by Jim Litke
Getting the Texas Rangers to play the game the way he did was never going to be an easy sell. Tougher still was how Ron Washington got them to play for each other.
Back when he was still cashing checks as a player, Washington was a skinny middle infielder, with no pop in his bat, who learned to make the most of every opportunity. He was good with the glove, smart on the basepaths and stubborn enough to make every swing count, especially late in games.
The Rangers are hardly a “small-ball” team, not with the kind of power that Washington could only dream about, sprinkled throughout the lineup. But the Rangers have used those fundamental skills—plus solid pitching—to offset the Yankees’ edge in playoff experience and forge a 3-2 edge in the ALCS.
“I’m just a guy that loves to stress the little things in the game of baseball,” Washington said after practice, “because those are the things that take care of business and the big things happen.”
Nothing, though, may have had a bigger impact on his ballclub than Washington testing positive for cocaine during the 2009 season.
He called Jon Daniels, the general manager who hired him, and learned the job was still his if Washington wanted it. Local hero and team president Nolan Ryan signed off on the decision.
“Look at all the things a manager has to do. How he handles the media, the Xs and Os. How he handles a bullpen—and he’s doing it for 162 games, plus spring training, plus offseason camps,” Daniels recalled last Thursday.
“When we looked at it through that prism, it was a real easy decision. We knew what kind of man he is and we believe in giving second chances.”
Sports Illustrated reported the positive test in March, leading Washington to run the gauntlet in his own clubhouse. He called a meeting, but first he called in a handful of the team’s leaders and broke the news. Among them was Josh Hamilton, whom Washington had backed in his battle with substance abuse; another was Michael Young, the longest-serving Ranger and the same guy who wound up the center of an argument that earned Washington his first-ever ejection as a manager.
Players don’t forget gestures like that, but Washington was always good at one-on-ones. He taught Eric Chavez the intricacies of fielding while coaching in Oakland and the six-time winner sent back one of his Gold Gloves in gratitude.
But facing a clubhouse full of players wondering whether the man preaching patience and teamwork had the standing to do so was another matter. The moment Washington finished talking, he offered to field questions.
Even a brief examination of their manager’s career should have been enough to answer any lingering doubts. Washington soldiered on 10 years in the minors with only one call-up to the bigs, which barely lasted a month. He spent 15 years after that coaching or managing at both levels to get his shot at running the Rangers.
Whether Young knew that history or not, he knew enough to cut off the debate. He told his teammates forcefully that Washington was “our manager.”
“At that point,” Young added in a recent interview with The New York Times, “it wasn’t just Wash’s issue; we made it our issue.”
His ballplayers demonstrated that by marching from the locker room to the press conference to stand behind their manager. They’ve had each other’s backs ever since, showing it most recently by spraying ginger ale in the clubhouse after winning the division so Hamilton could join the celebration.
That spirit, Daniels said, “is shining through in the playoffs. Guys feed off him, they believe in him.”
Remember that when the camera cuts to Washington, still skinny, perched on a step in the dugout. He’ll look caught up in the moment, but that’s because most of the hard work is already behind him.
“But why did it take four years?” a reporter asked Washington on the eve of Game 6.
“Because I’m no miracle worker,” he replied evenly. “Everyone takes time to develop and understand what’s right and what’s wrong. If it was that easy, I think everybody would be able to go out there and create something.
“But it don’t happen like that,” he added. “It’s a process.”
(Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)