Davey Johnson tells of Mets days, steroids and Olympic dreams
By WAYNE COFFEY
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Updated Sunday, April 27th 2008, 8:17 AM
The manager of the U.S. Olympic baseball team is a familiar, craggy-faced man whose life has known soaring triumph and unspeakable tragedy and who, across five decades in locales ranging from Baltimore to Atlanta, Tokyo to Flushing, has had a diamond life like few others.
At 65, Davey Johnson is 42 years removed from his time as a kid second baseman for the world-champion Orioles, and 22 years removed from 1986, when he piloted the greatest team in Mets history to 108 victories and the franchise's second World Series title. Now he takes on one of the greatest challenges of his career: leading a group of minor-leaguers against some heavyweight Olympic competition in Beijing, doing it four years after the U.S. failed to qualify for the Games and three years after the International Olympic Committee voted baseball off the Olympic menu.
Johnson is the only man to hit behind both Henry Aaron and Sadaharu Oh. He got the last hit Sandy Koufax ever gave up. If Johnson - a college math major - didn't invent computer analysis in baseball, he surely was on the leading edge of it, presenting a bundle of spreadsheet printouts to his manager Earl Weaver in the late '60s, under the heading, "Optimization of the Orioles Lineup."
"Earl threw it in the garbage," Johnson says, smiling.
Managing four big-league clubs across 14 big league seasons, Johnson went 1,148-888, compiling a winning percentage (.564) that places him above Miller Huggins, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa, to name a few. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a savvy strategist and a brutally honest guy who almost seemed to relish stirring the proverbial pot.
"Davey wasn't a politician, and I admire that," says Keith Hernandez, captain of those '86 Mets and now an SNY analyst. "I don't think he gets enough credit. He came over to a very lousy Mets team and made it (into a winner)."
Over a sidewalk lunch on Madison Ave. three days ago, Johnson wore a knit USA Baseball shirt, ate lobster salad and was his usual straight-shooting self as he spoke to the Daily News about everything from Dwight Gooden to George Mitchell; the true turning point in '86 to the reason he doesn't believe Roger Clemens; from the ruptured appendix and five stomach surgeries he has endured, to the greatest loss of his life: the death of his daughter, Andrea Lyn, 32, a professional surfer who succumbed to complications from her schizophrenia three years ago.
Daily News: With the U.S. baseball team not qualifying for the 2004 Games, and the sport being eliminated from the Olympics, how much does that ratchet up the heat on you and your team in Beijing?
Davey Johnson: There's going to be a lot of heat on us, but a lot of the guys revel in that. The game of baseball is a challenge. You either love the challenge or you don't.
DN: Your U.S. team beat Cuba in the gold-medal game of the Olympic qualifying tournament in 2006, and won another gold in the World Cup last year, but you've also lost a bunch of the players from those teams because they've been called up to the majors. How well will you be able to compete?
DJ: We're not going to be the favorite - it will probably be Japan, Cuba and the U.S., in that order. But I know our staff and we're going to put together a heck of a team, and I plan on winning.
DN: Met fans who go back to the Jim Hickman Era remember you in a whole different context - as the Oriole who made the last out of the 1969 World Series, a fly ball to Cleon Jones.
DJ: (Laughing) It was the Series we couldn't lose. We beat (Tom) Seaver in Game 1 and thought we were on our way, and then nothing went right the rest of the Series.
I got one hit (in 16 at bats, .063) and I think I set a record for the worst hitting Series since Gil Hodges (went 0-for-21 in the 1952 Series).
DN: The next time the Mets won you were in the home dugout. What comes to mind when you think about 1986?
DJ: Everyone talks about the (Bill) Buckner deal (in Game 6), but the biggest play was the wild pitch (by Bob Stanley) that let the tying run score right before that. The game was over from that point on. It didn't matter whether it was the next at-bat. Coming back from two outs and two strikes down, we weren't going to lose. The mentality of that club was you don't take anything for granted. Nothing. They called us names, they hated us all around the league, called us arrogant. How can we be arrogant when we haven't won anything?
