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Friday, June 5, 2009
Fair or not, Washington a lame duck

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- There is something quintessentially American about Ron Washington, the Texas Rangers' manager, as he sits in the visiting manager's office at Yankee Stadium, fortified by a desktop computer screen to his left, scouting reports and a lineup card to his right, a plastic blue cigarette lighter atop a red-and-white box of Winstons near his hands.

He at once is frustrated that the changing America is messing with one of his crippling vices -- "There're not too many more places where you can smoke anymore," he says before flashing a defiant smile, "but I still find my ways" -- and at the same time, he is living proof that yesterday's virtues of persistence, work ethic and company loyalty can still be rewarded. Washington, who seemed destined never to elevate higher than "trusted lieutenant," was a fundamentals-first coach for years before managing his first big league game weeks before his 55th birthday in 2007.

Ron Washington
Ron Washington is in his third -- and possibly final -- season as the Rangers' manager.

These are interesting times for the Rangers, a time when the team's and the manager's success should be coalescing in beautiful vindication but instead is marked by a volatile undertow: The Rangers are in first place in the American League West. From a team that has finished .500 or better just once over the last decade, in recent weeks they have either owned or been a day away from the best record in the American League.

Texas is playing a tough, resilient game that each day reflects the gritty defensive passions of its manager and the uncompromising pitching imperatives of its famous club president. After Wednesday's 4-2 win over the Yankees -- which came a day after a dangerous New York-Boston road trip started with a 12-3 loss to New York -- Texas was 10 games better than a year before and 16 games better than in Washington's first season.

Yet for each positive, Washington is managing without a net, baseball's most ferocious lame duck. He does not have a contract after this season, and was very nearly fired last season by the team president -- one Mr. Nolan Ryan -- after the Rangers started the season woefully at 7-16. Even going 72-67 the rest of the way did not convince Ryan that Washington merited security.

Instead, the Rangers announced they would not yet exercise Washington's option to manage in 2010, saying it was not a top club priority, a sentiment that particularly stung because months earlier during the offseason, Ryan further isolated Washington by forcing him to fire his bench coach -- longtime friend and mentor Art Howe, for whom Washington had been a coach in Oakland -- and replace him with a Ryan ally, Jackie Moore. For the new team pitching coach, Washington wanted Rick Peterson, with whom he coached in Oakland. Ryan instead hired Mike Maddux.

If Washington has the confidence of Ryan, it is the best-kept secret in Dallas since "Who Shot J.R.?" kept the country in television suspense during the summer and fall of 1980.

So Washington simultaneously represents two universal archetypes of baseball and of corporate America, one in which we take pride, the other of which we spend our lives trying to avoid. He at once is the success story who through professional diligence one day got the top job and at the same time is the guy in Ryan's bull's-eye, the one who is vulnerable because the new boss didn't hire him and, despite obvious improvements, isn't sure that he wants him.

"To be honest, I don't think about the contract. I really don't," he said. "What we do on the field is going to determine my contract situation more than anything I can do worrying about it. I think last year maybe I managed afraid at times trying to think about this or affecting that. But I look at these guys now, and you can see the little messages are making a difference. They are taking pride in closing out games, in not giving things to other teams.

"People said last year, 'Washington is supposed to be some kind of defensive guru, so how come these guys can't catch the ball?' It doesn't work that way. This is a mindset. Mindsets have to be developed. But you're starting to see it now."

Few teams in baseball find themselves caught in as many topical and fractious cultural crosscurrents as the Rangers. In 2005, the Rangers joined baseball's avant-garde, hiring 28-year-old, Ivy League-educated Jon Daniels as general manager. Daniels had never played the game, was not a baseball insider, and represented another step in the hypermodern, post-"Moneyball" remaking of the baseball front office. Yet the hiring of Ryan by owner Tom Hicks rang of old-school cronyism. Despite his Hall of Fame career, Ryan had never served in any official decision-making front office capacity and Hicks had given him total control over the direction of the franchise, both on the business side and baseball operations.

The Rangers are young and unproven, eschewing the old big-spending Hicks days in favor of player development. A third of the Rangers' 25-man roster were born after 1984, and yet Daniels chose Washington, a throwback first-time manager whose personality and managing sensibilities are rooted in the tough-love, tough-talk days when baseball was more sport and less corporate. Washington is a child of the ultra-competitive, pre-free-agency Dodgers system of the 1970s, in which the talent was so fierce, the team control so great that only the very best, most polished players made it to the big leagues. He played under disciplinarians -- Tommy Lasorda in the minors and majors, Tom Kelly with Minnesota -- and made his bones as a coach by tirelessly teaching infield fundamentals to the rising stars of the Oakland system, namely third baseman Eric Chavez and shortstop Miguel Tejada.

To be honest, I don't think about the contract. I really don't. What we do on the field is going to determine my contract situation more than anything I can do worrying about it.

