Lightning rod? Orioles: Does he court controversy or does conflict follow him? With manager Davey Johnson, it's hard to tell.

April 01, 1997|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,SUN STAFF

Just so you know, Davey Johnson says he doesn't mind a little conflict in his life, which is a good thing.

Because, as you might know, if Davey Johnson doesn't court conflict -- and that is still a matter of debate -- he doesn't exactly run from it either. And, in any case, it seems always to find him.

"Sometimes," Johnson says of his managerial style, "you have to bump heads to get to know each other better."

He says this on a cloudless, perfect Fort Lauderdale afternoon, two weeks before Opening Day, a day so relaxed that a manager would never feel tempted to reach for the Maalox or order up a nerve-calming, post-game cocktail. Spring is in the air, and every team still believes in its promise. And in the case of the Orioles, that promise should extend deep into summer and perhaps into fall.

It's on the same day that Sam Perlozzo, the Orioles' third base coach, who has worked for Johnson for years, is asked how it's going.

"It's quiet," he says. "Of course, this could be the calm before the storm."

With Davey Johnson, there's always a storm looming.

Maybe you remember last year, Johnson's first as Orioles manager. In that one, he battled Bobby Bonilla over his role as designated hitter. He also found time to get in Cal Ripken's iconic face on a semi-regular basis. And while he was at it, he took the Orioles to the playoffs for the first time since 1983, which might sound better to you than it does to some people. Because after the season, there were reports that Peter Angelos, who owns the Orioles, was dissatisfied with Johnson's performance and that Johnson might not return.

If it's calm today as a new season begins, be alert for a weather change. Here's what you should know about Johnson: He has the winningest record among active major-league managers -- not that it seems to matter. He led the New York Mets to five consecutive 90-win seasons and one world championship. And later got fired. He took the Cincinnati Reds to the divisional championship. And then got fired.

Maybe you can spot a trend here. And now in possession of what he calls his dream job, he works for an owner who is working on his third manager in four years.

"I'm driven," Johnson says, "but [Angelos] is driven harder than I am. I admire him for it. He has high expectations. I like high expectations and living up to them. I'm an optimist, and I'm confident. I'm confident in myself. I'm confident in everyone around me."

Here's how confident: Johnson actually believes it just might work out for him this time.

The Davey Johnson stories go way back, as far back as the '60s, when, as an Orioles player, he brought Earl Weaver computer printouts -- remember, computers at the time were the size of Camden Yards -- showing how the lineup would be more productive if Johnson batted higher.

His teammates called him "Dum Dum" because he was so smart. Not only had he gone to college, but he might have even studied while he was there.

Spend some time with him, and you're sure to hear him say: "I don't do too bad for a dumb, old baseball manager."

He's good at knowing what he wants and then pursuing it, including the Orioles job. Once upon a time, he was very happy managing the Mets, but the Mets were not always very happy with him. And in 1990, during their seventh year together, there was a particularly ugly and angry divorce. The Mets complained about his work ethic and even whether he drank too much.

It was in New York, too, that Johnson gained his reputation as a strong-willed manager, unafraid of confrontation, who was, as one of his bosses might have put it, a pain in the, uh, neck. This reputation stuck, and stuck so hard that it took Johnson three years -- the wilderness years -- to get another job. And that job meant working for Marge Schott and the Reds, which may count as one definition of desperation. But the years he was out of baseball taught him something.

"I learned I could live without baseball and that I couldn't live without baseball," says Johnson, whose 54 years all show in his face. He speaks with a drawl and with a certainty given to a man who believes he knows exactly what he's doing.

Reputation precedes him

One year into Johnson's tenure with the Reds, Johnny Oates was self-destructing in Baltimore. When Angelos fired Oates, Johnson went after the job. He interviewed before a committee that included Frank Robinson.

"His reputation came up," Robinson says from his home in Los Angeles. "What you want is someone who's willing to come in and work hand in hand with the front office. They said that was a problem for him in New York. It's one of the reasons they gave for him losing the job."

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