Orioles get to atone for '94 blunder

October 31, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles' hiring of Davey Johnson, one of baseball's best managers, is a positive event attributable mostly to luck.

Smarts? If the Orioles were smart, they wouldn't have passed over Johnson a year ago to hire someone who had never managed a professional team in North America.

What was Johnson's initial reaction to hearing he had lost the job to Phil Regan last year?

"I thought there were a lot of stupid people out there," Johnson said.

Bingo. The Orioles made a mistake, a biggie. That they're getting a chance to correct it a year later is a stroke of almost unbelievable luck.

Sure, they're still doing things backward, hiring their manager before their general manager. It means Johnson will answer more to owner Peter Angelos than to the GM, a dangerous arrangement. Smart teams give the GM full control over all baseball decisions, such as the name of the manager. You can be sure this vagueness in the Orioles' chain of command will rTC come up somewhere down the line.

But let's cut the club some slack here, because the truth is the Orioles had to hire Johnson now. He was a sound choice, he was available, he wanted to come and other teams were looking for managers. It was time to forget the chain of command. Johnson easily could have landed elsewhere if the Orioles had insisted on waiting until they hired a GM.

The only danger was in waiting. There certainly was no danger in hiring Johnson, who has the highest winning percentage among active managers and has never had a losing record in a season in which he has managed a team from the first day to the last. He is a proven, accomplished pro who was available only because he had worked for the most ridiculous owner in sports, Marge Schott, who grossly underestimated his value.

At 52, Johnson is at the peak of his powers. He has shed the hard edge that marked him earlier in his career in favor of a calmer approach. Yet he still has total command of his clubhouse and the game's tactical side.

If you're looking for a comparison, try Lou Piniella, whose superb handling of the Seattle Mariners was on display during the playoffs. Piniella was a hothead who cooled down and learned how to be a good manager. Johnson was a hothead who started out a good manager and is an even better one now.

If nothing else, his .576 career winning percentage will give the Orioles an essential ingredient that has been sorely lacking for a few years: a manager with total self-confidence, a manager who will command respect from the players as well as the owner.

It was evident yesterday that Johnson will not wilt from any of the pressures that blanched his two predecessors. A survivor of six-plus years in New York, he won't succumb to media skepticism. And the demanding owner?

"Mr. Angelos told me he's only going to make out the lineups on Sundays," Johnson said.

That was not his only moment of blunt humor. Asked whether he would play Bobby Bonilla at third base or right field, Johnson said, "He's no Gold Glover wherever you put him."

The message? This is a guy who is totally unafraid, who doesn't worry about what the fans or his players think, because he knows he is right.

His record, which includes four first-place finishes in 10 years, gives him the right to such swaggering confidence.

"Most of my teams play up to their potential," he said. "Players know when you're right, and you build a mutual respect. They may not like you, but they know you're doing what is best to try to win."

The Orioles had no such respect for Regan. That wasn't entirely fair; poor personnel decisions made by Roland Hemond doomed the '95 Orioles as much as any factor. But the players didn't believe in Regan because he had never won as a manager and became more isolated as the losses mounted. It was a problem.

That problem is gone. Regan was learning on the job, making him a poor fit for the win-now Orioles. Johnson is a pro who knows what he is doing and always wins. It is impossible to overstate how much of an upgrade he represents.

Throw in the Yankees' foolish firing of Buck Showalter, with the mediocre Joe Torre probably replacing him, and the Orioles are on a roll.

What luck. The club passed over Johnson a year ago because Regan interviewed well with some people who knew nothing about baseball. It was an interesting choice -- initially supported in this column -- that became a disaster as the season fell apart. And now the Orioles get to correct the mistake only because the Reds' owner thought dog hair brought good luck.

Asked yesterday what he would say to Schott now, Johnson said, "Thanks. For letting me go."

The Orioles should say the same. Only time will tell if they have gotten smarter. But they sure have gotten luckier.

Johnson's record

Yr. Club ... ... ... W-L ... ... ... Pct. ... ... Pos.

1984 N.Y. (NL) .. .. 90-72 ... .. .. .556 ... ... 2nd

1985 N.Y. (NL) .. .. 98-64 ... .. .. .605 ... ... 2nd

1986 N.Y. (NL)-x ... 108-54 .. .. .. .667 ... ... 1st

1987 N.Y. (NL) .. .. 92-70 ... .. .. .568 ... ... 2nd

1988 N.Y. (NL) .. .. 100-60 .. .. .. .625 ... ... 1st

1989 N.Y. (NL) .. .. 87-75 ... .. .. .537 ... ... 2nd

1990 N.Y. (NL)-y ... 20-22 ... .. .. .476 ... ... 4th

1993 Cinc.-z ... ... 53-65 ... .. .. .449 ... ... 5th

1994 Cinc. ... .. .. 66-48 ... .. .. .579 ... ... 1st

1995 Cinc. ... .. .. 85-59 ... .. .. .590 ... ... 1st

Tot. ... ... ... ... 799-589 ... ... .576

x -- World Series champions.

y -- Replaced by Bud Harrelson on May 29.

z -- Took over for Tony Perez on May 24.

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