Given Davey Johnson’s managerial track record, it should come as little surprise that the Washington Nationals are winning while he resides in their dugout. Except for a mediocre two-year stint with the Dodgers, Johnson has won division titles everywhere he has skippered teams, from Baltimore to Cincinnati to New York.
In tracing Johnson’s history as a manager, many of us readily remember Johnson’s first big league managing job in New York, where he helped the Mets make the transition from a status of up-and-coming to 1986 world champions. We might also be tempted to say that Johnson’s first managerial gig took place in the Mets’ farm system, where he prepared for his employment in New York. But that is not the case. Though Johnson did manage the Double-A Jackson Mets and the Triple-Tidewater Tides, he actually started managing a few years earlier, in 1979 to be exact. That’s when he guided a little-known minor league team in a league that quickly plummeted into oblivion.
Having wrapped up his playing career after a short pinch-hitting stint with the Cubs, Johnson agreed to become the player-manager of the Miami Amigos (or Friends, for those who prefer the English translation). They were the flagship team in the newly-formed Inter-American League, which was conceived during the winter of 1978-79. The fledgling league had six franchises. Miami was the only team based on the American mainland, while the other teams took up roots in Puerto Rico, Panama, the Dominican, and Venezuela. The array of teams included the San Juan Boricuas (Natives), the Panama Banqueros (Bankers), the Santo Domingo Azucareros (Sugarmakers) the Caracas Metropolitanos (Mets), and the Maracaibo Petroleros (Oilers). The idea was to create a truly international league that would strengthen baseball-related ties between the United States and Latin America while giving some players—Latino and otherwise—a second chance.
The league certainly had noble intentions—and the moral support of Organized Baseball. Recognized by the Commissioner’s Office as a legitimate minor league circuit, the Inter-American League received Triple-A status, putting it on a par with the established American Association, International League, and Pacific Coast League. On the surface, the plan for the Inter-American League looked promising.
The IAL featured its fair share of well-known players. Ex-major leaguers like Tito Fuentes, Cesar Tovar, Bobby Tolan, Cito Gaston, Dave May, Adolfo Phillips, Mike Cuellar, and Wayne Granger dotted the rosters. Other notables included former Expo first baseman Hal Breeden, ex-White Sox infielder Lee “Bee Bee” Richard, fringe outfielders John Jeter and Angel Mangual, and veteran pitchers Orlando Pena, Bullet Bob Reynolds, Oscar Zamora, and left-hander Mike Wallace, the latter a onetime pitching prospect with the Yankees. The managing ranks also featured their own set of brand names, including Johnson, ex-pitcher Pat Dobson, and two retired shortstops in Willy Miranda and Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio. Even a notable flake like Mike Kekich earned a managerial job in the IAL.
Yet, the league was launched too hastily, with almost all of the planning taking place during the preceding winter. As a result, questionable owners and understaffed front offices became the norm. Marketing efforts did not begin until January of 1979, far too late to entice a television package from a network or cable outfit.
The league was conceived by the otherwise respected Roberto “Bobby” Maduro, the onetime owner of the Havana Sugar Kings, a team that had thrived in pre-Castro Cuba, and a longtime assistant to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Although the commissioner supported Maduro’s idea, the existing winter leagues in Latin America did not. They considered the Inter-American League a threat to winter ball, even though the IAL planned to play all of its games in the spring and summer.
The Amigos quickly emerged as the model franchise in a league that otherwise featured unabashed disarray. (More on that later on.) They benefited from the advantage of putting their front office together earlier than any other team. The Amigos also had an edge in signing ex-major leaguers and veteran minor leaguers, most of whom preferred to play stateside in Miami as opposed to one of the Caribbean venues.
Bolstered by a solid base of talent—and guided by a young, energetic manager in Johnson (who was still known as Dave Johnson at the time)—the Amigos established themselves as the league’s best team. They featured two of the league’s leading hitters in outfielders Jim Tyrone and Leon Brown. Tyrone had batted over .300 as a starting outfielder for the 1977 Oakland A’s before being mysteriously benched by Charlie Finley. He continued to hit in Miami, batting a cool .364 to claim the league’s only batting title. Brown, a onetime Met in 1976 and a perennial .300 hitter in the minor leagues, finished second to Tyrone, coming in at a .352 clip. As a team, the Amigos compiled a batting average of nearly .290.
The Amigos, who scored over five runs per game, also had power, mostly in the form of Wayne Tyrone (Jim’s brother), who led the league with eight home runs, and Danny Thomas, who clubbed six home runs before running into a series of roadblocks. Thomas was a troubled individual and a onetime top prospect with the Brewers. Though enormously talented, Thomas had long since become involved with an obscure religious group that mandated he not play games from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Additionally, he repeatedly lost his temper with league umpires, resulting in frequent ejections from games. Johnson eventually suspended Thomas. Tragically, Thomas would take his own life while being held on a rape charge, just one year after the demise of the IAL.
Johnson’s pitching staff was as formidable as the hitting. The lefty-throwing Wallace won six of his first seven decisions on the way to a league-leading 11 victories. If the Amigos had managed to play an entire season, Wallace might well have reached 20 wins. Young right-hander Ron Martinez dominated the league, as evidenced by an ERA of 0.89. Out of the bullpen, Johnson turned to a young right-hander with the elongated name of Porfirio Altamirano, who threw a fastball in the high nineties and maintained an ERA below 1.00.
During his tenure as Miami’s manager, Johnson became a champion for his players. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Johnson argued that all of his top players—the Tyrones, Brown, Wallace, and Altamirano—were capable of playing in the major leagues in 1979 and helping a contending team down the stretch. On the whole, Johnson considered the Amigos the class of minor league ball. “We are probably the best Triple-A club in existence,” Johnson said.
