Johnson track record helps O's out of blocks

February 20, 1996|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- So, who is luckier, the Orioles for backing into the services of a manager as secure and accomplished as Davey Johnson, or Johnson for ending up with the perfect job after getting fired in New York and chased off in Cincinnati?

Tough question. Let's just say both sides are lucky to have entered into this long-odds marriage with such upside potential.

The Orioles' luck already is apparent, even though spring training isn't even a week old and position players are just now reporting.

There is a palpable sense of confidence flowing through the clubhouse -- an ingredient in the standard recipe for success that has been missing for years.

It is an ingredient resulting partly from the club's improved talent level, but mostly from the presence of Johnson and his .581 career winning percentage.

"Davey is organized and experienced, and he isn't trying to prove anything to anybody because he has shown he can win," Mike Mussina said yesterday.

No doubt about that.

"I was confident in my ability as a player, and I'm confident in my ability as a manager," Johnson said yesterday.

Does that translate into better play on the field?

"I think it makes a difference to everybody," Johnson said.

Mussina agreed.

"I can't speak for everybody, but it makes a difference to me," he said.

It makes a difference because Johnson is the first Orioles manager since Frank Robinson who is confident in his ability to do his job and keep his job. And considering Robinson's .476 career winning percentage, Johnson really is the Orioles' first big-time manager since Earl Weaver.

Johnny Oates and Phil Regan, Johnson's predecessors, were in their first major-league managing jobs and concerned with proving themselves. It undermined their ability to govern, particularly when the team didn't win, and contributed to a jumpy atmosphere that was self-defeating.

Not that Oates and Regan were entirely to blame. Oates, a solid manager, had every right to feel paranoid under Peter Angelos' hypercritical gaze. And Regan was a 58-year-old rookie who made the inevitable rookie mistakes, such as attempting to alter the team's long-standing set of defensive fundamentals, costing him Cal Ripken's support.

Johnson, as a former player, knows the players will gripe about him, too. Players always gripe.

"The way you earn their respect is simple: just be right 100 percent of the time," Johnson said with a smile.

In other words, he doesn't care what the players think. He knows his way is right. You can look it up.

"Nothing commands respect more than a track record," Mussina said.

Johnson has one of the best. He has never had a losing record in a season he has started and finished as manager.

Every day, it seems that much more incredible that the club turned him down a year ago to hire Regan, who had never managed a professional team at any level on this continent.

For the Orioles to get a second shot at Johnson a year later, only because Marge Schott was foolish enough to run him off after he won a division title, is the definition of good luck.

Not that Johnson doesn't have reason to count his blessings, too.

After managerial runs in high-pressure New York and bizarro Cincinnati, Baltimore is the best gig in the world, particularly now that ownership is opening its checkbook (unlike in the Eli Jacobs days) and agreeing not to meddle (unlike in the first two years of Angelos' ownership).

The perfect job.

"I couldn't have scripted it any better, coming back to Baltimore when I did," Johnson said.

The timing is indeed remarkable. Remember, Johnson was hired before Pat Gillick came on board as general manager, a move that dramatically redefined the organization as progressive and sensible.

Yes, Johnson helped lure Gillick, so it wasn't all luck that that happened to him. But think about how much better it was for Johnson to get the job this year as opposed to last year, when the organization was still a sea of uncertainty.

Strange as it seems, he is much better off for having experienced the disappointment of not getting the job a year ago. Regan and general manager Roland Hemond took the fall for the disorder that existed before Gillick.

Pretty fortunate.

Not that Johnson is willing to suggest that he already has earned the support of his new team simply because of his record.

"Hey, it's easy to look good right now, in the spring," he said. "Let's see how we all do when we have some adversity. When we lose five in a row in July, that's when you'll see how we're getting along."

There is little doubt Johnson will handle the inevitable difficulty. He always has.

The Orioles are lucky to have him.

He is lucky to be here.

Everybody wins.

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