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MIKE DOWNEY

BASEBALL PLAYOFFS : Johnson's Season Completely Shot

October 15, 1995|Mike Downey

ATLANTA — From the bizarre moment he spoke about "riding the elephant," meaning Marge Schott's adopted pachyderm at the zoo, Princess Schottzie, any fool could see that Davey Johnson was in a fragile state of mind. The manager of the Cincinnati Reds felt so unjustly persecuted, he wore the "C" on his cap like a scarlet letter.

And as soon as the Atlanta Braves' manager, Bobby Cox, expressed his disgust at "Davey having to go through some of the same stuff [Tom] Lasorda just went through," Johnson's last night on the job began. He sat and endured a painful 6-0 defeat Saturday in Game 4 of this series for the National League pennant, a series in which the wood of his batters' bats seemed made from bamboo.

Cincinnati's team batting average for the series: .209.

Reds' runs scored: five.

Reds' home runs: none.

Reds' extra-base hits: six.

Reds who struck out: 31.

Reds who drew walks: 12.

So sad, it was almost funny. Or eerie. Red wood, as directed by Ed Wood.

"Weird, weird, weird," second baseman Bret Boone said.

Not exactly a pennant call by Red Barber.

Yet what else could one say? Atlanta had toyed with the Reds, made the Reds look and feel as ashamed as Johnson had, that day Schott persuaded him to straddle that pet elephant of hers, the one she sponsors in captivity. Johnson volunteered to ride Princess Schottzie simply to demonstrate to Schott that he "tried to be a good camper," but it didn't change her mind about canning him.

Even had the Reds reached the World Series, the manager was a goner. He knew it. Everyone knew it. Marge's mind was made up. What happened to her team, that only made things worse. Had his guys won, Davey might have laughed in the winning locker room, right in her face.

But they didn't.

They tried, but the Braves blew them away.

"We played hard, they played well ," said Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin, who hit .389 and had nothing to show for it. "There's a difference."

No sooner had they stuffed the Dodgers on a plane back to LAX did the Cincy ballclub come apart at the seams. One minute, Reggie Sanders was slamming an Ismael Valdes slider into the seats. Eight days later, he had put up a two-for-21, with a mind-messing 17 strikeouts. And Ron Gant, against Atlanta, bats .188. And Hal Morris, .167. And Jeff Branson, .111. Need we go on?

No, nor will Davey Johnson.

He is out. Not officially. But out.

"Any chance at all you'll be back as manager?" someone asked.

"No, no chance, none," he replied, ruefully.

In a cubbyhole of the clubhouse, after the game, same as before, Johnson kept trying to address his plight calmly, rationally. But it kept overwhelming him. In the dugout beforehand, a teardrop ran down his cheek. In the locker room afterward, twice Johnson excused himself and ducked into a training room, to compose himself.

Where would he manage next year? "I have no clue," Johnson said, knowing that his name has surfaced in Baltimore, in Oakland, in St. Louis, anyplace that might have a vacancy.

In New York? Oh, sure, with the Yankees no doubt, Johnson joked, predicting that WFAN all-sports talk radio had probably started a rumor already and "made for some interesting talk on the L.I.E. [Long Island Expressway] for everybody in their cars," Johnson added. "You know radio, they don't need any facts to get something started."

For now, he said his only plan was to go hit buckets and buckets of golf balls at some driving range, probably hit them harder than he would have had Cincinnati's season turned out better.

"The last couple of days have been hard," Johnson said.

Ray Knight will succeed him as Red manager. That's all right with Davey, who gladly takes credit for bringing down Knight from the broadcast booth to be his right-hand man. Johnson said: "It takes a lot of the sting out of this, knowing that I'll be replaced by a good friend of mine."

Knight spoke of the strain this has put on their relationship, how it has tempered any joy he feels at landing his dream job in his hometown. And Cox, the Atlanta manager, acts totally mystified, saying, "I have never understood this. I don't know the reasoning. Good guy, good manager, the whole ball of wax."

Davey Johnson was all of that, but can do nothing more now but sweep up after the elephant. He thought he had done a good job. Instead, he lost one.

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