Clearly, the Amigos achieved a level of stature within the IAL. (They even had their own cheerleaders, who were rather unbelievably known as the “Hot and Juicy Wendy’s Girls.”) Unfortunately, the rest of the league did not come close to meeting Miami’s standard. The IAL, which folded three months into its existence, encountered a myriad of problems, ranging from personnel to political issues, from bad weather to faulty flight schedules.
*Although the IAL had the stamp of approval of Organized Baseball, none of the leagues teams had working agreements with major league clubs. Without working agreements, there was no financial backing from Major League Baseball. Additionally, the league had to rely exclusively on released and undrafted players to fill the rosters of its original six teams. As a result, the lack of depth on some of the rosters affected the quality of play, which was somewhere between the levels of Triple-A and Double-A.
*Obtaining visas became a persistent problem during the league’s three-month reign, sometimes preventing players from showing up for their appointed rounds. When the San Juan Boricuas tried to leave the Caracas airport to take on the Amigos in Miami, immigration authorities prevented Mike Cuellar from boarding the flight; he barely made it to Miami in time for the game. Miami’s backup catcher, Jorge Curbelo, twice tried to accompany his team on a trip to Venezuela, only to be told that he couldn’t go. And on one occasion, an entire team, the Santo Domingo Azucareros, failed to show up for a game in San Juan because of visa problems.
*Team flights generally ran late, often by an hour or more. On one memorable occasion, a team had to fly in two shifts to the city of destination, with the second unit of players arriving only moments before game time.
*Even when planes arrived in a timely fashion, the high cost of airfare, with the cities in the league spread so wide apart, created astronomical bills for the six teams. Airfares were driven even higher because of the grounding of DC-10 jets in 1979. There were other real world problems that affected the league. One player expressed relief on leaving Panama City just before the arrival of the Sandinistas, a left-wing group of revolutionaries who overthrew the Nicaraguan government.
*Several of the clubs lacked the kind of personnel in the front office needed to perform basic team functions. For example, the Azucareros failed to send box scores to the league offices during the first six weeks of the season.
*On-field incidents marred the league’s reputation. During a game at Miami Stadium between the Amigos and Santo Domingo, a fan jumped onto the field to confront home plate umpire George Ruskin. After arguing with the umpire, the fan was somehow allowed to return to his seat. A 20-minute delay ensued, as the umpires refused to allow play to continue until the fan was ejected from the ballpark. The Santo Domingo players actually came to the fan’s defense, arguing vociferously with the umpires. Finally, Miami officials summoned the police, who finally escorted the unruly fan off the premises.
*The Panama franchise hosted an afternoon game without the benefit of the scoreboard. As one of the stadium worked explained, the “guy who runs it works only at night.” That same day, a rainstorm forced a delay in the start of the game; unfortunately, the grounds crew consisted almost entirely of underaged children who had no idea how to spread the tarpaulin over the field.
*In general, weather played havoc with the IAL schedule. A total of 70 games were postponed by rain. Many other games were played in poor conditions created by torrential rains.
*Fans stayed away from IAL games in droves. Of the six franchises, only Caracas managed to draw more than 3,000 fans per game. Even with their high caliber of play, the Amigos drew only 1,300 per night. The other four franchises averaged 1,100 fans or less. And there was little to no radio or TV money to fall back, as only three of the IAL teams had season-long radio packages.
*The lack of stability was stunning. During the first six weeks of the season, two team owners had to be replaced, along with two general managers and one field manager.
Then in early June, the Panama Banqueros announced the signing of former big leaguer Willie Crawford as a first baseman/DH. But Crawford never played in the league. That’s because on June 17, the Panama and Puerto Rico franchises disbanded and ceased operations. Less than two weeks later, two more franchises called it quits, leaving the Amigos and the Maracaibo Petroleros as the only teams in in operation. Although the Amigos and the Petroleros wanted to continue, two teams do not make a league. So the entire Inter-American League folded up and evaporated into the Caribbean air a full nine weeks short of its expected 130-game schedule.
The financial failing of the IAL nearly broke Johnson’s heart. First, the Amigos had assembled a record of 51-21 (good for a winning percentage of .708) and were clearly headed toward a league title. Furthermore, Johnson had been one of the league’s true believers. Just a few weeks earlier, he had told Sports Illustrated that baseball’s present day farm system was broken and in need of repair, which he felt the IAL could have provided. “The system isn’t conducive to breeding talent anymore,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated. “The real problem is that, as a rule, scouts and minor league managers are incompetent judges of ability. Usually they were .220 hitters who couldn’t get jobs outside of baseball. You can’t imagine the number of talented players these guys have hurt or overlooked.” Johnson cited a recent example from the major leagues. “The Yankees were using the best pitcher in baseball, Ron Guidry, as a reliever in the minors.
“Also, with expansion and the rush to get kids into the majors came the elimination from Triple-A ball of the veteran player. Instead of being a tough educational step to the big leagues, Triple-A has become nothing more than glorified Double-A. Owners didn’t really appreciate the value of having young prospects playing against veterans.”
If there was someone who has always understood how to develop young, unproven talent, it is Johnson. With the Mets, he allowed a bevy of young players—including Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson, Kevin Mitchell and Dwight Gooden—to grow and evolve as major league performers. He’s now doing the same with an equally talented and youthful core of Nationals that includes Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann.
Perhaps Johnson’s experiences in the Inter-American League prepared him to work with young players in the major leagues. After all, he saw just about everything one could see in the IAL, including unpaid bills, temper tantrums from his players, and fans arguing with umpires. Compared to that, managing a talented team like the Nationals, or even butting heads with a rival manager like Joe Maddon, must seem like a lazy stroll through the daisies.