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Johnson Should Have Gotten a Better Warranty

June 20, 1999|ROSS NEWHAN

Speaking recently to a group of new-car dealers, Davey Johnson tried to put his managerial career in a context easily understood.

"I tried to say that managing a baseball team is a lot like driving a car," he said. "It's all in knowing how to handle it to make it run better.

"In New York [with the Mets], I had a car that had a lot of distinct and different parts. It was very complex, but you'd have to say it ran pretty darn good.

"In Cincinnati, I had like a little Corvette. It was real fast. And I said the team I had in Baltimore was more like driving around a big Cadillac . . . lots of room, fairly slow but lots of power.

"Now with the Dodgers, I said, well, I'm not sure what kind of car I'm driving, but I know it's pretty darn expensive."

So sputtering and expensive, in fact, that many conclude Johnson is now driving an $80-million lemon that:

* Deserves to have its wheels kicked;

* Should be returned for repairs, having been damaged in assembly.

Neither is going to happen.

Johnson, who established the best winning percentage among active managers and has finished first or second in his 10 full managerial seasons, didn't do that by kicking wheels--or rear ends. Not his style. Doesn't believe in it.

And it's probably too late and too difficult to make major repairs. Too many key Dodgers carry multiyear contracts that are virtually impossible to trade. The farm system is devoid of replacements. Neither Detroit nor Colorado is going to return Dave Mlicki and Brian Bohanon to help beef up the pitching depth with four-fifths of the rotation struggling. Nor are the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles going to return Roger Cedeno and Charles Johnson to improve the Dodgers' speed and catching defense. The Mets have seen Todd Hundley.

What can be done? What is the role of baseball's winningest manager?

"My job is to stay positive and be confident," Johnson said. "This kind of tailspin is painful. A three-game losing streak can put a manager in mild depression, maybe severe, but I basically don't think that throwing things or berating players serves a purpose. I mean, why kick a chair when the chair had nothing to do with whether you won or lost? Why turn over a table of food when so many people are starving?

"My style, hopefully, is to be aware of individual and team problems and to help get it right more from a seasoned and intellectual standpoint. I don't think you can go a full season without getting mad and getting things off your chest, and I've done that every place I've managed, but that old tyrannical, dictatorial, rant and railing style of managing doesn't cut it now. Players aren't going to respond to it or believe it unless it's an honest outburst of emotion to clear the air.

"I know there's a perception out there that this club needs more of that, but that's obviously not true. The players here want to do well and are working hard to try and do well. That's not the issue."

Angel Manager Terry Collins is neither tyrant nor dictator. If he occasionally ranted and railed, displaying a harder edge than players deemed appropriate, it was enough to create a mini-mutiny when management was on the verge of extending his contract, leaving the contract in limbo and many to wonder if the players are calling the shots in Anaheim.

Johnson carries that impressive resume and the security of a three-year contract. He is willing to confront players but from a more subtle and manipulative basis. He is a respected strategist, currently devoid of the roster flexibility he prefers in resounding to opponents' moves and insistent that attitude and effort aren't an issue with the Dodgers, who are closing in on the National League West basement.

The key issue, he believes, involves the need to hit, pitch and field better (which sounds like the complete package), and to get healthier. Johnson's success has been grounded in that reasoned and subtler approach to problems and in his reputation for late-inning chess, but the injury to Todd Hollandsworth and the slow return of Hundley--an albatross around the neck of Kevin Malone--have stripped Johnson of any left-handed power; the lack of farm help has weakened the bench, and the disappointing starting pitching has put a load on the bullpen.

The same people who perceive a lack of life on the Dodgers wonder why Johnson doesn't squeeze or hit-and-run more, but Johnson says, "We don't have the makeup to hit-and-run, and the squeeze is old-style baseball. There's more offense out there now. You need to score 5 1/2 runs per game to even be in the league with championship clubs. The telling differential is how many runs you score and how many you give up. To be a really dominant club, you have to outscore the opposition by 150, 200 runs."

The Dodgers began the weekend having been outscored by 32 runs, and Johnson will continue to internalize problems as he always has.

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