A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Teaching On and Off The Field
For years, the Rangers were known mainly for hitting. Like a slow-pitch softball team, they might outslug the other team 15-11, but just as easily might lose 12-6. Pitching, defense and base-running were strange nuances of the game to many Texas teams.
Baseball fundamentals — the little things, such as throwing to the right base, advancing a runner with a groundout or taking an extra base, that winning teams consistently do — seemed almost foreign to the Rangers.
Enter Washington, whose baseball education began in his native New Orleans, and who as a coach and manager has built a reputation as a teacher.
“That’s my forte, teaching, ” Washington said last week in a phone interview. “I must have been blessed by the Lord to be able to express to people what they can use.”
Having absorbed Washington’s lessons in fundamentals, the Rangers not only can win with hitting, but they also have shown they can win low-scoring games decided by pitching and execution on defense and on the bases.
The well-schooled Rangers are closing in on the American League West championship and the franchise’s fourth playoff appearance.
The Rangers are 86-68 and on Saturday clinched the division title.
Originally the expansion Washington Senators, the Rangers began playing in Texas in 1972. They last reached the playoffs in 1999. This is the team’s third winning season since then.
Under Washington, the Rangers were 75-87 in 2007, 79-83 in 2008, 87-75 in 2009.
“We certainly had to change the culture and a lot of the attitudes and get back to the basics and doing things the right way, ” Washington said.
Work meets opportunity
Zephyrs executive director/chief operating officer Ron Maestri isn’t surprised at Washington’s success. Maestri and Washington have been friends since the early 1980s. Washington’s picture and his white Rangers’ home jersey with his No. 38 hang in Maestri’s office at Zephyr Field.
“He had to earn everything he got, ” Maestri said. “He wasn’t a big-league star. He had to come to spring training every year to make the team. He was the kind of guy who had to do the little things. He’s renowned as a teacher and an instructor.
“He has seen the ups and downs. He has handled the ups and downs.
That’s invaluable for a manager. You have to be able to handle people.
“I know this: Ron Washington is old-school. He’s a firm believer in discipline, in playing the game the right way. He’s a firm believer in respect for the game.”
Maestri was baseball coach and athletic director at UNO when he met Washington. Washington and former UNO player Randy Bush were teammates then on the Minnesota Twins and would work out at UNO in the offseason.
“They weren’t just messing around, either, ” Maestri said of the players’ rigorous sessions of hitting in the cage, throwing and running.
Bush said: “We worked each other really hard. Ron was a real motivator for me. His work ethic was tremendous. He wouldn’t let you slack off at all. It was the same way in the season.”
They would play pepper together and even throw extra batting practice to each other, Bush said.
“That’s what teammates do, ” Washington said. “Randy and I were not everyday players. We did that to keep ourselves sharp.”
Washington, 58, is in his 40th season in professional baseball.
The eighth of 10 children born to Robert and Fannie Washington, Ron Washington grew up in the family house near the Desire housing development in the 9th Ward. Later, the family moved near the St.
Bernard housing development in Gentilly.
“Baseball was always in my blood for as long as I can remember, ” Washington said. “I just had a great passion for it.”
He was a catcher in high school at John McDonogh. The team played only 10 games, and he wouldn’t have been noticed by scouts if his coach hadn’t helped him find a spot on an American Legion team, Washington said.
“During that time, very few blacks had that opportunity, playing in Perry Roehm, Kirsch-Rooney, where the scouts came out, ” he said.
“Through American Legion, I got invited to that Royals tryout camp.”
Weathering bad breaks
From 156 players attending a Kansas City Royals tryout camp in New Orleans, Washington was the only player selected for a second look. “I threw to second (base) twice, ran the 60, swung the bat once; they told me to go home, ” he said.
A week later, the Royals asked him to come back for a workout against another catcher. Washington won the competition, earning a contract as an undrafted free agent, and he was sent to the Royals Baseball Academy in Florida.
Owner Ewing Kauffman envisioned the academy as a tool to help develop undrafted prospects. From the first group in 1970 came eventual major-leaguers Washington and Frank White, who became an All-Star second baseman. The academy, which lasted four years, produced 14 big-leaguers.
