Commentary

Wash's proven style meets new test

Unorthodox way has brought recent success, but '14 poses challenge for manager

Updated: March 31, 2014, 2:34 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The lessons Ron Washington learned as a kid on the sandlots at Willie Hall Playground Park and the streets of New Orleans have made him one of the American League's best managers.

Scoff, if you must. It's true.

A manager's job is to maximize the talent on his roster and give his team an identity.

Few do it better than Washington.

Bad managers get fired. Quickly.

Only the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Scioscia (2000), Minnesota Twins' Ron Gardenhire (2002) and Tampa Bay Rays' Joe Maddon (2006) have longer tenures in the American League than Washington.

[+] EnlargeMatt Harrison
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerWashington handed Harrison the ball in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, a decision the lefty says was a pivotal moment for his career.
No Rangers manager has ever done it better.

Washington has 611 wins, the most in franchise history. Of the 23 managers the Rangers have employed, Only Washington, Johnny Oates (.515) and Kevin Kennedy (.500) have records of .500 or better.

"I've always been able to maneuver around people and understand them from the time I was a kid playing in the park every day," he said. "These guys play for me because I don't try to stifle their personalities or put my thumb on them.

"I let them be whoever they are, whether they're cocky or quiet or like to laugh and joke. Then I know whether they need to be loved on or cussed out when you're trying to motivate them.

"If you cuss out a kid and he can't handle it, you might lose him. If you hug a kid who needs to be cussed out, you won't get the most from him."

Washington will need all his guile and intuition to work around a roster that has been ravaged by injuries in spring training while competing in a difficult division with the Oakland A's and Los Angeles Angels.

See, managing a baseball team is about so much more than analytics and defensive shifts. It's more than figuring out a batting order or when to use a sacrifice bunt.

Too many folks think Washington is a bad manager because he uses an unorthodox approach.

That's just dumb.

Washington manages by feel and intuition forged from more than 40 years in the game that has provided every material thing he owns. He's not always going to choose a righty-righty, batter-pitcher matchup or pinch hit a lefty against a tough right-handed reliever.

As a former player, he's loyal to a fault to veterans, always believing they're one hit, one game away from breaking out of a slump.

It's why he kept Michael Young in the lineup during the 2011 playoffs and why he kept Ian Kinsler in the leadoff spot last season when he struggled. It's why Matt Harrison started Game 7 of the 2011 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals instead of Derek Holland, who had pitched a gem in Game 4. Harrison didn't pitch well, but the Rangers twice came within one strike of winning before losing.

In 2012, Harrison set a career high with 18 wins. Coincidence?

"That game changed my career," Harrison said. "I was so nervous with butterflies, I thought I was going to throw up. I would've rather won the game, but we didn't, so I tried to take the positives out of it.

"I'll never face more pressure in any other game, so it's easy for me to relax now. The trust and confidence that Wash showed me by letting me pitch that game helped me become the pitcher I am today."

We know Washington doesn't trust youngsters, which can be a point of contention in an organization such as the Rangers, who are obsessed with finding the next wave of young talent.

Washington's approach is among the reasons highly touted prospect Jurickson Profar sat much of last season and Leonys Martin is hitting ninth, when you could certainly make the argument that the Rangers' best potential lineup has Martin leading off and Shin-Soo Choo hitting fifth.

Washington, though, wants Martin playing freely and easily -- not worrying about seeing pitches or setting an offensive tone.

Maddon is one of the most unorthodox managers in the game -- all you have to do is look at his lineup every day -- and has a love affair with defensive shifts. Jim Leyland, one of games best managers for years, was notorious for sticking with his pitchers too long. Scioscia, another one of the game's best managers, loves the sacrifice bunt.

There's not one right way to manage, and it doesn't matter what approach a manager takes as long as he wins.

Washington has proved he understands how to do that.

The Rangers have won 90 games four consecutive seasons and advanced to the postseason in three of those.

These aren't the Dallas Cowboys, who have no identity. Washington has completely changed this team's identity. The beer-league, home-run hitting Rangers are a distant memory.

This is a team founded in the fundamentals of pitching and defense and running. These Rangers can win a lot of different ways.

They love going from first base to third and using squeeze plays. At times, they're reckless on the bases, but Washington believes that's part of the learning process -- what you can get away with and what you can't.

It's about putting pressure on the opposition and forcing it to make perfect plays. When executed properly, it's beautiful to watch. When it's not, it's ugly as sin.

This team always plays hard. It doesn't always play well. No team does.

"I played the game," he said. "I know how players think. I try to take the pressure off of them and put them in a position to succeed."

Much of the time he does -- even if his approach is unorthodox.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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