DN: Well, didn't you fuel that name-calling when you said you didn't just want the Mets to win, you wanted them to dominate?
DJ: Everytime you set a goal, you have to believe in every ounce of your being that you can achieve it. I wanted my guys to know they were good, because if I don't feel that way, how can they?
I could care less if my comment (made us marked men). I wanted to take pressure off my guys. That's what a manager ought to do in a pennant race. It put the pressure on me. You can ask any of them - they didn't feel any pressure from that statement.
DN: You managed one of the greatest young talents the game has ever seen in Dwight Gooden, who went 24-4 as a 20-year-old. How do you feel when you think about his career, and his life after baseball?
DJ: Unbelievably sad. The biggest shock in my life in baseball was in the spring of 1987, when he came into my office and said, "Skip, I've got a problem. I've got to go to drug rehab." I said, "You've got to be kidding me." Doc was like a son to me. He was the first one to the ballpark every day. He was always happy. I just couldn't believe what I was hearing.
The thing with Dwight is that he meant no harm, but he couldn't say no - to his guys from his hometown. He didn't want to feel bigger or better than anybody else.
DN: He was a good pitcher after that 1985 season, but never the same pitcher.
DJ: Never the same. I blame it on the drugs, and I also blame it on the delivery change they had him make. I don't even know where the orders came from, but they didn't come from me or Mel Stottlemyre. They wanted him to shorten his delivery, lower that big high leg kick and not turn as much. Sure, he could be run on, but they could run on (Greg) Maddux, too; did they change his delivery? To this day I regret even going along with it.
DN: There has been much speculation that Roger Clemens might pitch for Team USA in the Olympics. Do you see that happening?
DJ: No. No possibility. He's probably good enough to go out and throw BP and get people out, but for me, you've got to be competing. I want guys who are playing their best right now, in a league. I don't want some guy who has been off for three months.
DN: Did you watch the Clemens-McNamee congressional hearing? Who did you believe?
DJ: You know who I believed. Roger Clemens was a great pitcher. He pitched by intimidating. Try to get an edge, look at you. He'd hit his grandmother if he thought it would help him win a game. You've got to admire what he's done. But he's in that group where you've got to believe that anything he would do to make himself better, he's going to do. I just think the deal in those hearings - that's just his personality. He's going to try to intimidate: "I'm coming through here and you're not going to get in my way."
DN: What did you think of the Mitchell Report in general? Did it surprise you?
DJ: Not really, but I'll tell you how naïve I was. When I came up, we were told never to lift a weight. You do the gripper, do pushups, do situps, but don't build new muscles, because it would hurt your swing. Then people started working out, everyone's got a trainer, taking vitamin supplements. I saw a lot of creatine. To this day I don't know what creatine is. I still couldn't tell you the difference between human growth hormone and testosterone. All of it, I thought, was just a way to bounce back from a hard workout.
DN: Did you ever see a player taking performance-enhancing drugs?
DJ: Never. I wouldn't even know what to look for. But I do know this about ballplayers: anything you can do to make yourself better, bigger, stronger, you are going to do, because that's how competitive it is.
DN: You had Brady Anderson in Baltimore the year he went from hitting 16 home runs to 50. You didn't have suspicions?
DJ: I don't know what Brady was before, because I wasn't there. I do know that I saw him working out, before and after games, and this guy was nuts. Brady would ride a bike to the ballpark from 10 miles away. I had no idea. I still don't know. I mean, obviously everybody thinks he's taking steroids, but I don't know. If you told me Raffy Palmeiro was even working out, I would've said you are crazy. He had that Brooks Robinson body, kind of soft, a sweet stroke and a good talent. But I never would've guessed he was juicing.
