Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson lost one of his mentors last Saturday when hall of fame manager Earl Weaver died at the age of 82. Johnson began his playing career with the Baltimore Orioles in 1965, and played under Weaver from 1968 until he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 1973.
Johnson was the Orioles second baseman under Weaver during their greatest era, 1969 to 1971. During that time, Baltimore won three consecutive pennants and a World Series in 1970. Johnson had his best years during that stretch, winning the Gold Glove Award each of those seasons and making the AL All-Star team in 1969 and ’70. After leaving Baltimore, Johnson would never win another Gold Glove and was chosen for the All-Star team only once, in 1973.
After retiring as a player, Johnson became a manager. The Nationals are the fifth team he has led to the post season. He won a World Series with the New York Mets in 1986 before leading the Cincinnati Reds, Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers and Nationals to the playoffs.
One can see a lot of Weaver in the way that Johnson manages. Like the little general who wore number four, Johnson believes in his players and will do everything he can to bring out the best in them. Weaver believed in building his teams around solid pitching, sound defense and good hitters from top to bottom, and so does Johnson. Weaver taught Johnson to have a solid bench with players he can call on in any situation. Johnson rarely bunts and would rather play for the big inning, just as Weaver liked to do with Baltimore.
The current foundation of the Nationals was built in 2009. Since then, they have built a pitching staff of young arms that include Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler. They may not be the 1971 Orioles’ 20-game winning quartet of Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally, but they are pretty good. Last season, Gonzalez became the first Washington pitcher to win 20 games, and Strasburg has the potential to be a star.
The defense is solid with Gold Glove winners at first and third base in Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman. The Nationals just acquired a lead-off hitting center fielder in Denard Span, and he joins two All-Stars in the outfield in Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper.
On offense, the Nationals finally found their stroke in 2012. It was here where Johnson showed what he had learned from Weaver. The Orioles were notorious for their slow starts at the plate. Weaver knew this and never panicked when his team fell in the standings. He simply waited for them to find their groove.
Johnson watched as injuries led to Washington struggling at the plate early last season. Despite having no evidence that the Nationals hitting would pick up, he continued to state that it would. Like the Orioles of old, Washington did begin to hit and went on to win more games than anyone in baseball last season.
The Nationals of today look very similar to every team that Johnson has ever managed. They are enjoying the same success that the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers did.
The success of Johnson and the Nationals are a living legacy to the greatness of Earl Weaver.