Texas Rangers believed from the start
Manager Ron Washington is proof that first impressions really do mean everything
ARLINGTON, Texas -- It was a three-ring binder that caught Ron Washington's attention as he walked into Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels' office two days after Oakland was eliminated from the 2006 playoffs.
Washington, then a respected third-base coach with the A's known for teaching fundamentals, was invited to interview for the club's managerial opening. And right away, he got the sense that this young GM -- someone nearly half Washington's age -- wasn't messing around.
"It was a thick binder with tons of pages of questions," Washington said. "Three questions in, I could tell they were thoroughly prepared."
The binder was split into a variety of sections: organizational philosophy, offensive game planning, defensive game planning, in-game decision-making and roles and responsibilities of staff members. The Rangers' brain trust even included hypothetical questions about how the manager might handle difficult situations in the clubhouse with his staff and the media.
But it was Washington's answer to the first question that put him on a path to eventually land the job. Each candidate started with the same assignment: You've just been named manager of the Rangers. Take 90 seconds and make an opening statement.
"He killed it," assistant general manager Thad Levine said. "Most of the guys said they wanted to know what we'd want them to say, that they'd meet with us to see what we wanted. He just went on a 3-minute, Ron Washington speech about how proud he was to be a part of this organization and that we'd never regret this day and that we were going to win championships. It was incredible. And that was just the first question."
As Washington prepares to take the Rangers -- his Rangers, a club built in his image as a hard-working, confident, fundamentally sound group -- to the 2010 World Series starting Wednesday against the San Francisco Giants, it's difficult to imagine a better fit as manager.
But four years ago, Washington wasn't even sure he'd get the opportunity.
"It took the right group of guys to believe in me and give me a chance," Washington said. "I wasn't sure that would happen. I needed somebody to take a chance on me."
Daniels, then 29 years old and with only one season as general manager under his belt, decided it was time to make a managerial change. Buck Showalter was out after the Rangers went 80-82 and finished third in the AL West, 13 games out of first. Showalter had been manager of the year in 2004, when the club went 89-73 and stayed in the race until the final week of the season. But after two straight seasons of sub-.500 records, Daniels felt a change of culture was needed.
The Rangers brought in five candidates for interviews: Washington, Manny Acta (Mets third-base coach at the time), John Russell (Phillies minor league manager), Don Wakamatsu (Rangers bench coach) and Trey Hillman (former Rangers director of player development).
Daniels wasn't looking for someone to manage the team to the World Series -- at least not right away. He wanted an energetic motivator and a teacher who would be willing to stay patient with a young group of players trying to find their way.
Though Daniels didn't know much about Washington, he was curious about the then-54-year-old who had put in his time as a coach but had never been given a shot to manage at the big league level.
Washington flew into Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in October of 2006 to interview and found an unexpected chauffeur waiting for him.
"Jon Daniels picked me up," Washington said. "That was a class act there. I've been to many interviews and no general manager has ever picked me up. I said, 'Wow, these guys have class.' We talked about the game and the way I like to do things on the way to the park."
Once in the office, Washington answered questions for nearly three hours and sold Daniels, as only Washington can. He preached preparing players and getting the most of them in a way that Daniels thought would relate to young players.
"He comes across as genuine, sincere," Daniels said. "His passion for the game just comes pouring out. You're sitting there thinking about if you were a player and had to come to work every day, who would motivate you? Who would get you fired up? Who would get you ready to play? You could see this guy could do it. It's not a manufactured energy. It's real. It's who he is. He wakes up in the morning and he's that guy."
But what Daniels and the staff didn't know was whether Washington could make the proper in-game decisions. He hadn't managed at any level in over a decade. As a manager, would he make strategic mistakes that could cost the club wins?
"That wasn't our priority," Levine said. "We wanted someone we could grow with. Most of us were just starting our careers, and we wanted someone on a similar path. We knew it would take time."
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Levine was just a few years older than Daniels, and a new assistant GM. A.J. Preller was starting his role as director of pro and international scouting. Much of the staff around them was young and enthusiastic and in need of patience from the bosses. So despite Washington's age, he was at a similar point in his career.
Levine called Washington about a week after his initial interview and invited him back for a second sit-down.
"I remember saying, 'I've got so much respect for you guys and I just met you, because of the way you handled yourself,'" Washington said, who took the call just before sitting down to dinner with his wife, Gerry. "I knew that they'd make the right choice for them. But I told Thad it was one of the best interviews I'd ever had. I told my wife I thought I had a chance to get the job."
Washington returned in late October and met with owner Tom Hicks at his house, something organized with each of the three finalists. Hicks himself grilled burgers, and it was a relaxed atmosphere, with Daniels, Levine and Hicks' son, Tommy, also in attendance. After talking about baseball and managerial philosophy, Washington left the room.
Hicks turned to Daniels: "Hey, what am I missing? I love him."
"I told him, 'I don't think you're missing anything,'" Daniels said.
Daniels then told Hicks that Washington was his recommendation.
Hicks handed Daniels a pen and a piece of paper, having made his decision. "Let's see if we can't get something hammered out now."
Minutes later, Washington was the manager of the Rangers.
At the introductory news conference Nov. 6, Daniels was pulled aside by several members of the media and told that he had made "an inspired hire" and that it showed he wasn't afraid to take a risk.
"We never saw it that way," Daniels said. "We believed in our preparation and we believed in him. That was really it."
That belief would be tested twice in the next four years. Washington's well-publicized admission of cocaine use to club officials was the biggest of those tests. But Daniels and club president Nolan Ryan believed that Washington made a mistake and owned up to it. They decided since he was getting help they'd stick with him. The players' unwavering support for Washington when the news became public in spring training this year reinforced their belief that they'd made the right decision.
A year and a half before that, some wondered if Washington's Texas tenure would be very short. The 2008 team got off to a 7-16 start and Ryan, who was not with the organization when Washington was hired, was looking at ways to improve the club.
"I certainly wasn't ready to write the season off," Ryan said. "We talked about personnel changes, from the playing personnel to the coaching staff to the manager. But we agreed to give it a little more time."
The Rangers ended up going over .500 from that point forward.
"We knew we had to give him more talent to work with before we could evaluate him," Ryan said.
Washington's coaching staff was overhauled two years ago, with pitching coach Mike Maddux and bench coach Jackie Moore coming on board before the 2009 season. Hitting coach Clint Hurdle joined the team before the 2010 campaign. The staff grew together and is now a close bunch, relying on each other to have the team prepared.
"Ron is very supportive of his players," Ryan said. "He's very positive. He doesn't let things slide, but also he addresses them and moves on. He has a passion for the game and you can see that in his players."
Washington said he's thankful every day he has a front office that saw that passion, hired him and has stuck by him through some difficult times. He's poised to become the longest-tenured manager in club history at some point in the future, too. Bobby Valentine took over during the 1985 season and lasted until midway through the 1992 campaign, essentially seven seasons. Johnny Oates wasn't far behind at 6½. Washington has already gone to a World Series, something neither did in Texas, and did it in four years. He hopes to be around for many more playoff runs.
"This organization is full of wonderful people," Washington said. "They never quit believing me. I knew we could get here. They did too. I feel really lucky."