Johnson is a manager with a sense of humor

November 02, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the summer of 1965, in his first at bat as a Baltimore Oriole, young Davey Johnson smacked a single off New York Yankee immortal Whitey Ford. Then, gracefully dancing off first base full of new-found joie de vivre, Johnson promptly got himself picked off.

This was considered not so good. So, when he drew a walk in his second at bat, Johnson was careful to wait until he got all the way to second base before getting himself picked off once again.

In the Baltimore dugout that day, Billy Hunter corner him long enough to offer a piece of sage major league wisdom. "If you get picked off again," said the Orioles third base coach, "just keep going."

Thirty years later, on the day he was named to manage his old ballclub, Davey Johnson remembered the humiliation of his first day in big league ball, and he let loose a horse laugh.

"After that day," he said, "I never got two feet off base again."

How do you like this? A manager with a sense of humor. A guy unafraid to laugh at himself. An Orioles manager who hears the name -- Yes, say the name and be not afraid! -- of Peter Angelos and doesn't automatically go into a defensive crouch.

Angelos? "Pete said he only makes the lineups out on Sundays," Johnson told a crowd of reporters at the club's Camden Yards offices.

How do you like this? A baseball man who understands this is a game for children, an entertainment, and you can't let your nerves get in the way of performing.

Davey Johnson arrives here from another world, in which Orioles and winning were synonymous. It was also a world when people stuck around. Brooks Robinson was here for 22 summers, and Jim Palmer for 19. One season following another, you knew Boog would be at first, Blair would officially cover center and unofficially the rest of the outfield. And there would be Frank Robinson menacing every pitcher and McNally mowing down hitters and

And, oh, yeah: For seven seasons, during which the Orioles won four pennants, two additional division titles and two world series, there was that fellow Johnson out there every day at second base.

They were winners then, and they created a legacy of winning that lasted for a long time thereafter. Only the winning stopped a dozen years ago and hasn't returned. Part of it, you can chart with the number of comings and goings. Players, and managers, too.

Once, there was something called the Oriole Way. This was the best team money couldn't buy. They built from within, instead of buying from without. OK, things change. The greed consumed everyone in baseball. But, along with a dozen years of losing came forgetting: how to construct a solid club, how to maintain your poise, how to win the close ones. Maybe Davey Johnson, winner of pennants and a World Series while managing elsewhere, brings some of that back.

"It feels good to be home," he said. "And I mean that. I've been an Oriole since I left here."

Then he looked out at the crowd in front of him, spotted a familiar face, and hollered, "Hey, Chuck, how you doin'?" at announcer Chuck Thompson. In less than a minute, a couple of decades were being bridged.

"I feel like this is my home," said Johnson.

Maybe this touched the soul of Peter Angelos. Say what you will about the Orioles owner: Is he a baseball expert? Of course not. Has he made mistakes? Of course. But he bought this ballclub because he didn't want to see it leave Baltimore, and he's spent a fortune on it because he wants to see it win. He understands not only the town, but the fervor it feels for this team.

"My teams," said Davey Johnson, "play up to their potential."

Do we need an explanation? This has been a ballclub without any visible sign of heart. Maybe they need a manager who remembers how to win. In Johnson's first playing season, 1966, the Orioles shocked the baseball world by winning their first pennant and then stunned everyone by sweeping the World Series from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"I was the last one who ever got a hit off Sandy Koufax," Johnson remembered. It was the great pitcher's last appearance before retiring.

"The next year," Johnson said, "I saw Sandy in spring training. I told him I got the last hit off him. Sandy said, 'Yeah, that's when I knew I was washed up.' "

How do you like this? A manager who can poke a little fun at himself. He thinks baseball can be a hoot. We haven't sensed such potential joy around here in a long time.

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