Celebrating the Davey Johnson Coaching Tree

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images Davey Johnson

Seventeen seasons, six division titles, two Manager of the Year awards, and one of the most iconic World Series runs in baseball history. He’s helped many young talents develop into stars. He left highly successful teams like the ’95 Reds and ’97 Orioles, only to see those teams tank immediately afterward.

Davey Johnson will end his career short of the standards set by wildly successful contemporaries like Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. He’ll still go down as one of the best managers of his generation.

One way to evaluate the legacy of a successful skipper is to size up the coaching tree he’s planted. In the NFL, winning coaches like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick beget other head coaches with other teams. Chalk up that trend to football teams wanting to imitate others’ success, to certain coaches imbuing their assistants with the qualities necessary to coach future winners, to simple longevity, to a bit of random chance, or maybe all of the above. Whatever the case, we’ve seen this many times in football. And it turns out Johnson’s tree is enormous, with branches extending all over the league, thrusting many of Johnson’s former players, and the coaches who served under him, into managing jobs.

Johnson got his managing start with the Miami Amigos of the Inter-American League, a circuit founded in 1979 that was intended to match Triple-A baseball. The league folded in three months. Adios, Amigos. Two years later, the Mets hired Johnson as a minor league manager, first with the Double-A Jackson Mets in 1981, then with the Triple-A Tidewater Tides in 1983. That’s where the Johnson tree first began sprouting. Two of the players on that Tidewater team were Ron Gardenhire and Clint Hurdle.

Gardenhire’s major league playing career never amounted to much, as he hit just .232 with four homers in 285 games. His managerial career proved far more successful. Riding a core led by Torii Hunter and Johan Santana, followed by Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and others, Gardenhire led the Twins to six division titles from 2002 through 2010 and is currently one of the longest-tenured managers in the game. Hurdle is in his 11th season as a major league manager. Eight of those seasons ended with below-.500 records, one with Hurdle getting fired … and two incredible underdog stories, with the ’07 Rockies charging to the World Series and this year’s Pirates becoming the first Buccos team to make the playoffs in 21 years.

Seeking a new manager who could guide a bumper crop of exciting prospects, the Mets hired Johnson to manage the big league club for the 1984 season. He went on to become the first National League manager to win 90 or more games in his first five seasons, including a 100-win season in ’88 and a 108-win powerhouse in ’86 that culminated in one of the most dramatic World Series wins of all time. Though the 1990 Mets got off to a relatively slow start at 20-22, the worst showing of Johnson’s Mets tenure to that point had come in ’89, when the team finished a solid 87-75. By then, rampant drug use by many of Johnson’s players had started to come to light, with Dwight Gooden in particular seeing his career start to fade after one of the best first two seasons by any pitcher ever. When Bob Klapisch and John Harper interviewed Johnson for their 1993 book, The Worst Team Money Could Buy: The Collapse of the New York Mets, he didn’t mince words about his managerial style. “As long as they won for me on the field,” he said, “I didn’t give a flying fuck what they did otherwise.” Johnson’s bosses obviously gave a bit more, using the Mets’ slow start in 1990 as an excuse to pull the rip cord.

The ’84 Mets included Gardenhire, as well as future A’s general manager Billy Beane and Giants scouting director Dick Tidrow. They also featured Ray Knight, the player who’d sprint home with the winning run in the most famous Game 6 in baseball history two years later, before managing the Reds a decade after that. The man he replaced as Cincinnati’s manager? Davey Johnson. Knight lasted less than two seasons in that job, finding much less success than his own former skipper had in the Queen City. After Hurdle got a cup of coffee on Johnson’s ’85 Mets team, the ’86 squad snagged veteran Lee Mazzilli as an ace pinch hitter for the homestretch. Maz got his own break as a major league manager in 2004, taking over an Orioles team that Johnson had left seven years earlier; Mazzilli himself lasted less than two years in that job, becoming the latest Baltimore skipper to endure a decade and a half of sub-.500 baseball between Johnson’s departure and the Cinderella 2012 team. Another player making a cameo on the ’86 team? John Gibbons. Though his major league career lasted just 18 games, he’s now finishing out his sixth season as a major league manager, in Year 1 of his second stint at the helm of the Jays, with an aggregate record of 14 games under .500.

The Mets from 1987 to 1990 didn’t produce any other players who went on to manage in the majors. But the coaching staffs that worked with Johnson generated several future skippers. Bud Harrelson succeeded Johnson a couple of months into the 1990 season, led the Mets to a 71-49 record the rest of that season, but didn’t make it through the ’91 campaign, winning 145 of the 274 games he managed with the Mets. In a two-time one-degree-of-Davey separation, Sam Perlozzo coached under Johnson from 1987 through 1989, overseeing a roster that included Mazzilli. On August 4, 2005, he took over the Orioles manager job, replacing … Mazzilli (and coming eight years after Johnson left that job). Perlozzo, too, couldn’t do much with a weak Orioles roster, lasting just 286 games and losing 164 of them before getting ousted in June 2007. The best-known member of those Johnson-managed coaching staffs was a player who served in Queens in 1983 and 1984, then left in mid-1985 to go manage the Texas Rangers. He lasted through mid-1992 in Arlington, then circled back to manage the Mets in 1996, a job he kept for six-plus years that included a National League pennant in 2000. After a decade in Japan, he made it back to the big leagues with Boston in 2012, presided over one of the most disappointing seasons in Red Sox history, then got fired. Yes, Bobby Valentine, too, came from the Davey Johnson tree.

