When the Texas Rangers take the field this afternoon against Tampa Bay, the manager in the dugout will be calm, soft-spoken, somewhat cerebral, self-deprecating, African American. He's also profoundly successful.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ron Washington will lead the Rangers into their first American League Division Series in 12 years. Washington is the only one of the eight skippers in this year's postseason to be managing a playoff team for the first time, but few baseball commentators regard this as a fluke. The Rangers have one of the younger lineups in baseball, and this year's playoff appearance could be the first of several. Some baseball writers also see Washington as a strong contender for American League manager of the year, and if they are right, he will be the first African American honored since Dusty Baker was so honored for the third time 10 years ago. Baker could win a fourth Manager of the Year Award for his job guiding the Cincinnati Reds into the playoffs. It would be the first time that both leagues honored an African-American skipper in the same year.
A baseball manager's impact is one of the hardest to evaluate. Unlike in football or basketball coaches, they don't strongly alter the fabric of the game with three to four defenses or triangle offenses. While football or basketball fans from decades ago might not recognize their sport today, the strategies and formations of baseball have changed little since the time of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Baseball fans will argue whether a team won because the manager excelled or simply because the players played well. In Texas, Washington's effect is clear. It's a young team and he's devoted to preventing runs. "If you can't pitch well or catch the ball," he said by phone from Arlington last Sunday, "you can't play ball in Texas."
The numbers bear out Washington's comment. He took over as manager in 2007. In 2008, while he was still sorting out his players, the team allowed 967 runs, more than six per game; this season they've allowed only 687, or just over four per contest. In the process, the Rangers have increased their win total every season under "Wash." They won 75 in his first season and 90 out of 162 this year.
"You have to create an atmosphere that is conducive to winning," he said. He did that by working closely with the young players on the team on fundamentals and on creating a close-knit group. "You have to trust in each other," he said. "For instance, the pitcher has to work the strike zone with the confidence that any ball that's hit will get caught by the fielders."
That might sound rather basic, but it goes against conventional wisdom in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. For years, the Rangers' home park has been one of the most hitter-friendly diamonds in baseball. It has close fences, and the ball carries well in the dry Texas heat. The mainstream thinking was that the Rangers could win only by fielding a team that could outslug opponents, but Washington, General Manager Jon Daniels and President Nolan Ryan created a team built around defense and pitching.
Washington's route to big-league fame has been a circuitous one. Now 58, the New Orleans native was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1970 after a standout high school career. However, Washington bumped around the minors for most of 11 years before sticking to a major league roster with the Minnesota Twins in 1981. He was a utility infielder for six seasons, finishing his career with brief stints in Baltimore, Cleveland and Houston. He often talks about counseling his players to "have respect for the game," and his journeyman playing career embodies that concept.
Here's the irony: Managing was never really a goal for Washington during his playing days. He thought he would coach but not take the reins. "I just wanted to be the best third base coach or infield coach I could be," he said. After his retirement, Washington coached briefly with the New York Mets, then spent 10 seasons with the Oakland A's as infield and third base coach. During his tenure, Washington was credited with the development of six-time Gold Glove-winning third baseman Eric Chavez. Chavez gave Washington one of his trophies, and it was inscribed, "Wash, not without you." Bay Area baseball reporters began to tout Washington as managerial timber, and in November 2006, he accepted the job with the Rangers.
In addition to developing young Rangers like outfielder Julio Borbon, shortstop Elvis Andrus, pitcher Neftali Feliz and first baseman Mitch Moreland, Washington has had to maintain an even keel in the clubhouse during a tumultuous season. During spring training, Sports Illustrated reported that he had tested positive for cocaine in 2009. He admitted the use, called it a mistake and moved on. Then during the season, the team was subject to a heated bidding war to buy the franchise out of bankruptcy, but again the outside news didn't rattle the clubhouse.
As his team enters the playoffs for the first time since 1998, Washington feels vindicated by his philosophy. He tries to practice what he preaches to his players about demeanor. "Control what you can," he said. "Don't worry too much about what you can't."
Martin Johnson, a frequent contributor to The Root, is passionate about sports, jazz and cheese.