Commentary

Washington puts MLB in tough spot

Past inaction, compassionate decision about Rangers manager create mixed message

Updated: March 20, 2010, 5:53 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

By now, we should all be familiar chapter and verse with the textbook procedure for dealing with the high-profile sporting downfall: Tiger Woods and his reputation fell to earth like a giant 9-iron-swinging Sputnik. Michael Vick, once in handcuffs, ceased to be a person to the Madison Avenue executives who once hitched their stars to him. What we know is now boilerplate: At the first sign of trouble the suits in front offices across America will generally run for cover.

Yet, in a noticeable departure, the Texas Rangers did not dispose of a toxic, embarrassing situation by firing manager Ron Washington when he tested positive for cocaine last summer. The organization could have engineered the usual cut-and-run techniques perfected by teams and sponsors alike whose first and last impulse is to disinfect the brand by discarding the person.

Nobody, at least in the wide world of public opinion, would have even faulted the Rangers for jettisoning Washington, because cocaine -- compared with its generally tolerated cousins alcohol and marijuana -- is a hard-core drug and an unforgivable offense.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziRon Washington called using cocaine a "huge mistake."

But the Rangers rejected the boilerplate. Last year, Washington offered to resign, and the Rangers stood by their manager, a surprising but mature suggestion that people are fallible, make mistakes and deserve loyalty. In a micro sense, the Rangers' handling of the Washington situation appeared merciful, evolved and certainly compassionate. For his more than 30 years in the game, Washington is respected throughout the sport as a hard worker, a teacher, a man loyal to his organization. He is the company man who put his time in to finally receive, at 54 years old, a top job. When the Rangers hired him following the 2007 season, the rank and file around the sport cheered his hire, which was proof that just doing the work sometimes will be rewarded.

When Washington fell, it appears he did not lie to his superiors about his transgression, and did not claim, Rafael Palmeiro-like, that he was the victim of a false positive. He took responsibility for a bizarrely reckless error in judgment, as they say, "like a man," and in turn received the second chance to maintain his job.

That is one way to look at it. But in a macro sense, the Washington situation is illustrative of a baseball culture that is now cornered by its own massive inaction and inconsistencies in its handling of drug issues, revealing the very vexing question of how a sport can punish someone when over the past 15 years it generally hasn't punished anyone.

Coming down hard on Washington would have been appropriate though somewhat hypocritical for a sport that despite the endless consequences chose tactically to shake off the steroids era as a bad dream. It spent tens of millions of dollars to generate the evidence necessary to put its steroids history in context and then let everybody walk, from the San Francisco Giants executives who ignored the mounting warnings from team trainer Stan Conte, to Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who exchanged text messages with his scouts concerning Eric Gagne, to the players, such as Miguel Tejada, who pleaded guilty to a federal perjury charge but was never sanctioned by his day job.

The details of Washington's case may likely never be fully explained. As incongruous as it is to believe that a 57-year-old man experimented with cocaine just once, it is also true that every person has his breaking point. The manager found himself under strain that clearly was challenging his resolve. Throughout the early portion of 2009, it appeared Washington would not survive the season. He was not considered a favorite of the new boss, Nolan Ryan, was confounded by the work ethic of the modern player, felt isolated by a front office that stripped him of his hand-appointed coaches and nearly wilted under the internal politics that evaporated the enjoyment of the job. He felt marginalized to the point of depression.

And yet the same organization that appeared to be undermining him saved his job, and for the moment, his managerial career.

[+] EnlargeTony La Russa
Doug Murray/Icon SMITony La Russa didn't face sanctions from baseball for his DUI.

His personal turmoil could have undermined the team. The Rangers were one of the surprise stories of 2009, contending for a playoff spot until the final weeks of the season after having not made the playoffs since 1999. Suspending or firing the manager in the middle of a pennant race could have derailed the season and organizational momentum the Rangers were generating.

Around the same time last summer, the team was dealing with another off-field transgression: Josh Hamilton's relapse into a drunken bender that resulted in his taking unflattering photographs with young women in an Arizona bar. The Rangers could have been transformed from an underdog story to an organization out of control.

These were internal concerns, and the Rangers chose not to publicize the embarrassment.

The larger question for baseball is how it can balance forgiveness versus the appearance of total lawlessness, because the sport devastated by performance-enhancing drug use has noticeably lacked tough sentencing. Under Bud Selig, baseball has never had its Black Sox/Pete Rose moment, where one name serves as a zero tolerance symbol. In a sense, the sport is hamstrung by the inherent difficulties in meting out selective justice seemingly based on perception. Alex Rodriguez received different treatment than David Ortiz when both faced their performance-enhancing moment in 2009, and so on. Under Selig, the punishments have been more subtle, but the gulag no more forgiving. Players have been sanctioned by inaction. Palmeiro and Barry Bonds disappeared into the wind, never announcing their retirements but never being asked to dinner, either.

Washington tested positive for using an illegal substance and has not been suspended, either by his team or the league. Tony La Russa, the Cardinals manager, received no suspension or public sanction for his 2007 DUI that left him sleeping at the steering wheel of a running vehicle. Mark McGwire, welcomed back to the sport by St. Louis and in a special mention by the commissioner of baseball, never served any sanction for his steroids use, though ironically, McGwire is now subject to steroids testing today as the Cardinals' hitting coach. The testing program that caught Washington was a byproduct of the Mitchell Commission, which itself was famous for its recommendation of nonpunishment for any of the 86 players named in the report.

There is a generational element that must be considered as well, for today we live in a world where news conference apologies are about as much as the public demands. For his part, Washington provided a road map for self-destruction, one from which he may never recover in terms of his professional reputation and future job prospects, but he also displayed the type of accountability that likely -- at least for the moment -- kept him employed. He appears to have survived a blow that usually kills careers. And he deserves credit for requesting continued testing even after he completed the mandatory substance-abuse program.

As a sport, however, baseball continues to walk the disastrous line between compassion and sending the message that because of what it did not do during the steroids era it has no standard of accountability.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter @hbryant42 reach him at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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