Johnson’s next stop was Cincinnati. After finishing out the ’93 season for the Reds, Valentine had them in first place at the time of the strike, then guided Cincy to a division title in ’95. Here, again, he clashed with those above him. Mercurial owner Marge Schott nearly fired Johnson after the ’94 campaign, before finally cutting him loose after that division-winning ’95 season. The reason? Aside from Schott’s general beefs with Johnson, Schott pulled off an incomprehensible move even for her when she finally cut her manager loose because he was living with his fiancée before they got married.

None of Johnson’s players on those 1993-95 teams have gone on to manage a major league team, at least not yet. But the coaching staff did. Bob Boone went straight from the Reds to the Royals in ’95, lasting 387 games as manager there. Four years later, he made it back to the Reds, and again failed to make it through three full seasons, compiling a career .455 overall managerial winning percentage. There was Knight and his own 262-game managerial stint. Larry Rothschild’s final year as a Reds coach came in Johnson’s first as manager. Five years later, he became the first manager in Devil Rays history … and it was ugly, with Tampa Bay unable to decide whether to build with youth or go the veteran route that worked for its expansion cousin in Arizona. Rothschild made it through the first 14 games of his fourth season managing for Tampa Bay before getting axed with a combined record of 89 games under .500.

Hal McRae managed four years in Kansas City (including the best season the Royals have seen since 1985) yet lost his job anyway after that excellent 64-51 strike-shortened 1994 season. He went to Cincinnati to coach under Johnson, then went on to become Rothschild’s replacement in Tampa Bay in 2001. Those early Devil Rays teams were some of the worst of the past half-century, and McRae had no chance; he was done after two seasons at the Trop. Dave Miley took the opposite route, going from the Tampa area (where he was born and raised) to the Reds, where he first served as Johnson’s bench coach in ’93 before going on to manage the team 10 years later. Again, the same theme was in play: Those who played for or coached for Johnson, then replaced him on the same team tended to fare worse than the men who found their own way on another team. Miley managed 289 games in Cincinnati, lost 164, and that was that for his managerial efforts. One more future manager coached for Johnson in Cincinnati: Valentine, who obviously made an impression on his boss the first time around, in New York.

Johnson’s Orioles were extremely successful in 1996 and 1997, netting a .574 winning percentage, a wild-card berth, and a division title. Guess what happened. Johnson and Peter Angelos didn’t get along, with that rift overwhelming the achievements of two loaded Orioles teams and a period of franchise prosperity that saw fans stream into Oriole Park at Camden Yards, lining Angelos’s pockets with huge profits. Johnson ultimately tendered his resignation on the same day he won the AL Manager of the Year award.

With just two years in Baltimore, Johnson didn’t oversee many future managers. Pitching coach Ray Miller, who’d already served an uneventful year and a half as Twins manager in ’85 and ’86, replaced Johnson as Orioles skipper in ’98. The O’s won 19 fewer games in Miller’s first year than they did in Johnson’s last, then won just 78 games in 1999. That was that for Johnson’s replacement in Baltimore. Those Orioles teams also included Perlozzo, who reunited with Johnson after working with him in New York before later flopping as the man in charge of the O’s.

Johnson next went to the Dodgers in 1999. For the first time in his career as a manager, a team that Johnson managed over a full season finished with a sub-.500 record. The Dodgers improved to 86-76 the next year, but Johnson got fired after the 2000 season anyway. The only one of Johnson’s Dodgers coaches to later land a manager job was Jim Tracy, who actually took over for Johnson in L.A. After finishing with an identical record in 2001, the Dodgers improved to 92-70 in 2002 under Tracy, a rare case of a team improving after a Johnson good-bye. Tracy continued his success in Los Angeles over the next two seasons, winning 85 games in 2003, then 93 in 2004. One losing season (out of five) and he was done, though, with the Dodgers’ 91-loss 2005 costing Tracy his job. Tracy went on to manage talent-starved teams in Pittsburgh and Colorado, with predictable results: four losing seasons out of five full campaigns.

Johnson’s Nationals just got eliminated from playoff contention on Monday night, a disappointing result for a team coming off a 98-win season and a division title, with most of the baseball world expecting similar outcomes in 2013. Still, Johnson leaves the Nats, and the game, on good terms. He’ll likely retire with a .562 winning percentage as a manager, the 12th-best mark for any manager with more than 10 years on the job. Johnson also leaves having made one more contribution to the game.

Bo Porter has gone 51-106 in his first season as Astros skipper, a predictable result for a team that made little effort to build a competitive roster this year. But Porter earns high marks for both his leadership skills and his acumen as a tactician, and Houston management is optimistic that he’ll be the man to lead the Astros back into contention at some point in the next few years. Porter’s managerial career might be little more than an acorn right now. But it’s an acorn from one of the most fruitful trees the game has seen in decades: the one belonging to Davey Johnson.

Filed Under: MLB, Washington Nationals

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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