Washington, 5 feet 11, 155 pounds, started out as a catcher at the rookie level in the minors, but by his third season he was an infielder.
He didn’t reach the majors with the Royals, in whose system he played for five seasons before he was traded to the Dodgers.
In 1976 he hit .294 at Double-A Waterbury, and in 1977 he hit .309 with 160 hits, 25 doubles, 12 triples, eight homers and 25 stolen bases in 160 minor-league games split between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A Albuquerque. The Dodgers, who won the National League pennant that year, called up Washington for his first stint in the majors. He hit .368 in 10 games for Los Angeles.
“I do believe in 1978, if I don’t tear up my knee, I would have been a bona fide major-leaguer, ” Washington said.
He was tearing up Triple-A early in the 1978 season when he injured his left knee and had surgery. It wasn’t arthroscopic, as it would be for such an injury today. “They opened you up, ” Washington said. As a result, rehabilitation took longer.
“Being in the Dodgers organization, they were so loaded with talent, if you were in the front of the line, when you got hurt, you went to the back of the line.”
The next season, he injured his right knee while favoring his left knee, and he needed another surgery.
Washington didn’t make it back to the majors until 1981, when he earned a call-up from Triple-A to the Twins. The next four seasons he stuck with the Twins, and in 1986 he split time between the majors and Triple-A.
In spring training before the 1987 season, the Twins decided to go with Al Newman, whom they had acquired in a trade, as their backup infielder. The Twins released Washington. That season, they won the World Series.
“What a difficult thing that must have been for Wash, ” Bush said.
“He has never expressed one moment of bitterness or regret over that.”
“How can you?” Washington said. “I still had a uniform on. All I could do is wish the guys luck. I was there when they first started. I was a part of that.”
Washington played in the majors with Baltimore, Cleveland and Houston from 1987 through 1989 before his playing career ended in the minors in 1990. In 564 big-league games in 10 seasons, he batted .261 with 20 homers, 22 triples, 65 doubles and 146 RBIs.
Effective off the bat
Washington jumped directly into coaching, spending five seasons in the New York Mets’ organization. His only managing job before he took over the Rangers was with the Mets’ team in the Class A South Atlantic League in 1993 and 1994.
In 1996, Washington returned to the majors as a coach with the Oakland Athletics. He earned a reputation as one of game’s best infield instructors in his 11 seasons with the A’s, who made the playoffs in five of those seasons and led the league in fielding twice.
Players connected with Washington. Third baseman Eric Chavez, who won six gold gloves during Washington’s time with the A’s, gave his third gold glove to his coach.
“When that game was over, it was in my locker, ” Washington said of the day Chavez received the award. “I thought they were playing a joke on me.”
Then Washington looked closer at the award and saw what Chavez had written — “Wash, not without you. I told Eric, ‘There’s no crying in baseball, ‘ but I shed a few tears, ” Washington said.
Oakland players showed their support for Washington after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in eastern New Orleans and the homes of family members. “They gave a little bit, and it added up, ” Washington said. “That’s the kind of guys the A’s were.”
Washington said he interviewed three times over the years with the A’s for the manager’s job, twice losing out to Ken Macha and once to Art Howe, before the Rangers, who were replacing Buck Showalter as manager, offered Washington the job.
During spring training this year, his job security came under national scrutiny when it became public that Washington had tested positive for cocaine under the MLB testing program during the 2009 season. According to reports, he offered to resign in 2009, but Rangers officials, including President Nolan Ryan, stuck with him.
“It meant a lot to me that I’m in an organization that considers me family, ” Washington said. “They didn’t judge me. They supported me.
They were willing to give me a second chance, but in life, you don’t get a third chance.”
Washington also said that the fans supported him. “They respect me, because I respect people, ” he said.
Maestri said: “I told him: ‘Ron, you didn’t let me down. You’re still a friend. You’ll work through this.’
“And I think he has. The greatest thing about Ron Washington, I haven’t heard a person in professional baseball at all levels say a bad thing about Ron Washington.”