When I was managing the Dodgers, we picked up Jim Leyritz and he was making this concoction in the clubhouse kitchen. I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I'm making a little something to pep the club up." He had all these powders and cans and stuff. He gave me a shot of it. My heart started jumping out of my damn chest, and I didn't have but a thimbleful. I was taking medicine for arrhythmia. I asked him what it was, he said mostly Red Bull with some other kickers in there.
DN: You had a huge power surge yourself when you went from Baltimore to Atlanta (in 1973), going from five home runs to 43. How did that happen?
DJ: If you look at my record, I was just learning how to hit. The Oriole way was to hit like Brooks Robinson. That's what they taught. Brooks turned an inside fastball inside-out and hit the ball to right field. I kind of became a Punch-and-Judy hitter. Finally I just said, "What the heck, I'm going to get closer to the plate and I'm going to just hit the ball hard." I hit 18 homers (in 1971) and was starting to show the pop I had in my bat. Then I ran into (Red Sox catcher) Duane Josephson at home plate and hurt my left shoulder and wasn't the same (for a year and a half).
DN: Your Orioles and Joe Torre's Yankees played for the AL pennant in 1996. What comes to mind when ...
DJ: The 12-year-old kid. Jeffrey Maier. That was big. It was the eighth inning of Game 1, we got the lead, I got the pitching set up just the way we wanted. We were ready to roll. It's amazing. Jeter hits a fly ball to the wall and I am 340 feet away and I can see it plain as day. Richie Garcia, he's underneath it, and he can't see it, and he calls it a home run, even though to everybody in the world it's obvious the kid (interfered with the ball). Then Garcia has to run me, because he can't see it.
DN: If you were starting a team and could choose from all the players you managed or played with/against, who would be your No. 1 pick?
DJ: Henry Aaron. I loved Barry Larkin and Cal (Ripken), but Henry, he could do anything he wanted to do. He was just so powerful. Even at the end of his career, he could do things with such ease. I asked him once, "What do you look for when you go to home plate?" He said, "The breaking ball." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because I know they can't throw the fastball by me."
One time late in his career we went into San Francisco. Henry was 40-something years old. Normally he would take off a day game after a night game. This time the Giants' pitcher, (John) Count Montefusco, said in the paper, "Why am I pitching against the lowly Braves? I want to pitch against a good team." Henry read it. He went to (manager Eddie) Mathews and said, "I'm playing." Now Montefusco had a nasty slider. Just wicked. Ralph Garr got on, Mike Lum got on. Henry got up and Montesfusco threw a slider, down and away, his best pitch, And Henry went boom, and hit it out of the ballpark. He got back to the dugout and said, "Maybe that'll teach this kid a little humility."
DN: You've had a difficult stretch in your life by any measure over the last five years, first with the appendix ordeal, the surgeries, the loss of 65 pounds, and then losing your daughter not long afterward. How has that changed you?
DJ: She was my little sweetheart surfer girl, the rebel who just wanted to surf. You lose any child, it's not right. It should be me. I'm supposed to go first. Everybody deals with it differently. Baseball, managing for Team USA, that really helped me because I know that's what my daughter would like me to do. She loved me managing baseball, just like I loved her surfing.
Both my parents are gone. I'm on Medicare. Life moves on. You do what you can to make you happy. Then you try to do things, charitable things, to give back. It's something (my wife) Susan and I do a lot of. I love baseball and I love young talent, so this really hasn't been a job for me. Watching young, hungry players get after it, reach their potential, that's the greatest joy of all in managing.
DN: Do you see yourself managing in the big leagues again?
DJ: No. After a tough time in Cincy, and a tough time in Baltimore after winning, and then going out to L.A., where they already made all the player moves before I was hired and having no minor-league system, I was burned out. I didn't even have a good time in the dugout when we had a lead. Now I'm energized. I love what I'm doing. I get enough baseball to float my ship.
DN: If you get the result you want in Beijing, where would it rank on your list of baseball thrills?
DJ: Right at the top. I'd trade one of my World Series rings right now for a gold medal and I think anybody would feel that way. It's one thing when it says Mets or Orioles across your chest, and it's another when it says USA.