Ron’s Star Is Rising In Texas

By Jim Reeves
Updated: June 9, 2009

ARLINGTON — There’s an old baseball adage that says you can’t win anything in June. You couldn’t prove that Monday by the grin Ron Washington was wearing on the Rangers’ 33rd straight day in first place in the American League West.

He had reason to smile. Just a couple of hours earlier, general manager Jon Daniels had pulled Washington off the field to tell him that the team was exercising the option on his contract for the 2010 season.

Of course, maybe Washington should enjoy it while he can. With news Monday that All-Star center fielder Josh Hamilton will be sidelined for up to six weeks after surgery today on a partially torn abdominal muscle and that starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his right shoulder blade for the second time in three seasons, the road ahead didn’t get any easier.

It will, however, include Washington for at least the immediate future, and that wasn’t a sure thing when this season began. That the Rangers allowed their manager to enter the season in a lame duck situation was an indication of their level of unease and it was understood that he likely wouldn’t survive another slow start like the ones the team suffered through in his first two years at the Texas helm.

Insiders say Daniels, who hired Washington in the first place, was ready to make this move after the Rangers swept the Angels at home in the middle of May.

“For me, it was kind of a foregone conclusion,” Daniels said. “It was more, let’s take care of it and put the focus back on the field where it belongs. It’s not a distraction now but it could have been.”

Club president Nolan Ryan, who has never seemed quite as comfortable with Washington as Daniels, may have needed a bit more convincing.

Ryan, however, said that the Rangers had things other than Washington’s contract situation on their plate during the winter and that exercising his option wasn’t a priority at the time.

“We didn’t think that was an issue we needed to address in the off-season,” Ryan said.

Washington, a longtime coach who had only a brief experience as a minor league manager years before taking the Rangers’ job prior to the 2007 season, brought some rough edges with him when he arrived, but he has grown into the job.

“I thought I knew everything about baseball when I was 10 years old,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said. “You always think you know everything until you learn something new.”

What Ryan and the Rangers have seen is a manger who continues to learn and get better at his job each season. This year, they’re seeing the payoff.

“In my time here, he’s been consistent,” Ryan said. “The players respect him. They respond to him. Those are very important qualities you look for in your manager and the response you want from your team.

“Ron is a baseball man who’s been in the game. He knows the game inside and out. That wasn’t the issue. You look at the club and how it responds to him and we’re quite pleased with that.”

What Ryan needed to see was how Washington managed and how the team responded to him when it hadn’t already played itself out of contention in the first two months of the season.

“He’s able to get the players to play hard for him. There’s not any quit in them,” Ryan said. “They know he stands behind them, doesn’t second-guess them, yet he requires a certain level of play and dedication from them.”

By his own admission, Washington had much to learn about handling pitching. He listens carefully to pitching coach Mike Maddux, just as he did Mark Connor before him, and between them the two go over opposing lineups during each game and try to stay two to three innings ahead in their thinking.

“For all managers, pitching is the biggest challenge,” Ryan said. “Understanding how to handle the pitching, learning what pitchers can and can’t do.

“The only way you do that is putting them in different situations. Now he pretty much knows what to expect of guys, when to bring them in, how many innings they can pitch, how many days they can pitch.”

The players like Washington as a person, but more importantly, they’ve learned to respect his knowledge of the game and trust him as a manager. He’s turned the clubhouse over to the players, trusting them to take of their business there.

“They’ve been very good with the checks and balances necessary in the clubhouse,” Washington said. “We’ve been in the process for the last two years of getting to where we are right now. But we had to change the culture first.”

It’s a change that hasn’t gone unnoticed where it matters most, in the front office.

“He’s been here, he’s been consistent and they understand him,” Ryan said. “He’s had these guys for a while. The nucleus is there.

“He’s developed a comfort level with his coaches and his players. He’s learned to delegate, relies on his coaches. They know what his expectations are.”

Washington’s philosophy is simple and he has passed it on to his players. Treat the game right, respect it and play it the way it should be played.

“I don’t walk around preaching winning,” he said. “I preach playing good baseball. Do that and the winning takes care of itself.”

So, apparently, do the contracts.

Washington will make something in the neighborhood of $850,000 to manage the Rangers in 2010 and for the first time since he arrived, he won’t be the lowest-paid manager on the payroll with Buck Showalter’s $1.5 million a year contract finally expiring at the end of this season.

It’s been a long road for the kid shortstop who made just $38,000 a year when he broke in with the Dodgers in 1977, but something tells me this journey is just getting started.