Commentary

Washington has been unsung star

Rangers manager grinds through season that started in turmoil to shine bright

Updated: July 7, 2010, 1:36 AM ET
By Jim Reeves | ESPNDallas.com

When baseball's best and brightest assemble for the All-Star Game in Anaheim next week, one man who wears a Texas Rangers uniform will be a glaring omission.

If anyone deserves to bask in that spotlight, it's this guy. He is arguably the game's biggest underdog, yet his credentials speak for themselves.

Among all the sluggers, all the fireballing pitchers in baseball, perhaps no one has persevered or overcome what this man has overcome. I could easily make the argument that no one has been more vital to his club's success.

No, I'm not talking about Michael Young, although his absence casts doubt on the credibility of the selection process in and of itself.

The man I'm talking about is Ron Washington.

What odds were you giving back on April 1 that Washington would still be the Rangers' manager three months into the season? Even money? Be honest; it was less than that, wasn't it?

That's sort of the way I had it figured, too, to be frank. After his spring training "confession" (to using cocaine in 2009, and using amphetamines and marijuana during his playing days), spurred by a breaking story on SI.com, I was convinced that Wash's tenure as the Rangers' manager could be measured in days, not weeks or months, and certainly not in seasons.

Even though club president Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels had stuck their necks out for him, one bad week and the short leash Washington deservedly was starting out with would be down to a nub.

Now, 90 days later, I'm here to tell you that the Rangers need to extend his contract as a reward for the job he's done with this team. Barring a complete meltdown over the next week, the Rangers will hit the All-Star break in first place in the American League West.

There's no smoke and mirrors involved here, either. They've accomplished the feat despite virtually no help from their big offseason free-agent signee, Rich Harden. Last year's surprising 17-game winner, Scott Feldman, has been less than ordinary so far this season.

Offensively, Washington and the Rangers have spent much of the first half muddling along without two big bats in Ian Kinsler, who didn't play for the first month of the season, and right fielder Nelson Cruz, who already has had two stints on the disabled list.

Left-hander Derek Holland has been injured and a noncontributor, too.

So how have the Rangers done it? The Wash Way, that's how.

Hard work. Grit. Grind. Find a way.

This is a team that has become a spitting image of its manager. The Rangers don't whine and don't quit. They come to the park to do a job every day. They are consistent in their emotional approach and their effort.

"I give my players credit. They've come together and are finally believing in the things we've been trying to get them to believe in," Washington said. "A manager is only as good as his players. Those guys are producing, and that's why I'm here."

Obviously the players deserve a great deal of the credit for this, but it's Washington who supplies the calming influence. He doesn't rattle. He doesn't play politics. He's the same, day in and day out. The players know this and know what's expected of them. There's absolutely no confusion.

A Ron Washington clubhouse reminds me of a Johnny Oates clubhouse. Oates had an abundance of leadership in his championship clubhouses ... Will Clark, Mark McLemore, Mickey Tettleton, Rusty Greer. Oates, like Wash, let his veteran leaders take care of the clubhouse.

Washington's Rangers team is considerably younger, but by instinct, he has learned to leave it alone and let players such as Young, David Murphy, Kinsler and Frank Francisco take the lead roles there.

"I think I help them maintain a quality clubhouse," Washington said. "I help them to understand how to relax and let their abilities come forth. More than anything, I allow them to be who they are. I was a ballplayer and I was better when I was allowed to be who I am.

"If they don't like the way something's going, they feel they can come and talk to you and know that you'll listen."

I won't try to convince you that Washington is the smartest manager the Rangers have ever had, because it wouldn't be true. What I will tell you is that the smartest men aren't always the best managers, although it took me awhile to learn that. And Wash is smart enough, especially baseball smart.

Washington seems to know his own strengths and weaknesses. He has an innate understanding of the game from a player's perspective and what makes players tick, what makes them happy, what makes them mad. Oh, he's stubbed his toe a few times, even in that department, but he's learned from those early mistakes and moved forward and past them.

He has learned to listen to the wise men around him, like bench coach Jackie Moore and particularly pitching coach Mike Maddux. Maddux has almost complete autonomy. I won't say Wash never makes a pitching move without approval from Maddux first, but it's close.

"I can't do this by myself," Washington said. "They have all that experience. I have weaknesses, but they make my weaknesses look like strengths."

It's difficult to figure out what a manager means to a baseball team because so much of what they do is immeasurable. It goes far beyond their contributions in the dugout, calling for a pitchout, or a hit and run, or even making a pitching move.

But we've seen enough managers -- some of them very intelligent baseball men -- come and go with limited success that it's obvious this is not an easy job to do. Washington has hit that just-right balance between managing the game in the dugout and managing the game in the clubhouse.

It takes a special kind of personality to do both right.

It takes an All-Star.

The irony is that Anaheim was the scene of the crime, if you will, where Wash did his little dance with the white powder a year ago.

He's come a long way since then. Hopefully, the journey is just getting started.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.

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