The old men of the dugout fared best in the National League manager of the year voting, with Davey Johnson, turning 70 in January, out-pointing Dusty Baker, 63. Johnson got credit for the upstart Washington Nationals producing their best season ever and for leading a Washington-based Major League team to the post-season for the first time in 1933, when that was two Washington Senators franchises ago.
Baker, who battled health problems during the season and missed about two weeks of time, led the Cincinnati Reds to the NL Central Division crown despite losing star player Joey Votto for 51 games. Although Votto returned to play again late in the season he was not quite at full strength and that may have cost the Reds in the playoffs.
Although the Reds dominated their division in surprising fashion ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nationals played their best ball by far since they used to be the Montreal Expos and moving to D.C. after the 2004 season. Painstakingly stocked with young talent, baseball wise men expected the Nationals to be improved in 2012, but few foresaw them winning 98 games and capturing the division title by four games ahead of the Atlanta Braves.
The one thing that marred Johnson’s work, and the team’s feel-good season, was the organization’s decision to bench star pitcher Stephen Stasburg for the year with three weeks left in the regular season and refuse to use him in the playoffs because of an artificial innings limit set to supposedly protect his once-injured arm even though there was no indication he was in any type of immediate danger. Some blame management, including Johnson, for the early playoff exit because the Nationals played without Strasburg. The Nationals were vilified for making that call and Johnson was front and center in saying it was his decision, even though previously general manager Mike Rizzo had been point man on the subject.
Otherwise there was noting to fault in Johnson’s handling and developing of a young team that should have a bright future, even though he doesn’t plan to be leading it for long. Johnson is signed as manager through 2013, but has already made the decision to retire after next season and work as a team consultant. So the timing of this award could hardly be more satisfying.
In 13 years as a player Johnson made four All-Star teams and won three Gold Gloves. He had one insane hitting year, 1973, when he slugged 43 homers and drove in 99 runs, and never approached those numbers before or after. After retiring in 1978, Johnson turned to managing. His first managing job was with the New York Mets between 1984 and 1990 and the Mets won a World Series crown on his watch in 1986. He also managed the Reds, Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers between 1993 and 2000 and was chosen American League manager of the year in 1997.
Johnson worked with Team USA in the Olympics and international competition for a time in the 2000s, but went to work for the Nationals’ front office in 2006. He was surprised to be offered the manager’s job in 2011, but whatever happens in 2013, he said, that’s going to be the end of his tenure in the dugout. He has declared it is World Series or bust for him and the Nationals.