Commentary

Ron Washington's battle for respect

World Series title might be only way for manager to change perceptions of him

Updated: October 21, 2011, 7:47 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

After nine innings of a lost Game 1 and eight more innings of Game 2, the Texas Rangers had not enjoyed a lead in the World Series. In both games, their most dangerous bullpen weapon, Alexi Ogando, had dueled and lost twice against Allen Craig, both times with two out, both times resulting in the go-ahead run. The Rangers' manager, Ron Washington, spent the aftermath of the one-run loss in Game 1 defending moves that failed, flailing against a flourishing narrative that, despite consecutive pennants, he was overmatched by his counterpart, two-time World Series champion Tony La Russa.

Entering Game 3, with the Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals suddenly tied after the Rangers' spirited ninth-inning comeback, the positions on the chessboard have turned, and it is La Russa -- who the night before was heralded as a genius -- whose moves backfired in textbook overmanaging as Washington and his team executed a perfect ninth inning of winning baseball.

Contrary to the expected narrative, it was Washington's style that won him Game 2 and La Russa's that quite possibly lost it for the Cardinals. But the weekend games in Texas -- which could decide the champion, as they did at Rangers Ballpark last season -- hold far greater implications for Washington than for La Russa. Win or lose, La Russa is a Hall of Fame manager, his legend and pedigree secure. La Russa gambled and lost with high stakes, removing his previously untouchable closer with no outs and a lead. If Washington had done anything to cost the win -- or give the Rangers less of a chance to win -- in Game 1, La Russa had done equally as much damage to the Cardinals the next night.

Yet for Washington, the stakes for the rest of the Series are much higher. The first two games of the World Series have illustrated the growing narrative that he is fighting not only the aura of La Russa but also the assumption of competence that has been afforded his counterparts. Despite consecutive American League pennants, the same has not yet been afforded him in these playoffs.

The truth is that both games were decided on the field. Washington gambled and lost with Esteban German, but Ogando's inability to beat Craig with a 1-2 count changed the game. The Cardinals were an inning from a commanding 2-0 lead because Craig bested Ogando and his 98 mph fastball again, then fell even because Ian Kinsler -- in a terrific performance offensively, defensively and on the basepaths -- bet on himself against the formidable arm of Yadier Molina, who had thrown him out the night before. After a flare base hit to start the ninth against Cardinals flamethrower Jason Motte, Kinsler absorbed two bunt attempts from Elvis Andrus before taking off for second, safe by a sliver.

Washington, trailing 1-0, didn't put the steal sign on. For the season, Kinsler has been given the green light to go. He went, in the biggest bright-lights moment of his career.

"I went on my own because I thought I had a chance to beat him," Kinsler said. "The steal sign wasn't on."

Andrus, as terrific as Kinsler in Game 2, singled -- and with the help of Albert Pujols' error -- runners were at the corners with none out for wounded Josh Hamilton, when La Russa removed Motte and the chessboard began to shift.

Hamilton is fighting an injured left groin. In Game 1, he nearly keeled over in pain on a check swing. In the style of Ogando-Craig, Arthur Rhodes had beaten Hamilton the night before. La Russa wanted the rematch and took the risky, even reckless, step of removing his closer in favor of Rhodes, whose lesser velocity increased the bat speed of injured Hamilton. Hamilton flied to right on the first pitch, scoring Kinsler and tying the game. La Russa removed Rhodes for Lance Lynn, who gave up the game-losing sacrifice fly to Michael Young.

"I figured he'd stay with [Motte], to be honest with you," Hamilton said after the game. "A guy that throws close to 100, rather than bring in Rhodesy who throws 89, but he didn't. I don't get paid to make those decisions, but I'm glad he made that one."

La Russa defended the failed chess move evenly. He had a choice to let his closer face Hamilton, to walk Hamilton and continue on with Motte. He chose to remove Motte.

"To load the bases is a really difficult thing to do," he said. "We had a chance to do something with Hamilton with Rhodes. Maybe they score a run but they don't advance the other guy, and he did a good job."

As Washington ascends as a manager and craves respect for his abilities, he might rightfully view some elements of the slight as racial, and although he is not incorrect, much of the reaction to him is because of the lack of professional respect all baseball managers, black or white, Latino or Asian, must suffer. Certain professions -- especially in sports, where a multimillion-dollar business is still regarded as a game -- are not afforded automatic professional respect, and managing is one of them. It is a job 40,000 people in the stands and a million more coaching on Little League fields around America believe they could do better, for it does not require an advanced degree or traditional schooling.

"I think you resent it," said Joe Torre, who only has more postseason wins than any other manager in baseball history. Torre, who now works for the commissioner's office, was on the field before Game 2. "You're spending the night trying to figure something out. … What I always tried to say was, 'It was a bad decision. It wasn't the result that I wanted.'"

Casual or hard-core fans will question a manager's decision in a baseball game but not question their electrician, plumber or doctor. Often because of class, some managers never receive credit for their accomplishments. Charlie Manuel has two pennants and a World Series title, but, because of his West Virginia accent and country demeanor, he is an easy target for ridicule. The same was true of North Carolinian Grady Little, who didn't sound the part for the New Englanders in Boston.

Terry Francona won the two World Series titles that freed the Red Sox, yet some members of management referred to Francona as "Fran-coma."

Washington is funny, profane and unlettered in a game that, in the past decade and a half, has grown more corporate, more Ivy League. He may say "that's how baseball go," but Ron Washington is not stupid. Because of his lack of upper-class polish, he had long been underestimated as a baseball man and generally unconsidered as managerial material. As he ascends, perceptions of class -- and, to a far lesser extent, race -- are being played out on the national stage.

