Johnson steps back, O's ahead Manager touched by warm return in 4-2 win over K.C.

'Only opener I'll remember'

2nd-base entrance brings well of emotion

April 03, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Davey Johnson isn't much for nostalgia, he says. He isn't very emotional, he says. But the man who pushed the cold, hard reality of computer-generated baseball statistics on Earl Weaver was swamped with feelings on Opening Day, Johnson's first game as manager of the Orioles.

After receiving the largest pre-game ovation for anyone not named Ripken, Johnson watched from the top step of the dugout yesterday as the Orioles beat the Kansas City Royals, 4-2, before a sellout crowd of 46,818.

Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken drove in three runs with two singles, Mike Mussina pitched seven strong innings for the victory, and new closer Randy Myers buzzed through the Royals the ninth.

It was the 800th victory of Johnson's managerial career, but -- and Weaver may not believe this -- that number meant nothing to Johnson, compared with all the exhilaration of his new job.

"This one," he said afterward, "was very special. . . . I've had Opening Days in New York and Cincinnati, sellout crowds. [But] this is the only Opening Day I'll remember."

Johnson, introduced to the crowd before the game, emerged from the center-field gate and ran toward second base on a red carpet that had been rolled out, the cheers for him growing as he neared the infield.

As Johnson reached second, he stepped on the bag, and he admitted later that a convergence of emotions hit him at that moment, flashes of his past career as the Orioles second baseman mixed with the joy that he is exactly where he wants to be, doing exactly what he wants to do.

"I had chills," he said. "I didn't know I could run that fast coming down the carpet. I slowed down, or I might've pulled something.

"I was in another world at that time. I was ready to get a glove and play second base."

He had no idea it would be like this. Johnson downplayed his first game at Camden Yards in the week leading up to Opening Day. Sure, it would be nice, but the important thing was it was the first game of the year and you'd like to get off to a good start.

Johnson's focus was on learning more about the Kansas City Royals. Before yesterday's game, he sat in his office, and through glasses perched at the end of his nose he stared at scouting reports, defensive charts and media guides. Johnson acknowledged that he didn't have nearly as much firsthand information as he would've liked, and that made him a little anxious.

But it was the butterflies, anticipation of Opening Day, that woke him up at 3 a.m. Monday and kept him awake. He took his Labrador retriever puppy, Alfie, out for a walk, both dog and man barefoot in the grass, and this helped him relax. Momentarily, anyway. He woke up again at 3 a.m. yesterday. Nerves. Boog Powell, Johnson's former teammate, said, "He's been much quieter than he normally is."

As President Clinton would discover. Clinton walked into the clubhouse shortly before yesterday's game, and Johnson had it all set in his mind: He and the 42nd president would talk a little baseball. But Clinton, known to practice for his Opening Day first pitch, threw Johnson a curve, raving about Johnson's golf game.

Johnson suddenly was at a loss for words. "I know I have a good reputation as a golfer," Johnson said later, "but I didn't know it had reached the president of the United States."

Johnson's being caught off-guard might explain a die-hard Republican. "They might ban me from the next Republican convention or something," he said, grinning.

Johnson also recalled his first Opening Day with the Orioles. New York Yankees left-hander Whitey Ford picked him off first, and later, picked him off second. In the late innings, Johnson reached third, and third base coach Billy Hunter told Johnson if he got picked off again, he would be headed back to Thomasville, Ga., to the minor leagues. Johnson didn't think he was kidding.

Opening Day 1996 went much more smoothly for Johnson. Mussina pitched well, Ripken had a couple of clutch hits and the defense was flawless. Johnson got a chance to rush out of the dugout and challenge an umpire, in the fine tradition established by Weaver. Some fans yelled "Davey!" the way they used to yell "Earl!".

It was easy to see, pitching coach Pat Dobson said, that Johnson was pumped. He bounced out of the dugout after center fielder Brady Anderson caught Joe Randa's fly, ending the game.

"It was a great day, wasn't it?" Johnson asked, his face brightening.

Ripken talked afterward about having Johnson as manager of the Orioles. "He was part of the glory years," Ripken said. "It seemed like every year, they were in the World Series. . . . For him to come back here as manager, he has a chance to relive that feeling."

On Opening Day, he had the best of feelings.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: K.C. Royals

Site: Oriole Park

Time: 7: 35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Royals' Mark Gubicza (12-14, 3.75 in 1995) vs. Orioles' David Wells (16-8, 3.24 in 1995)

Tickets: Many available

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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