And, in this corner, Davey Johnson

On Baseball

February 18, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

For someone with a reputation for being a player's manager, a guy who tries to keep everybody as relaxed as possible, Davey Johnson has had his share of fights with people a lot bigger than him.

He had a knock-down, drag-out in 1973 with his manager, Eddie Mathews. Seems Johnson and teammate Mike Lum got into a bit of a row over nothing of any great significance, and eventually Mathews brought Johnson into his room.

"Eddie said, 'C'mon, let's go, hit me,' " Johnson recalled. " 'Man-to-man. C'mon.'

"I said: 'I can't hit you. You're my manager.' He said: 'No, hit me. Let's go. Man-to-man.' "

Johnson remembers nudging Mathews, a big man. A tap. But when he saw his manager reaching back to throw a roundhouse punch, Johnson popped Mathews squarely, knocking him across the room. Others jumped in, and Mathews never got a chance to fire back.

"You can ask Hank Aaron and others on that team," Johnson said, laughing. "Eddie said his biggest regret [in his baseball career] was not having it out with me again. That one never got out. It never made the papers."

Then, as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Johnson had a couple of showdowns with Kevin Mitchell. One took place after the All-Star break in 1994. Mitchell reported late to the team after the break, missing a couple of workouts, and when the burly slugger returned, Johnson met him in the trainer's room to tell him he would be fined two days' pay.

"I was trying to handle that out of sight, and it got out of hand," he said. "I couldn't help it; it was a reaction. He didn't like the fact it was going to cost him two days' pay, and I told him in no uncertain terms if he couldn't be here on time, he couldn't get paid. That was my decision. He told me all his personal problems, and I told him, good, I'd like to help you solve them. But when he bumped me, I snapped. I tried to tear his head off."

Others separated them. But that was only Round 1.

"I had another deal was even worse than that, but the other one didn't get out [in the media]," he said. "Ray Knight [a Reds coach] was in the room, and if he wasn't, I probably would've gotten my head torn off. I mean, hitting Kevin Mitchell is like hitting a bowling ball. He hit me on top of the head, and I felt like I got hit by a bowling ball, and when I hit him, I felt like I was hitting a concrete wall.

"I probably could've been more famous and more successful [in reputation] if I had taken a harder tone with players publicly, instead of a firm hand out of sight."

A firm hand. Or, in dealing with Mitchell, a balled-up fist.

But, brawls aside, Johnson is a player's manager. He likes to keep the team relaxed, thinking that if the players are comfortable, they're bound to play better.

Want to go golfing? No problem. Want to play cards? No big deal.

"If a player can relax by playing 18 holes, then why would I want to take that away?" Johnson said. "There's enough pressure in this job as it is."

Most teams in baseball discourage players from bringing their wives on road trips, and some have unwritten rules limiting the number of trips a wife can take with the team. Johnson feels differently. His wife, Susan, often travels with him. "And we'll take them back [on the team plane], if we can accommodate them," he said.

"I went through a divorce, and I think maybe part of that can be attributed to the old Oriole ways -- players couldn't travel back to be with their wives when they had babies and that kind of thing.

"I want to give players an environment in which they can be comfortable. That, to me, gives them their best chance at success."

Another responsibility of being a manager, Johnson says, "is giving everybody a fair shot. I don't have a doghouse, per se. I'll give them opportunity. You have to be right in how you treat them, and you have to be consistent with how you treat a player.

"If that's a player's manager, then so be it, I'm glad I'm a player's manager."

Chicago boot camp

The Chicago White Sox are preparing for what manager Terry Bevington is calling a boot camp. Long workouts, long days. Bevington says he'll be tougher in spring than former White Sox manager Gene Lamont. "Spring training will not be a picnic," said first baseman Frank Thomas. "He's already phoned to let us know."

* Colorado reliever Curtis Leskanic heard the bullpen phone ring constantly for him last year, when he led the majors in appearances with 76. During the off-season, he says, he uses a machine to answer his phone. "I don't like to hear a phone ring," he said. "It's Pavlov's dog. When he heard the bell, he knew it was time to eat. When I hear the phone, it's time to get loose."

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