Perhaps a better plan for Rizzo, after a weekend of fuming at the mental mistakes of his Nats, would have been a cool beverage upstairs, a day to chill out and a chat with Johnson on Monday.
“That would have been the prudent management strategy,” Rizzo said dryly Tuesday. “Not the best timing on the part of the general manager.”
Instead, Rizzo followed his impulse, something he’s prone to doing. What followed was one of baseball’s more familiar — but seldom-seen — events: two intense competitors, who respect each other, blowing a fuse.
“You come down and manage the club,” reporters heard Johnson say. Or maybe that quote should be in all capital letters.
“Davey and I are two passionate baseball guys,” Rizzo said ruefully Tuesday. “We spar and discuss and fight. We do that all the time. I love the guy. The only thing we did wrong was we didn’t close the door.”
However, as wrong things go, this wasn’t a small one. When you have the best record in baseball, a five-game lead in your division but, also, four sloppy losses in a row hanging over your head, you want outward calm.
The Johnson-Rizzo relationship has been rock-solid even since Rizzo hired him as a consultant “to make me look smarter” three years ago. There’s more than respect between them, there’s gratitude aplenty. Rizzo brought Johnson back after 11 years away from managing. A former AL GM said last weekend, “It’s hard to believe that just three years ago nobody would touch Davey.”
Johnson’s experience and credibility were a godsend to Rizzo. After team president Stan Kasten, a mentor, quit near the end of the 2010 season, Rizzo’s plate was full to overflowing. When Jim Riggleman angrily quit as manager in a contract dispute with Rizzo last June, the GM needed not only a fine manager but a friend and sounding board. They semi-saved each other.
But the pressure of a pennant race can produce combustibility, especially if you assume you’re on such firm ground little can go wrong. If Rizzo and Johnson weren’t tight, they wouldn’t have been in the same room after such a tough series. If they weren’t confident they could speak freely, the sparks wouldn’t have flown. And then lit dynamite, if only for a minute.
With the Nats already under scrutiny for Rizzo’s decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg, no new fuel was needed for more fires. Rizzo has had plenty of e-mails from baseball lifers he respects, saying they understand what happened and how little weight it probably carries in the Nats’ clubhouse. Some also add, “But that can’t happen.”