Davey Johnson is still the king of radio interviews

Chris Lingebach
May 24, 2018 - 8:05 pm

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Former Nationals manager Davey Johnson remains the king of radio interviews.

Promoting his new book, "My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond," Johnson called into The Sports Junkies on Thursday, a show on which he was a frequent guest as Nats manager (2011-13), and regaled the hosts with stories from his more than 40 years in Major League Baseball. All profits from the book are being donated to his wife's charity.

Johnson was asked to look back on the controversial shutdown of Nationals hurler Stephen Strasburg ahead of the 2012 postseason: "You were not a guy who wanted Stephen Strasburg to be shut down before the postseason."

"No, I certainly didn't, you know, but I did it with (Jordan) Zimmermann the year before," Johnson said. "I grew up with some great pitching coaches, and a great throwing coach, in Aparicio, and I learned that the more you throw, the better your arm is. The fact is, I knew pitchers liked to throw every other day off the mound in spring training, but I had them throwing 15 minutes, everybody 15 minutes a day, and the more you threw, the better you felt. And so shutting a guy down just because he threw a number of pitches, I just didn't quite compute it."

Johnson comes from the school of former Orioles pitching coach George Bamberger, and is still a believer, even as pitch counts continue to dominate modern baseball strategy.

"Well, I know the first pitching coach that I had when I was with the Orioles was a guy named Harry 'The Cat' Brecheen, and he babied the pitchers," Johnson said. "He would clean off their cleats during the game, and then he didn't want them to throw the next day! He babied them all the way and all of those pitchers went down injured."

"Bamberger, on the other hand, believes everybody should throw 15 minutes a day for 10 months out of the year," he said. "And as long as they were pitching off the mound like every other day, it was no problem, and we had four 20-game winners. But now, everybody's gotten so scientific, they believe more in babying the ball, number of pitches and all that stuff. Hey, the more you throw, the stronger your arm's gonna be. And not this long throwing -- just 60 feet, 70 feet and 15 minutes a day, trying to hit the guy in the chest. That's all you need."

In 1971, Bamberger indeed had four 20-game winners on his Orioles staff: Mike Cuellar (20-9), Pat Dobson (20-8), Jim Palmer (20-9) and Dave McNally (21-5).

From the Society For American Baseball Research:

Bamberger’s theory was that sore arms and elbows resulted from underwork, not overwork. He insisted that his pitchers run every day, even if tired, even on the road, so he ordered 35 minutes of sprints from foul pole to foul pole. “When you pitch, and your legs get tired from lifting them up on every windup, you can lose coordination,” he said. A shift in the mechanics could lead to loss of control, which could lead to wildness and sore arms. He also had his pitchers play catch for 15 minutes between starts, with 20 minutes of hard throwing the prescription two days after every start. He believed in pitchers throwing many innings and completing as many starts as they could. In 1970, Palmer threw 305 innings, Cuellar 297⅔, and McNally 296.

That wasn't the only mention of the 2012 NLDS. Johnson was asked if he's come to regret leaving former closer Drew Storen in Game 5 as long as he did. The Nats led the Cardinals 7-5 when Storen, entering in a save opportunity in the top of the ninth, allowed four runs on three hits and two walks. Jason Motte retired the side for St. Louis in the bottom of the ninth, eliminating Washington with a decisive 9-7 victory.

"Ah, you know, I told him to throw strikes," Johnson quipped.

"He had great stuff and sometimes he tried to get a little too fine," he said. "Probably the biggest game of his career he was in, and he just tried to do too much, and that got him in trouble. But he was outstanding most of the year. This is typical fan talk. Would you do anything different? No. I had thought of all the options when I made the decision to leave him in, and then I was second-guessed a bunch for pitching to the eight-hole hitter. They were gonna pinch-hit the next guy, and the eight-hole hitter, I mean, if you can't get the eight-hole hitter out... it's not like he's Henry Aaron up there. You know?"

Asked about traditional power hitters being used more and more frequently in the lead-off spot, Johnson said, "Well, if they're mathematicians, they should know one thing: If you hit the guy with the highest on-base percentage first, and follow that way down the line, more guys will come to the plate and you'll have more chances to score runs. But they're screwing that all around.

"I mean, don't get me started on this (sabermetrics), because, basically what I'll tell you, is you put garbage in the computer and you get garbage back out."

Johnson still keeps up with the Nationals, which he says is still his favorite team, and offered a bit of advice to his former prodigy, Bryce Harper.

"He just needs to stay aggressive at the plate and hit balls in his zone," he said. "They're gonna come in his zone. Even though they try to pitch around him all the time, eventually they'll give him a ball in his zone and he'll whack it, so I think he's gonna be fine. I was asked who's going to win the pennants and be in the World Series, and my picks were the Yankees and the Nationals."

Did you leave the Nationals on your terms?

"Oh, sure. I mean, I didn't expect to be there in 2011, or '12 or '13. I was just filling in," Johnson said. "And you know, a manager never has the right to say how long he wants to be there or whatever. I knew I was on borrowed time the minute I got there, just like I was on every other job I ever had. But it's no big deal to me. The one thing I always loved about the radio, whether I was in New York or whatever, you listen to all the comments about what's going on, and then on the radio you can explain how dumb they are, because they don't know all the things that went on in making the decision. So that was fun."

Did you feel like Dusty Baker was shown the door prematurely?

"You know, I love Dusty," Johnson said. "He and I were teammates with Henry Aaron in Atlanta and I go way back with Dusty. And I fished in all his fishing tournaments over in the Caymans, and I always won in their fly-fishing contests for bonefish. I usually win them hands down, 50 fish in two days. You know, it was no problem. So I love everything about Dusty. But, I mean, I thought a lot of times I got fired and they shouldn't have fired me, but that's the way it goes."

Favorite player to manage over the years?

"Barry Larkin," he said. "He was just a prince."

Biggest pain in the (butt) to manage?

"Too many to name," Johnson said with a laugh, taking a brief pause before delivering a more definitive answer. "I'd say Strawberry."

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