Down checks out fine with Johnson Rumor dispelled before coach hired

March 05, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- Orioles manager Davey Johnson heard the whispers about former Yankees hitting coach Rick Down, passed around the New York rumor mill.

But Johnson had firsthand experience with secondhand stories in New York. Shortly after Johnson was fired by the Mets in 1990, he started hearing that one reason for his demise was he drank too much, something nobody ever said to him while he managed, something he thought patently absurd.

So before interviewing Down, Johnson looked into the rumor rumor about Down, that Down he had trouble working with Latin and Afro African-American players, innuendo that surfaced when Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and manager Buck Showalter were deciding whether Showalter would return as manager for 1996.

Johnson called friends in the game, those who knew Down and understood his relationship with Yankees players. Someone working on behalf of the Orioles and Johnson called New York coach Willie Randolph for his opinion on Down, and Randolph -- )) who yesterday confirmed the call -- backed the hitting coach. After what he heard, Johnson "wasn't concerned," and was convinced the rumor was bogus, which Down maintains. "If you want to know about Rick Down," Down said yesterday, "talk to the people I worked with."

Johnson did just that.

"I heard very good things about him," Johnson said. "I had an interview with him, and I feel like I'm a pretty good judge of character. . . . I'm sure you can always find somebody who thinks you're a jerk, if you look hard enough."

Somebody asked Down if he thought the innuendo hurt his chances of getting a job during the off-season. "I think if it did, I wouldn't be here [with the Orioles]," he said.

Showalter's contract was set to expire at the end of last October, and after the Yankees lost to the Seattle Mariners in the American League divisional series, Showalter and Steinbrenner began a prolonged negotiation. In the end, Down may have been caught in the middle.

Reportedly, Steinbrenner told Showalter he could come back, but could not retain Down. Showalter wouldn't agree to return under those terms, and word disseminated from the Yankees front office was that the reason why The Boss didn't want Down back was because of the rumor.

Down heard the rumor, but never directly from anyone making an accusation. Bothered, Down said yesterday that he called Steinbrenner twice in October to ask him about the source of the innuendo. "I never got any returned," said Down, who wanted to ask Steinbrenner, "What is it he didn't like about Rick Down? . I would've been interested to hear. . . . Nobody ever came to me to say what was said. It was something personal."

But, Down said, he didn't harbor any bitterness toward the Yankees, and he had no intention of tracking down Steinbrenner yesterday, before the Orioles' exhibition against New York. "It's his ballclub," Down said. "He's the owner. It's his prerogative to determine who he wants back. I can't control what people have to say."

Down, 45, was a hitting coach for the Yankees for three years, and, in each of the first two seasons, New York led the AL in hitting. Before that, he served as a manager for Triple-A Columbus.

Down played seven years in the minors, and the next year began his career off the field, coaching for West Palm Beach in 1976 and managing at Bellingham in 1977.

He has made a good first impression with Orioles hitters. "He's got a lot of energy; there's no question about that," said catcher Chris Hoiles. "He's always ready to work with you, and that's all you can ask for."

Johnson said: "His work ethic is second to none, and I like the way he goes about [teaching]. I liked his ideas."

He liked him enough to hire him, despite what was being said in the whispers that Johnson stopped listening to years ago.

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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