Johnson reluctantly resigned his position with the Baltimore Orioles Wednesday, only a few hours before he was named the American League's Manager of the Year. He may have planned it that way, too, orchestrating his exit to heap maximum embarrassment on Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
He is that clever. He can be that combative.
Johnson has won more games and fewer friends than any manager since Billy Martin. His teams have finished first or second in each of the 10 seasons he has managed from start to finish, and yet his next managing job will be his fourth of the '90s.
He acts like a tonic on a big-league ballclub, but mainly in small doses.
Johnson twice won 100 games with the New York Mets, and was nonetheless fired for disparaging the front office. He twice won division titles with the Reds, but was not renewed. He twice took the Orioles to the American League Championship Series, and is unemployed.
Johnson has a unique ability to irritate his employers over issues that have nothing to do with winning. Reds owner Marge Schott was offended that Johnson lived with his wife before they were married. Angelos objected when Johnson steered funds he had fined Roberto Alomar to a charity that retains his wife as a fund raiser.
There may have been flimsier firing offenses in the history of baseball, but none leap immediately to mind. Davey Johnson now owns the distinction of being forced out of successive jobs upon winning division championships, and he has yet to work for George Steinbrenner.
''As a manager, Davey can win,'' Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said Wednesday. ''Over a 162-game season, if he's got the horses to win, he can do the job. Davey is as good as there is in the game at managing a pitching staff . . . (But) His communication skills are sometimes a little bit weak in dealing with management or ownership.''
Clearly, Johnson did not communicate effectively with Angelos, but he understood the Orioles' obtrusive owner perfectly.
''I've got a three-year contract,'' Johnson told reporters in July. ''But I'd better win the World Series in two.''
Baltimore finished the 1997 season with the best record in the American League, but Johnson's job security began to deteriorate when the Orioles were ambushed by the Cleveland Indians in the playoffs.
Bothered by indifference
Two days after the World Series, Johnson asked that his contract be extended or bought out. When Angelos failed to act on this request, Johnson drafted a letter of resignation.
''I must say,'' Johnson wrote Angelos, ''that your indifference to the work I have performed over the last two years in guiding the Orioles to the playoffs and in delivering a wire-to-wire division championship is discouraging, to say the least.
''Your apparent lack of regard for my management skills and for me as a person is reflected in your statements to the press and the front office staff that my status as manager is 'under review.' '' Johnson said he would forfeit his remaining salary provided Angelos did not block him from other baseball jobs. Angelos readily agreed.
''I didn't want to move on,'' Johnson said Wednesday night. ''I felt like we had two good years and I didn't like being under review. I didn't know what 'under review' was. I wanted him to either endorse me or support me or make a change and let me know. And he let me know.''
There was no emotion in his voice, nor much need for it. Proven winners are in short supply and the Toronto Blue Jays have an opening. Being Manager of the Year can't hurt Johnson's cause.
''To me, it's like winning the Heisman Trophy,'' he said. ''To have someone recognize that I did a good job means a lot.''
BASEBALL NEWS BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS