Washington overlooked but respected by peers
Two-time pennant-winning Rangers manager knows how to 'play a good hand well'
ARLINGTON -- Baseball's annual awards are debated in September. The debate over the 2012 American League Manager of the Year Award starts in Baltimore, where Buck Showalter has drawn widespread acclaim for turning the Orioles into a contender for the first time since 1997.
The debate also includes Oakland manager Bob Melvin, who has led an equally dramatic turnaround with the Athletics, and White Sox manager Robin Ventura, whose team is battling the Tigers for the AL Central title. Tampa Bay's glib and colorful Joe Maddon, a two-time winner, always gets consideration because of the Rays' success on a small-market budget.
Rangers manager Ron Washington is not in the debate. The Rangers are on their way to the playoffs again and could go to the World Series for a third straight year, but Washington has yet to be recognized with an AL Manager of the Year Award for his work. He was second to Minnesota's Ron Gardenhire in 2010, when the Rangers won their first division title since 1999, and a distant third last season despite leading his team to a club-record 96 wins.
"I think he gets overlooked because [the Rangers] are loaded, but each and every year he is one of the better managers in the game, and not just in the American League," Melvin said. "That does not go unnoticed by everybody in the game. Maybe sometimes people are looking for a Cinderella story as far as evaluating managers, but he is one of the top in the game and that's just a given."
One handicap is that the award is voted on before the playoffs begin, and only recognizes regular-season work. Had the Baseball Writers' Association of America voters been able to wait until after postseason, Washington might have edged out Gardenhire in 2010 when the Twins lost to the Yankees in the first round.
That might have been Washington's best chance to win the award, as 2010 marked the climax of the Rangers' rebuilding efforts. General manager Jon Daniels was recognized that season by Baseball America as Executive of the Year.
Now, the Rangers are at a point where they are expected to win, even if the Angels were certainly highly regarded after the offseason additions of first baseman Albert Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson. The Rangers have met the challenge. They grabbed the AL West lead almost from the beginning and have held it through the entire season, despite a pitching staff hit hard by injuries.
The Rangers have had their share of physical misfortunes, but that has not changed initial perceptions. It's a team that should win, and toils under the high expectations of "World Series or Bust."
"I think one of the toughest things is to play a good hand well," Showalter said. "Ron does get overlooked because of their success, instead of giving him credit. So, if a guy has a great year and the team wins the American League and he gets Manager of the Year, and the next year he does it again, why doesn't he win again?
"I think it's harder sometimes to do something that's expected. One of the hardest things to do in sports is to win when you are supposed to win. I think everybody knows that Ron has been great. It's very hard to play a good hand well because it's a trap of not having that edge. But Ron's clubs always look like they have that edge."
The first thing Washington tells people is that his success as a manager depends on his players and his coaching staff. Front and center as the accountable face of the franchise, he is a master of deflecting credit in a game in which the manager is easily a primary target when things go wrong.
"A manager is only as good as his players," Washington said. "They are the ones who have to get it done on the field. I'm fortunate to have players who understand what it takes to get the job done, and I'm fortunate enough to have a coaching staff that puts them in a position to succeed."
The local and national media have not ignored the Rangers' rise to prominence. But most of the Teflon-coated praise is reserved for Hall of Famer and team president Nolan Ryan's work in bringing stability to the financially troubled franchise, and the front office's work in assembling an impressive array of talent on the field and on the mound. The Rangers' farm system remains highly regarded within the industry.
The 60-year-old Washington, who has been in pro ball since 1971, is mainly paid the compliment of getting his players to play hard, as if veterans such as Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and others didn't know already how to do that.
"I take exception to that on behalf of Wash," Young said. "Being a manager is an incredibly difficult job. The experts like to point out Wash's flaws, but he has been in this game for 40-something years. The guy who is the expert is the one who has been in the game 40 years.
"There's only so much a manager can do, especially in the American League. The most important thing is to put your players in the best possible situation to succeed, and Wash is as good as it gets when it comes to that."
|"I've known Wash for a long time, going back to playing with him in the Dodgers' Minor League system. He's an incredible student of the game, I think he's got a deep understanding of fundamentals and I think that's the basis for what he's put into the Texas team."|
-- Angels manager|
"He doesn't expect anything more than what you can give him," outfielder Josh Hamilton said. "He trusts his players as far as what they can give you that day. He just wants your best. If you give him your best and play the game the way it s supposed to be played, [you] won't have a problem with him. He's not going to jump on you; he respects you. If he's got a problem, he'll come to you directly."
Tactical moves are a year-round subject of debate. Every manager's decisions are open for dissection, especially when the closer can't nail down the final three outs in Game 6 of the World Series. The Rangers ended up losing to the Cardinals last October and St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, now retired, has a new book out with all the details.
During the playoffs, the national television broadcasts seemed focused on Washington only when he got naturally excited over something good happening on the field. Washington yelling and waving his runners around the bases from the dugout was deemed good television, especially when visually compared to the cerebral demeanor of La Russa or Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
The one-dimensional view of their manager irritated people within the Rangers organization who understand there is far more to Washington than his contagious enthusiasm.
"I've known Wash for a long time, going back to playing with him in the Dodgers' Minor League system," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's an incredible student of the game, I think he's got a deep understanding of fundamentals and I think that's the basis for what he's put into the Texas team."
Washington's simple baseball philosophy runs deep, going back to the long-gone Royals Baseball Academy and his time coming up through the Dodgers farm system in the 1970s. His guiding tenets haven't changed since the Rangers hired him six years ago: pitching, defense, aggressive baserunning and situational offensive baseball. Since 2007, his power-laden lineup has the most sacrifice hits and the fourth-most stolen bases in the AL.
"Those guys are playing at a high level in a lot of areas, and I know Ron's been a big part of those guys making a statement the last three or four years about just where they are in the baseball world," Scioscia said. "They've obviously been playing at a high level."
"It's been remarkable what he has done since the moment he got [there] to change the culture and the beliefs within [that] team," Melvin said. "Every manager in baseball knows what he has accomplished here, and [they] are very envious of it."
Washington is hardly the first manager to be overlooked and underestimated for his body of work. Cito Gaston won two World Series and five division titles from 1989-93 as manager of the Blue Jays, but was never voted AL Manager of the Year.
Like the Rangers, the Blue Jays had a superb front office led by Pat Gillick, who is now in the Hall of Fame. Gaston had to endure the perception that all he had to do was fill out a talented lineup card and watch the Blue Jays win.
"A lot of people thought that way, but if they go back and look at some of the people that were successful, they pretty much had the same kind of lineup," Gaston told The Toronto Sun in 2011. "The only thing that really disappointed me was never being voted Manager of the Year. If you don't get voted Manager of the Year the first year, when you come in and your team is 12-24 and you come back and win your division, you're never going to get it."
Washington is not going to get the award this year. It would be difficult to ignore Showalter, who is a two-time winner -- including in 2004 with the Rangers -- or Melvin. But it is curious that Washington doesn't get more consideration despite the high esteem he commands from people within the game.
"I mean, Wash should always be considered," Maddon said. "The team, they've done such a great job down there, up and down, up and down from the top to the bottom, they've done a great job. You look at the players that are coming up, they're outstanding, and Wash does a great job of putting it all together on the field. His method, his way, his enthusiasm, the players respond to him extremely well. I'm a big Wash fan."
"I love our manager, and I'd love it even more if somebody would make him Manager of the Year," Hamilton said.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.