 1975 to play two years in Japan. He returned to spend a couple of seasons as a role player with the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs before making his managerial debut with Miami of the Inter-American League in 1979.

He was a natural. He won titles in each of his first two minor-league seasons and had a winning record at Triple-A Tidewater in 1983. The Mets gave him his big chance the following year, and Johnson began a string of six seasons during which the club averaged 96 victories.

"He just had great instincts for the game," said Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine. "He had great knowledge.

"I really think his great strength was developing young pitchers. I don't think anybody could have done a better job with those young pitchers on the '84 Mets . . . with [Dwight] Gooden and [Ron] Darling and [Sid] Fer

nandez. . . . I think the job he did with those young pitchers set the trend for the next five years."

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