Tried, testy tale of O's Baseball: Davey Johnson's form held true in his two years at Camden Yards: a successful run on the field and a clash to the finish off it.

December 25, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The willful behavior of hard-living general Ulysses S. Grant had become such an issue during the middle years of the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln was asked by his top advisers why he continued to put up with it.

Lincoln summed it up in two words.

"He fights."

Perhaps there is a lesson in there for all the owners who have hired and fired Davey Johnson. He obviously doesn't care whether he makes any friends in the mahogany-paneled offices of baseball ownership, but he wins at a rate unequaled by any current major-league manager and his presence almost assures regular attendance in the postseason.

Maybe there is someone out there with the temperament to accept that trade-off, but Johnson did not find approval in any of the three locales where he built his impressive credentials. He wore out his welcome in the New York Mets' organization, offended Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott and irritated Orioles owner Peter Angelos -- in each case leaving behind a string of playoff appearances and a lot of unanswered questions.

Like this one: What is it about Johnson that makes him baseball's most successful inactive manager?

He closed the 1997 season with the best career winning percentage of any active manager (.575) and never has finished worse than second in any major-league season in which he was employed from start to finish.

Yet he is unemployed on Christmas Day and apparently will open the 1998 season on the golf course, because he is -- along with being one of the best and brightest of baseball managers -- very much his own worst enemy.

How else to explain the ill-advised decision to send Angelos a fax demanding a contract extension at a time when the owner apparently was looking for any excuse to get out of the contract without paying Johnson for the 1998 season? How else to explain the decision at midseason to fine second baseman Roberto Alomar $10,500 and order him to pay the money to a charity that employed Johnson's wife as a paid fund-raiser?

"It's apparent to me that if it wasn't the fine, it would have been something else," Johnson said afterward. "For whatever reason -- and I don't know why -- I was never able to get the owner's respect. It was pretty clear he didn't appreciate the job I did. If that's the case, it's time to move on. I can turn the page."

Johnson had forced the issue by trying to put Angelos on the defensive, which only made things worse. Angelos characterized the fax as an act of "gross insubordination" but continued to insist that Johnson was not in danger of losing his job.

Meanwhile, information began to leak out of the Orioles' front office that the owner might try to embarrass Johnson by insisting that he make a public apology for his mishandling of Alomar's fine. Either that or allow a union grievance over the fine to go before an arbitrator, forcing Johnson to defend his handling of the fine in a quasi-legal setting.

Johnson apparently could see where it all was going. He also could see that there were several managerial openings still unfilled in early November. He faxed a letter of resignation to Angelos on Nov. 5, the same day that the Baseball Writers Association of America named him American League Manager of the Year.

Seven weeks later, all those managerial openings are full, although Johnson could be very much in demand as early as next summer if a large-market team needs a midseason turnaround.

'No personal antagonism'

Angelos still insists that Johnson was in no danger of being fired, and says now that he could have foreseen a scenario in which Johnson managed the Orioles not only in 1998, but also well beyond.

"I think so, sure," Angelos said last week, "if the problems that we were having and the things that occurred were not repeated. I didn't say that there wouldn't be any extension. I just didn't address it. I didn't have any trouble with his personality. There was no personal antagonism. He has a great sense of humor. He's good company. There wasn't that kind of friction."

That may be news to Johnson, who tendered his resignation in part because he was tired of the controversy that had greeted him at the end of a successful season and in larger part because he felt that his personal relationship with Angelos was irreparable.

"A big part of this is being appreciated," Johnson said. "I wanted it to work here. This is the first place I'd managed where I bought a house. I wanted to be here for the long haul. I asked [for the contract extension] for my coaches as much as for myself. Those guys deserved to know what was going on. I thought going into next season without [an extension] would have created a distraction, and I didn't want that."

Winning isn't everything

Johnson wins. There's no question about that, but in a big-money era when most clubs are owned by wealthy, results-oriented businessmen, that isn't always enough.

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