Straight Shooting From A Friend and Colleague

By Ray Buck
Updated: August 21, 2008

ARLINGTON, Tx. — There will never be a six-foot bronze statue of Ron Washington erected on Vandergriff Plaza at the ballpark. But the man doesn’t deserve to be fired, either.

Not now. Not in the midst of this late-season carnage. Sometimes, in baseball, as in life, the quick fix isn’t necessarily the right one.

For the Texas Rangers and their long-suffering customers, there’s a direct correlation between the night David Murphy (sprained knee) went down in a writhing heap at home plate Aug. 6 and the last fortnight of box scores.

Even with Wednesday night’s long-ball explosion against Detroit, the Rangers have lost 11 of their past 14 games. It was a nice respite from bad arms, blown leads and an overall malaise surrounding this team.

“I just hope they give Ron a chance to fulfill what he wants to get done here. I think he can do it,” said bench coach Art Howe, aka “The Man on the Rangers Payroll Who Knows Washington Best.”

The reason I went to Howe, whom I’ve known for more than 25 years, is because 1) he’s heard all of Washington’s jokes and 2) he wasn’t going to give a pat answer or the “house” answer… just an honest answer.

For all you gallows-watchers, Washington has one year left on his contract, plus an option for 2010. Howe’s contract, however, expires at the end of this season. He hopes to be back, but the operative word here is “hopes,” which is synonymous with being in limbo.

Howe — a past manager in Houston, Oakland and with the New York Mets — wasn’t going to throw his current boss and longtime A’s third base coach under the bus. But neither will he distance himself from Wash and the giant bull’s-eye on his back.

Let’s be honest. If you’re 138-152 as a first-time MLB manager, you really need to be careful opening packages that may be ticking. (And, trust me, ticking packages are always possible to end up at the manager’s doorstep of a team with a losing history such as the Rangers.)

“We’re not in a huge money market,” Howe said. “So, when you start getting a lot of [injury] hits, it’s hard to compensate. I’m not making excuses, that’s just a fact of life.”

The Rangers have had 14 starting pitchers. Brandon McCarthy will become No. 15 on Saturday. The bullpen has logged more innings, by far, than any team in the American League.

Even the everyday lineup has been impacted by injuries: Gerald Laird, Milton Bradley off and on, then Murphy, now Ian Kinsler. In fact, Murphy’s loss is the demarcation line for this once-promising season.

“I agree,” Howe said. “Murph made us five deep, and that took the pressure off the bottom four guys.” The fact that the Rangers put up a fight in the angelic AL West tells you one important thing: Ron Washington has not lost the clubhouse.

“Never,” Howe said. “And the way we started [9-18], it looked like the season was irreparable… but Wash somehow got it turned around.” How did he do that? “He stayed the course,” Howe said.

The late Johnny Oates, who is still the only manager in Rangers history to get a team into the postseason (’96, ’98-99), understood what it meant to manage in Arlington.

According to Eric Nadel’s published “authorized history” of the Texas Rangers, Oates told reporters one day after the Rangers clinched their first-ever divisional title:

“This summer, I was never looking over my shoulder at another team. The thing I kept seeing over my shoulder was Texas Rangers history. That was much tougher to deal with, in my mind, than any team chasing us.”

Now 12 years and three managers later, it’s the same ol’ “history” standing in the Rangers’ way. I showed Howe the Oates quote. He read it carefully, then said it reminded him of his early playing days in Houston during the late ’70s.

“It’s the chicken-or-egg theory,” Howe said. “Which comes first: confidence or success? Once we finally won with the Astros in ’80, it came easy after that.”

But there’s no microwavable magic bean.

“As a player, you have to taste success in order to know you belong,” Howe said. “It’s been so long here … we have to build that inner-confidence up. We have to find a way.

“Also, players have to believe in each other, that’s most important of all. They have to look at a teammate and be able to know, ‘He’s a winner. I’m winner.’ That’s the feeling you’ve got to have on a championship team.”

The young Rangers have gained MLB experience at a record rate this season.

“Hopefully, there’s going to be a huge payoff,” Howe said. “Experience is a good thing, as long as it’s not so negative that it kills what they have inside.”

Only time will tell … both with Washington’s fate and the effects of baptism under fire for so many young Rangers. Said Howe: “The toughest place to learn on the job is at the major league level.”

Straight answers. That’s what I’ve come to know from Art Howe.