A season smarter, Johnson adjusts Manager: Davey Johnson plans to take a little different tack with the Orioles in his second season, from his words to the media to his deference toward Cal Ripken.

February 09, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

The day he became manager of the Orioles, Davey Johnson said the team was going to win, and it won, making the playoffs, something the Orioles hadn't accomplished since 1983.

But as easy as Johnson made winning sound, with his self-assured prediction, winning with the Orioles was hard. Very hard, a crisis a month, at least, from Bobby Bonilla's nearly allergic reaction to the designated hitter, to the players' distaste for how Johnson occasionally criticized them to reporters.

Johnson learned about the American League and its tendency toward double-digit scores. He learned about the Orioles' general lack of depth. He learned how everything surrounding Cal Ripken can transcend the rest of the team.

"Definitely I'm more prepared for this year," Johnson said last week from his central Florida home. "The club and myself, we have a little better grasp of what's ahead, and a little better understanding of each other."

The makeup of the Orioles' 1997 roster reflects Johnson's acquired knowledge. He wanted more relief pitching, and the Orioles, with three established left-handers and three established right-handers, now possess one of the game's deepest bullpens. He wanted more speed, and he has Eric Davis and Jerome Walton instead of Todd Zeile. Johnson wanted better defense, and the Orioles have Mike Bordick instead of Bonilla.

Johnson learned about the Orioles, and when you learn, "you make adjustments."

The adjustment his players may notice above all others is how Johnson speaks of them to reporters. When Johnson managed the New York Mets and Cincinnati, he developed a reputation for being frank. If his team played badly, he would say so, and he might note that a particular player had made a particular mistake. Such remarks are calculated, Johnson said.

"There are times, in the past, when I haven't been able to get my message across to the player," Johnson said. "I might give them a little dig in the paper. First, I'll say something to the player [directly], and if that doesn't work, then sometimes I'll say something in the paper and it might sink in a little more."

Was that the way Earl Weaver managed?

Johnson said: "That's the way it works."

Sometimes. A number of Orioles players didn't like Johnson's public pronouncements, such as Johnson's reference to "Bobby Bonilla disease," the inability to produce as a designated hitter. They didn't like Johnson's handling of Ripken, or how Johnson noted their mistakes to reporters, and sometimes they disagreed with his assessments.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos sympathized with the players. "I think that's a practice that isn't, in any way, conducive to winning," Angelos said recently. "That should be handled privately and quietly in the manager's office."

Then, in November, when club officials met with Ripken to discuss his switch to third base, several sources familiar with the conversation say Ripken spoke along the same lines: In a non-confrontational manner, Ripken mentioned how players might function better without criticism (Johnson participated in the discussion on speakerphone). It was a comment, others were sure, meant for Johnson's consumption.

Johnson understands his players didn't like the criticism. "Have I been critical in the past with pitchers and players?" he asked, rhetorically. "Yeah. I might do it a little more. But I've shifted the emphasis from [talking] in the papers to directly dealing with the player. I've used both in the past.

"I'd say there were only two guys on the ballclub that I criticized a little bit in the paper that would have a beef, [Mike] Mussina and Bonilla."

(Ripken has declined interview requests this off-season, and Bonilla and Mussina have declined to discuss Johnson's criticisms.)

Johnson scrutinized Mussina's pitch selection and location several times. But, he added, "if you went back and looked over the whole season at what I said about Mussina, I also said that he's better than this. I heaped praise on him -- I said he's the best pitcher I've ever seen, and that's what I believe."

Virtually any baseball man, Johnson said, "would think that Bobby Bonilla would be an outstanding designated hitter. But obviously, Bobby's a little different sort. We abandoned it, and he ended up playing pretty good.

"In Bobby's defense, he was coming over from the NL, and being at that point in his career" -- on the verge of free agency -- "he wanted everybody to know he was an everyday player who could play in the field."

Bonilla signed a four-year, $23.3 million deal with the Florida Marlins this off-season. To play third base, in a league without the DH rule. "It did him good," Johnson said. "He handled his cards right."

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