"The best piece of advice I ever got came from Hoot Evers," Jim Leyland said before his Tigers were eliminated 15-5 in Game 6. "He told me that if you were a manager and you weren't willing to be second-guessed, you need to find a new line of work.

"I've always said I have a problem with vicious, but I don't have a problem with second-guessing," Leyland said. "You have everyone out there in the world who thinks that because they played baseball in grade school that they can do the job, but you're the one who has the job. That's the beauty of it, but you don't have to be vicious."

The Washington narrative has followed similar lines in these playoffs, even though he has beaten Tampa Bay's very well regarded Joe Maddon in consecutive years in the division series, last year with an inferior team, this year with one better than the Rays. In a thrilling ALCS with Detroit, he and Leyland engaged in a terrific struggle in which both were faced with serious, series-altering decisions. And although the two put on a great show, each has a fan base that will be asking certain questions this winter:

Washington's ALCS top 5

1. Continuing to bat Nelson Cruz seventh.
2. Not pinch-running for Adrian Beltre with the bases loaded and no outs in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth of Game 2.
3. Taking out untouchable Ogando in Game 1 in favor of the bullpen combination of Darren Oliver and Mike Adams.
4. Playing Endy Chavez in Game 2 after David Murphy had tripled off of Justin Verlander in Game 1.
5. Intentionally walking Miguel Cabrera -- the go-ahead run in a tie game -- in Game 4.

Leyland's ALCS top 4

1. Intentionally walking Mike Napoli to face Cruz in the ninth inning of Game 2.
2. Not pinch-running for Cabrera at third base with one out in Game 4.
3. Allowing Austin Jackson to attempt to steal second in Game 4.
4. Pitching Daniel Schlereth instead of Phil Coke early with the season on the line in Game 6.

Washington, for his part, had his reasons for his moves, but he was failed by polish -- not explaining the move clearly in the postgame interview -- and public relations, not intelligence.

In Game 1, Washington exposed himself by not batting Yorvit Torrealba, but the move wasn't completely unsound.

1. Torrealba is a fastball hitter, susceptible to breaking balls.
2. Torrealba was 1-for-27 as a pinch hitter.

Washington, like all managers, has said every player on the roster should be able to help win a ballgame. Where the move failed was in having German sit for 24 days, then asking him to hit in the World Series.

The racial component is subtler, definable more by what is not said than what is. What Washington fights in real time, as the World Series inches toward its conclusion, is the assumption of incompetence. Leyland's positions were simple:

1. He felt Napoli was more dangerous at the time.
2. "There's no way I'm taking Miguel Cabrera out of a tie game."
3. "Jackson has the green light to go, and I encouraged him to do it again."
4. "It was unfair to put guys who hadn't pitched in that situation, but I didn't feel we had a choice."

Leyland was given the benefit of the doubt for his thought process, that there was an intelligence behind his reasoning even if the end result was not to his liking.

"The fact of the matter is I have a choice, right?" he said. "So if you give me the choices, and I chose one of the three options, why is my choice wrong? It was on your list, too, I just happened not to pick the one you may have wanted. Why does that make me stupid?

"When I make a decision, that decision is based on one thing: that these guys can get the job done. That's it. It isn't about me. It's always about these players."

Part of the reason is class, not race. Like Manuel and Little and, to a lesser extent, Francona, Washington is a baseball man who speaks with a regional dialect, easily ridiculed for his lack of refined English. Another part is public relations. Unlike one of his mentors, Art Howe, Washington does not have that amazing complete recall of every situation of every moment of every game. Howe had it. Buck Showalter has it. Washington doesn't. Neither does Manuel, who uses notes. Perhaps Washington should, as well.

The larger, more dangerous issue is that Washington is being treated as merely another African-American manager stereotyped for being a "player's manager," which on its face is a compliment but is also a backhanded swipe that he lacks the ability to be a strategist.

Washington began his career in the Kansas City organization before being traded to the Dodgers. He played under Tommy Lasorda and Tom Kelly, two men well-known for their baseball acumen as well as for their motivational skills, yet Washington is recognized only for his ability to rally his players.

There hasn't been an African-American manager or coach of any American sport, basketball included, known primarily as an X's and O's strategist. Dusty Baker is known as a player's manager. So was Cito Gaston, who happens to be the last non-Yankees manager to win consecutive American League pennants. The same was said of Don Baylor and Ozzie Guillen, and John Thompson in college basketball. Football's Tony Dungy, credited with the formation of the Cover 2 variation known as the Tampa 2, might be the closest. In place of receiving credit for acumen, years of watching and studying and learning, Washington is credited with more emotional reward: He gets his players ready to play.

The difference isn't that white managers are all considered to be brilliant strategists; they aren't. In today's game of millionaires and egos, it could be argued that in-game strategy is secondary in importance to a manager's ability to affect a clubhouse. The difference is that, for every Bobby Cox or Joe Torre, managers whose great impact (like Washington's) was motivation, there is a Buck Showalter or Billy Martin or Bobby Valentine, managers respected for their ability to stand on the top step of the dugout and win a game for their team, to balance the stereotype. Washington might not be in the category of La Russa as an in-game strategist, but neither is he a liability unworthy of the assumption of competence. In the first two games of the World Series, each manager won and lost according to his style.

Washington, with consecutive pennants on his résumé and four of five years in either first or second place, is nevertheless aware of the distinction, and perhaps only a World Series title -- having defeated the likes of Maddon, Leyland and finally La Russa -- will change the narrative.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "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 followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.