Strasburg decision stirs echoes of Davey's past

Strasburg decision stirs echoes of Davey's past

Strasburg decision stirs echoes of Davey's past
NEW YORK -- So much swirls in the fertile and analytical mind of Davey Johnson that people close to and familiar with him can't pretend to know all that moves through his brain. I read him reasonably well 25 years ago, when Johnson managed the Mets and I covered them on a daily basis. But a significant percentage of his mind remained off-limits to those of us who witnessed his tour of duty in Queens.

Nonetheless, I'm aware of two episodes Johnson experienced with the Mets that must be in his memory. Each can be applied to The Decision the Nationals have made to shut down Stephen Strasburg next week. The first provides a partial explanation as to why Johnson embraces the decision of executive vice president of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo; the second says the Nationals' manager ought to convince Rizzo to abandon the plan. And together, the two may leave Johnson as torn as the ulnar collateral ligament in Strasburg's right elbow that required reconstructive surgery two summers ago.

Johnson wasn't the first manager to embrace the concept of pay now, win later, though he may have been the first to endorse it unequivocally and so publicly. Long-term benefits came first, though not chronologically, when Johnson weighed the decisions involving "our young arms" during his first year as a big league manager, 1984. Johnson had Dwight Gooden, Tim Leary, Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez on his staff. He sensed overall success was on the agenda because of their potential. And Johnson did what was necessary in his mind to enhance the chances of each fulfilling his potential even, if it denied the pitcher -- and even the team -- immediate success.

So it was on Easter Sunday that year that the Mets were in Philadelphia and Darling had started -- quite poorly. He surrendered one run in the first and five in the second on his ninth big league start. With one out, Mike Schmidt on second base following his run-scoring double and the Phillies leading by six runs, Johnson could have removed Darling and raised nary an eyebrow. But no change was made. Darling pitched through the fifth inning, allowing three more baserunners.

A second opportunity to remove Darling came in the fourth inning, when the Mets had a legitimate chance to reduce their deficit. They had runners on first and second with two out and the ninth spot in the order due to bat. Had the same circumstances presented themselves two years later, when Darling was a more established pitcher, a pinch-hitter would have been used. But Johnson allowed Darling to face Charlie Hudson for the sake of two more innings on the mound. Darling popped out. The Mets lost, 12-5.

"If I take [Darling] out there in the second or the fourth," Johnson said afterwards, "what does he get out of it? Nothing. He loses, and he has four days to think about how poorly he pitched. The way we did it, he got three more innings to learn how to pitch when he didn't have his best stuff and more of a chance to come away feeling better about himself."

What Johnson didn't say but later acknowledged was that the Mets were unlikely to offset the 6-0 deficit. So why not allow Darling to benefit from the day. The manager also failed to point out what he sensed, that the Mets weren't likely to win the division anyway. One more victory, improbable as it was after two innings in an April 1984 game, wasn't as likely to benefit the franchise long term as Darling's lesson.

It should be noted that former Mets general manager Frank Cashen considers Johnson's handling of the young pitchers in 1984 as the manager's best work in six-plus seasons in Queens.


Johnson's current team is quite likely to win a division championship. The Nationals enter their home game against the Cubs on Thursday with a seven-game lead in the National League East on the second-place Braves. And therein lies the most significant difference between the Mets of 1984 and the first Nats team to secure a winning record, as well as a most compelling reason to scrap the planned shutdown of the team's most successful and dominant pitcher.

As the Yankees are learning, as the Red Sox already know and as the Angels may have to accept, no team is guaranteed participation in the postseason, even with the door to the playoffs opened wider than ever. With the possible exception of the teams of 2007 and '08, no generation of Mets is more aware of that truth than Johnson's teams of the mid-to-late 1980s. The Mets of '84, '85, '87 and '89 won 90, 98, 92 and 89 games respectively and, without the safety net otherwise identified as the Wild Card, their Octobers were unoccupied and unrewarding. And the '88 team, comparable to the '86 World Series champions, fell one game short of a return to the Fall Classic.

Moreover, Johnson managed two other teams -- the 1995 Reds and '97 Orioles -- to division championships, and his '96 O's properly used the safety net. But the '86 Mets remain the lone World Series team Johnson has directed. He is quite familiar with the demands and pitfalls of September and October and well aware that Strasburg is the caliber of pitcher who can carry a team through a short series and an extended October.

A fourth World Series ring -- one to go with the one he won with the Mets 26 years ago and the two won by Orioles players in 1966 and '70 -- would balance his jewelry collection and strengthen Johnson's Hall of Fame credentials. At the same time, no one will know whether limiting Strasburg's innings in 2012 will have saved the most celebrated -- and now, the most closely examined -- young pitcher of a generation. He could break down in Spring Training 2013 or win 300 games. Who's to say how the decision will have influenced his career when it's complete?

Anyway, the Nationals could win the World Series without Strasburg.

So ... think Johnson's not torn?

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.