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Johnson No Genius; He Might Be Better : Baseball: Ex-Cincinnati manager appears to be suited for the job in Baltimore.

November 05, 1995|THOMAS BOSWELL | WASHINGTON POST

Since Earl Weaver retired after the '86 season, the Orioles haven't had a manager who was a worthy heir to his small chair. In '96, they will. It's been a long wait, but Davey Johnson, who learned the game under Weaver, may someday be remembered for being almost as good a manager as the Lil' Genius.

Johnson is wonderfully suited to these Orioles. His combination of brains and cockiness should be ideal for a talented but leaderless club that needs both a better offensive conceptualizer and a large burr under its saddle.

For years, the Orioles have desperately needed a boss like Weaver who was both 1) smart and 2) not too nice of a guy. They've had one or the other. Now they've got both. The only reason that Davey isn't Earl is that he's too tall.

Johnson's first official hour as Orioles manager was worthy of Weaver. He tweaked the Orioles for not hiring him last year. ("I thought there were a lot of stupid people out there. . . . I was the man for the job.") He poked fun at Peter Angelos, saying the owner had promised to write out the lineup card only on Sundays.

Then, in so many words, he fired his bullpen closer, his second baseman and his right fielder, indicating he'd prefer to have free agents Randy Myers, Craig Biggio and Ron Gant in those jobs. Finally, he semi-booted Brady Anderson out of the leadoff spot. ("Doesn't get on base enough.")

Just to keep his initial news conference lively, Johnson took a playful poke at Bobby Bonilla's defense ("He's no Gold Glover wherever you put him") and said that someday he'd be the manager who benched Cal Ripken. Finally, he said point-blank that the Orioles were better than the Yankees or Red Sox and should win the American League East next season.

Back in the '80s, when he was flying high with the Mets, Johnson might not have ameliorated any of those comments with feather-smoothing modifiers.

But he's mellowed. Being shunned for three years, before the Reds hired him in '93, has given him a pinch of humility. Anybody who sees Johnson's remarks in context won't be mad. Well, probably. For example, he said he'd thought about snubbing the Orioles the way they'd snubbed him last fall. "Then I said, 'Who am I kidding? If they offer me that job, I'll crawl to Baltimore to take it.' "

Only one of Johnson's eye-catching remarks was made unreservedly. "We're going to win next year, and we're going to win a world championship while I'm here. . . . I think there's plenty here to win our division (next season)."

Just in case you're worried, it's not a big problem whom the Orioles pick as general manager. You know, as Davey's boss. "Whoever they bring in," said Johnson, "I'll try to make him executive of the year."

Now you know why Johnson will be the Orioles' first fun manager since Weaver. And you also know why nobody would touch him for three years.

Johnson will definitely give you his opinion. When Anderson comes in for that explanation of why he's not batting leadoff, wish him luck.

The late Alan Wiggins once came into Weaver's office to ask why he'd been benched. After some silence, Weaver answered, "Because in 35 years, you are the worst baseball player I have ever seen." Yes, the door to the manager's office is always open. But do you really want to go in?

Weaver won one World Series. Johnson has won one World Series. Weaver had the No. 1 managerial winning percentage of his era: .583. Johnson now has the highest of his era: .576. Weaver finished first or second 12 times in 17 years. Johnson's teams have finished first or second in all eight of the seasons when he's managed the team the entire season. (You can say, "Wow!")

Besides, Weaver always had supportive management and a sane city in which to play. Johnson has won in New York with its media looney bin and in Cincinnati with an owner who rubs her dog's hair on the players for luck.

Actually, the new improved Johnson would never be impolitic enough to say he was as good a manager as Weaver. But you better believe he thinks it.

Johnson has been trying to prove that he's smarter than Weaver since 1968. At age 25, he was challenging Earl at gin. He openly second-guessed Weaver's managing in the dugout.

As a player, he even presented Earl with a computer printout analysis--("Optimizing the Orioles Lineup")--which proved that Weaver was making a horrible mistake. The team would score 50 more runs a year if one key player were moved up from seventh to second in the batting order. The player? Davey Johnson. After all, how could Weaver be expected to grasp nuances that a computer whiz with a college degree in mathematics could detect. The math whiz? Davey Johnson, of course.

Some old Orioles still say Johnson got himself traded out of Baltimore, after three all-star game appearances, because he just wouldn't stop arguing with Earl. Okay, so that .221 season helped grease the skids. Davey's answer was to go to Atlanta, crowd the plate, dare the pitchers to bean him, feast on the inside pitch and hit 43 homers the next season--breaking Rogers Hornsby's National League record for a second baseman (42).

What do you think of that, Earl? Glad you traded me now?

When the pleasant, gentlemanly, listless underachieving Orioles report to spring training, they should be in for quite a surprise. They'll meet a licensed pilot who made his first million dollars in real estate, but who answers to the nickname "Dumb Dumb." He's Texas twangy and wears cowboy boots. He's got this huge childhood scar on one whole side of his neck and he has a temper. He's a superb communicator and a players' manager--as long as you're smart enough to agree with him.

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