-- Ron Washington

One of the reasons Washington had not often been considered "manager material" was because of his impolitic, independent characteristics. Washington was thought of in some circles to be, in the words of one observer, the "best baseball man who will never get the chance to be a manager." He was too honest, not corporate enough, too demanding for today's generation of player.

Daniels took a gamble that the fierce and demanding Washington could connect with the current player unused to being approached with straight, unvarnished opinion, expecting accountability, the way it used to be.

At worst, Washington can appear broken by today's rules, and it is here where players understand baseball's new corporate motif and ways to manipulate it. It is here where Washington feels lost around a generation whose priorities seem to him more complex than playing the game to play it well. Players don't often communicate the way they once did. Today, many follow the corporate approach, going through white-collar channels by complaining to their agent, who in turn talks to the front office and then, by the most circuitous route, the grievance gets back to the manager.

In a real sense, Washington longs for the romantic old days of heat and respect, like the time earlier this season when he demanded during a game that anyone who took issue with him speak directly to him. But those days are gone, like the days when managers had final say over personnel decisions.

"I said it when I got here, and I say it today: My door is always open. Always," Washington said. "And you don't have to come in here and be politically correct. You can kick in the [expletive] door and ask me what the [expletive] I was thinking when I did this or that. I have no problem with that. And if I'm wrong, I'm wrong. And I'll take that. But if I'm right, you're going to sit your [expletive] down and to listen to me for awhile. That type of talk is yesterday."

Take, for example, a four-game series in April against Baltimore in which the Rangers took three of four games from the Orioles but the prized shortstop, 20-year-old Elvis Andrus, seemed to lack focus defensively, a cardinal sin to Washington.

"I told him, 'You think because they're no errors on the board you played a good game, but there are errors that show up in the box score and errors that don't,'" Washington said. "Everybody else can have all the other stuff, what you're hitting and the major league lifestyle, but if you don't start concentrating and catching the ball, you're going to have to deal with my black [expletive]. Because we got No. 13 [Omar Vizquel] … three-time All-Star, 11 Gold Gloves. You keep [expletive] up, and I guarantee you, you will be a seven-inning player.

"You may think I don't like you. You may think I'm on you because I don't like you," Washington told Andrus. "That's not it. I'm on you because I love you, because of what you can be. You can hit .300 and all that, but if you don't catch the [expletive] ball, I'm going to be on you again."

That is vintage Washington, but he is the same person who broke down and cried when Chavez, after thousands of ground balls and much abuse, gave Washington one of his Gold Gloves with a note that read, "Not without you, Wash."

Message received, Washington now speaks of Andrus as "special."

"He's ahead of where Miguel was," Washington said. "He's very intelligent. You don't have to tell him the same things twice. He learns. He studies. He wants to be a good player."

And perhaps in an odd sense, the various creative tensions rooted in each group have spurred the inspired performances that have defined the Rangers' impressive start.

Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan took over as the Rangers' team president before the start of last season.

"He said all those things. He got on me," Andrus recalls. "In Toronto, I made errors, and he was the first one to say, 'Hey, kid, those things are going to happen. Stay positive.' But he wants you to be good. It meant a lot to me that in the offseason he came down to our complex in the Dominican Republic. This is the manager who did that. That tells you how much he wants from you."

This year, Washington cannot talk enough about his veterans, particularly third baseman Michael Young, a perennial 200-hit player who was asked in the offseason to change positions to make room for Andrus. Washington calls Young the true leader of the club, the player whose image in which the team is molded. "I love his mental toughness," Washington says. "There's nothing about him that you worry about. He is the guy on this club, first and foremost. Nothing he can't handle."

He talks about Andruw Jones, who is reviving his career with Texas after falling from the perch of the elite over the past few seasons. He talks of pitcher Kevin Millwood and center fielder Marlon Byrd as the reason this year's team has excellent "checks and balances. These guys won't let the younger guys fall back."

"He showed me respect," Jones said. "We talked in the offseason on the phone. He knew I'd been a winner, and he made me feel welcome. Wash is pretty straight-up. 'Go out and get the job done.' He's a very positive guy."

And Mike Maddux, Washington says, has been a "difference-maker" as pitching coach. "He has given me more confidence in that part of the job. His professionalism has been invaluable. He's given the pitchers someone they know will reinforce them positively, make them believe."

And yet, Washington does not know whether anything he does will be enough to save his job. He does not know if the decision to remove him or retain him has already been made. He does not know whether winning -- or the Rangers' making the playoffs for the first time since 1999 -- can save his job.

"To be perfectly honest, I'm grateful. But I'm not scared," he said. "You can see the changes in this club, and if it is not good enough, I can say I did my best. I can say that I tried to prepare these guys to play, that you may not be the best team in the league, but you can be the best team on the field that day. I love the game, and I can always teach. I came into this situation looking for a job, and I can leave it doing the same. I've been there before. I'm comfortable with that. I have to be."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.