I want Ron Washington as my manager.
In 1990, columnist and pundit George Will published Men at Work. It was an analytical book that discussed baseball through four different aspects: managing, pitching, batting and fielding. It did so through the perspectives and insights of Tony La Russa, Orel Hershiser, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr., four experts in those respective areas.
At the time that Men at Work was released, Tony La Russa was making a name for himself, steering his Oakland Athletics to three-straight World Series appearances from 1988-90. However, he only captured one title in Oakland, that in 1989. The A’s were upset by Hershiser’s Dodgers in ’88 before getting swept by the Reds two years later.
Men at Work extolled La Russa as a genius among managers, detailing advantages gained through advance scouting, matchup statistics, controlling the running game, taking the extra base, the subtleties of signs and sign-stealing, and defensive positioning. These were facets of the game that were outside of mainstream thought before Men at Work was released, similar to how Michael Lewis’s Moneyball introduced the casual public in 2003 to Bill James and the notion of baseball inefficiencies.
It has been 21 years since Men at Work was released and La Russa’s reputation has continued to grow. He gained further notice for batting his pitcher eighth, using his entire bench with myriad double-switches, using a multitude of relievers each night and, most significantly, leading the St. Louis Cardinals to a pair of surprising World Series championships.
Ron Washington’s Texas Rangers were Tony La Russa’s last victims, falling in the seven-game 2011 World Series.
It was considered a managerial mismatch before the Series began. No one considered Washington to have the same kind of acumen as La Russa. Following Game 1 of the World Series, the Texas skipper was maligned for pinch-hitting Esteban German in the seventh inning. German, who had not batted in 24 days, struck out. The Rangers lost, 3-2. “Tony La Russa wins Gm. 1 chess match,” wrote ESPN’s Jayson Stark.
In the grand narrative, it does not matter that Washington’s Rangers were twice a strike away from winning the Series in Game 6. The mastermind was victorious; losers don’t hoist the trophy.
Since then, both managers have made the news. On October 31st, Tony La Russa announced his retirement. On November 5th, blog JoeSportsFan.com posted audio of Ron Washington’s profane speech prior to Game 7.
That’s not why I want Ron Washington as my manager. Well, it’s part of it.
In Men at Work, George Will describes how a paragraph needed to be deleted from his manuscript on La Russa’s request.
“I put up a small, brief argument for keeping it in,” typed Will. “It was a feeble argument and, considering the man I was trying to persuade, it was singularly dumb. ‘That detail makes you look good,’ I said foolishly. He replied frostily, ‘The way a manager looks good is winning games…’ ”
La Russa’s right. Winning helps a manager look good, much the same way that airbrushing helps a pinup model lookgood. To fans, media and the general public, the final results are all that matter and the process is negligible. Sabermetricians have crunched the numbers and report that the high quality of a manager only makes the difference in a handful of games a year.
But a great manager affects more than simply the on-field results. A great manager owns the clubhouse.
That’s why I want Ron Washington as my manager.
In 2008, I was with the independent Frontier League’s Windy City ThunderBolts. The manager at the start of the season was a former hitting coach, a talent evaluator and a chess player. The players hated him. He micromanaged the roster, put the team’s stars on the trading block, and let everyone know that their positions were perpetually on the line if they did not perform. After losses, he threw tirades. After the last loss of the first half, he broke the window of his office. It was the last game he managed for the ThunderBolts.
The new manager, promoted from bench coach, kept everyone loose. After heartbreaking defeats, he’d loosen the mood on the bus back to the hotel, narrating the trip as if he were a tour guide. (“On the left, we are approaching… a tree.”) He was not the same sort of in-game strategist, but it didn’t matter. His players knew that he believed in them and they believed in him. The clubhouse was close-knit and fiercely loyal.
The 2008 Windy City ThunderBolts went on to win the Frontier League championship.
That’s a great manager.
If you watched any part of this year’s MLB postseason, you saw how close the 2011 Texas Rangers were. There was a feeling with them, an energy in the dugout, and it was because of Ron Washington’s leadership.
The media does not hold Washington in high regard. His press conferences are awkward and his intelligence and idiosyncrasies have been lampooned. Prior to his Rangers’ two startling postseason runs, he was best known for admitting to testing positive for cocaine during the 2009 season. That might be a black mark on a fellow’s resume, yet it only brought the Rangers rallying closer to him, letting their skipper know that they had his back just like he had theirs.
It is not that I am endorsing the idea of a “player’s manager,” the sort who goes easy on his players and keeps a lax clubhouse and practice schedule. I’m a proponent of the manager who earns respect from his players in the same way that his players seek to earn his respect. That’s the skipper I want, the man who neither badmouths his players to the media nor makes excuses for them. He and his players understand that they are all in it together, for better or for worse, and so it might as well be for better.
If your ears are mature enough for adult language, listen to Washington’s pre-game speech. It’s a simple theme at work. He believes in the team and they believe in each other. Michael Young and Nelson Cruz speak, as does pitching coach Mike Maddux, but no one carries the effectiveness of Washington’s matter of fact message.
Perhaps Washington shouldn’t have used Esteban German to pinch-hit in Game 1; you could question several of his other moves in the Series, too.
In the end, though, he was one strike away – twice – from managing his team to the championship.
Losing two World Series? That’s an accomplishment worthy of the great Tony La Russa.