Monday, September 8, 2014

Farewell to Washington: Temporarily?

By Jeff Kallman

A week ago, we were pondering whether Rangers manager Ron Washington hadn't stepped a little too far into unreality when he said publicly he needed elbow-addled Yu Darvish back on the mound post haste, the day before if possible, the better to keep Darvish from quitting on his teammates. Washington's words, not mine. A week later, Washington himself has quit.

The universal reaction seems somewhere between shock and sorrow. It was bad enough that Washington had sounded as though he was willing to sacrifice a pitcher's career to preserve his team's unity, which is exactly how he sounded when he said of Darvish's elbow issue, "He's got inflammation? I've got inflammation."

Washington backpedaled fast enough when general manager Jon Daniels stood by Darvish, but his reputation as a players' manager took a body blow with the apology and the don't-quit-on-his-teammates addendum. Days later, the Rangers, whose season was blown up early and often by a rash of injuries that probably drove Washington quietly mad, became the first team in baseball to be eliminated mathematically from a pennant race they probably knew was over for them as far back as the end of April. And they shut Darvish down for the season after Washington stepped aside.

Worse, though, is the thought that something outside the game and inside his family is now taking Washington away from it. Nobody seems to know what the issue is and Washington isn't saying it publicly just yet. But everyone wishes him well and hopes he can return to baseball as soon as possible. Whether that includes returning to the Rangers' or someone else's dugout might be another matter entirely.

Washington is both the winningest manager in the history of a franchise born in Washington as the Senators II and the man who led the Rangers to back-to-back World Series and came up short in each despite being favorites to win either or both. His teams have gone 18-16 in postseason play. Striking enough about teams good enough to win either or even both World Series to which they went. Worse is that he had the Rangers, one way or the other, to within a strike of winning the 2011 Series twice, in the ninth and 10th innings of Game 6, and those Rangers couldn't pull the trigger.

To what extent was that Washington's fault? Perhaps not as much as you might think if you remember that Series. But in a 2011 Series in which both managers managed to outsmart themselves at one or another point, Washington ended up being on the short end fatally.

He lost faith enough in his bullpen that he sent Derek Holland, who'd pitched a masterpiece against the Cardinals in Game 4 ("Right before the game, he gave me a nice smack in the face," Holland would remember), out of the pen in Game 6, leaving him unavailable for a potential Game 7. He also failed to take advantage of the rain delay that pushed Game Six back and start C.J. Wilson in Game Seven on three days' rest, opting instead for a Matt Harrison who couldn't get out of the fourth inning in Game 3

He went to the dubious no-doubles defense at the worst possible time twice in Game 6, with two out in the bottom of the ninth and the 10th and the Rangers a strike away from champagne and rings in each. First, David Freese burned him with a two-run, stand-up, tying triple beyond right fielder Nelson Cru in the ninth. Then, after walking Albert Pujols to load the bases in the tenth, Lance Berkman burned him with a game-tying quail to short center field. Setting it up for Freese to end it with a first-pitch lead-off bomb in the 11th.

Game 6 lost, Game 7 to be lost behind a shaky Harrison while the Rangers failed to take advantage of a Chris Carpenter who was ailing early, but who was left just enough room to regroup and have his way with the Rangers after holding things to a two-all tie in the first two innings. By stubbornly staying with his set rotation and essentially letting his shaky Series bullpen call the dance, Washington managed himself out of a World Series he was twice a strike from winning.

Washington's sins could be forgiven even allowing that he was out-managed in that World Series by a Tony La Russa who wasn't necessarily managing his best, either. Washington's best side was keeping his clubhouse and dugout evenly keeled in the best and worst days. His worst side was not seeing the big picture for the immediate view, and it cost his teams championships they could have secured.

He clung to Michael Young despite Young falling into a decline phase. He had too much of a passion for small ball despite managing a team whose home ballpark is manna for hitters of all sizes. Sure, Washington's Ranger could drive the opposition to the rye bottle with their relentless nibbling and pecking, but a little firepower couldn't have hurt, either. (Well, it could, if you allow the Rangers dealing big for Prince Fielder only to see the big man's neck take him out for the season too early this year.)

It was in last year's play-in game for the second wild card spot that the small-ball-happy manager got hoist by his own petard. Washington could only watch in horror as two base-runners got picked off early, one Ranger bunted for a hit and took one on his fingers before a line out, and another — his best 2013 second-half hitter, Elvis Andrus — showed bunt in the eighth with two out, a man on second, the Rangers in the hole 4-2, and the number three and four hitters behind him.

Even against David Price, en route a complete-game seven-hitter, Andrus reflected the worst side of his manager. He thought he saw the bigger picture, getting on base and setting up a big inning, but he forgot that Price was pretty sharp at spoiling the bunt. Price himself grabbed the little twister and threw Andrus out at first.

"[Those] aren't all Ron Washington decisions, but they're entirely the product of Ron Washington's philosophy, which appears to be ‘Do What You Fee'," wrote Deadspin‘s Barry Petchesky. "He makes decisions by the gut rather than by the book — perhaps a necessary evil this year, as the Rangers bats went quiet and runs had to be squeezed out where they could be found. But unconventional aggressiveness and playing hunches on the lineup card tend to eventually backfire."

Still, the Rangers appreciated that a Washington clubhouse was equilibrium personified for the most part. And he never let anyone mistake equilibrium or affability for weakness. He demanded accountability and brooked few excuses; he'd have his players' backs until or unless their backs were getting their teammates' backs broken.

Take Vicente Padilla. He left enough Rangers prone to retaliation after one of his big-deal/it's-the-game knockdown pitches and, even after being warned by his own superiors to knock it off or be knocked out of town, was caught laughing in the dugout after Young took yet another one for one of his dusters. Washington didn't exactly try to argue when Padilla was run out of town at last.

But this was the same manager who would sit quietly with Josh Hamilton to read from the Bible before a game to keep the talented outfielder, recovering from substance abuse, prepared. The same manager whom Holland, freshly returned from microfracture surgery, has considered to be like a father to him. The manager who knew, and often said, that whichever player needed a hug or a kick in the pants would get one knowing it came from a man who cared about each one.

So Washington isn't a tactical or strategic game genius? How many managers genuinely are? But he's a man who actually can turn and keep a team into a family. How many managers genuinely can? By doing that he took a team which was often enough little more than a glorified softball team and turned them into annual contenders. How many managers genuinely can?

Nobody's blaming Washington for this year's lost season. Frank Jobe, James Andrews, and Gregory House themselves couldn't have put this year's Humpty Dumpty back together again. So why on earth did Washington's formal resignation statement include, "I deeply regret that I've let down the Rangers organization and our great fans"? The winningest manager in franchise history hasn't really let anyone down.

The Rangers say they've known for weeks that Washington was dealing with a serious issue off the field. Everyone in baseball is praying that it's resolved well enough to allow him to return soon. If not to the Rangers, then perhaps to another team who could do with being turned from doormat to competitor. A team playing in a neutral or pitcher's park would be just about right, then. By those criteria, there's a team in Queens, New York who might be on Washington's caller ID soon enough.

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