Commentary

How Ron Washington faced his demons

After using cocaine, the Rangers' manager was in a panic and knew he had to admit it

Updated: October 3, 2010, 2:08 PM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- They say catchers make the best managers, and, believe it or not, Ron Washington was once the Roy Campanella of the Bayou. Look at him now -- wire-rim glasses on a bat boy's body -- and it seems farcical that he once hunched behind home plate, all 140 pounds of him, calling for somebody's heater. But when you watch him lead the Texas Rangers, with alternate F-bombs and hugs around their necks, his story is even more of a head-scratcher.

Where do men like this come from? Baseball would usually spit out a wiry, undrafted catcher from the projects who used to have his lunch money swiped on the way to school. But baseball also will make a gruff man out of you if you let it, and considering he spent his adolescence sleeping with the catcher's mitt his dad bought him, Ron Washington was definitely going to let it.

He already had the stubborn part down pat. Big league scouts told young Ronnie he was a second baseman or bust, but he liked being the boss of the field better, liked telling hitters "batter, batter … swing … batter" from his crouch. Only one team -- the Kansas City Royals of 1970 -- told him it would take him semi-seriously as a catcher, and, when Washington was 18, a quirky executive named Syd Thrift came to his home and offered him $1,000 to join the team's revolutionary baseball academy.

This was a dream come true for a runt who had never been out of New Orleans. But Washington actually puffed out his chest and started to negotiate. His high school coach had urged him to ask for a $5,000 bonus, and when Washington's mother heard that garbage come out of her son's mouth, she grabbed him by the ear and dragged him outside.

"You're embarrassing me," she said. "You will accept what they give you."

"But Mom, my coach told me to drive a hard bargain!"

"No son of mine is going to turn down an offer like that," she said. "You thank the man, you take it and work your way up. This is what is called 'opportunity.' You earn all the money you get from here."

Washington signed on the dotted line and was given an Ozark Airlines ticket to Sarasota, Fla. He'd never been on an airplane before, had never lived by himself before. And as the flight reached 30,000 feet and Washington was among the clouds, he swore he was in heaven.

He knew it was wrong

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Kyle Terada/US PresswireRon Washington says he knew what he'd done was wrong and knew he had to make it right.

Forty years later, Ron Washington swore he was in hell. In 10 minutes, his bosses were going to enter his office and he was going to offer his resignation as Rangers manager. If they accepted, that would be the end of it -- 40 years down the tubes.

He knew he was guilty of something God-awful, but then again, maybe the sport was guilty, too. He would never admit it, but four decades of the game had done this. This game had taken him away from home at 18. This game had raised him. This game had shown him its dark side. And now he was wondering whether his bosses -- a Hall of Fame pitcher and a 30-year-old peach-fuzzed general manager -- would empathize or let him walk out the door disgraced.

He sat at his desk and began to weep, began to say goodbye to his oldest friend, baseball.

"I found myself very weak," Washington says. "I watched my whole life flash in front of my face."

The early years

He arrived in Sarasota in August 1970 and was greeted at the airport by a Royals employee. But on the way to the van, the staffer couldn't keep up with the kid. Young Ronnie's gait was quick, his voice pattern quicker. The kid seemed to be in a constant rush, and the answer to that was, yes -- a rush to get better.

The Royals' baseball academy was ahead of its time. The ballclub's owner, Ewing Kauffman, had asked Thrift to stage tryout camps all over the country but particularly in inner cities, where white scouts were largely reluctant to enter. The idea was to find the best raw athletes -- especially ones with speed and strong arms -- then train them to do the most humbling thing in sports: hit a baseball.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Los Angeles DodgersBefore being traded to the Dodgers in 1976, Washington spent time in the Kansas City Royals' baseball academy.

Their pay was $50 a month, and whoever could stick with it for 90 days got a $50 raise. If they could hang in for two years, the max they could earn was $250 a month. Ron Washington hung in.

His only day off was Sunday, and while the others were watching the dormitory's only TV or playing foosball, Ronnie and Frank White -- the academy's two model prospects -- would train on their own. Once the games began, though, they couldn't get White to talk, and they couldn't get Washington to shut up.

As the starting catcher, Ronnie was an absolute motormouth. He'd walk out to the mound and slam the ball in the pitcher's glove. He'd shout, "Attaway" after every strike. He'd tell opposing hitters, "You swing like a rusty gate." There would be the game, and then there'd be the Ron Washington Variety Show.

But as Ron moved up the ladder to the instructional league, it became more apparent that his body wasn't built for the rigors of catching. The players dined at an all-you-can-eat cafeteria, and even after two plates of starches and creamed vegetables, Ronnie couldn't gain an ounce. Even though he had a cannon of an arm, the Royals couldn't see any upside in developing a 150-pound catcher. So the organization confiscated his catcher's mitt, pointed him toward second base and third base and made plans to send him to winter ball.

He groused, but the thought of year-round baseball -- not to mention the flight to Puerto Rico -- was enticing. When he arrived, the coaches instantly doted on him because he had come to them without a single bad habit. The academy had taught him to play infield from scratch, so he was fundamentally efficient and actually open to criticism. Had they let him, he would've stayed on the field from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. But the coaches shooed him off to the clubhouse, where there was a whole other part of baseball going on.

Ronnie walked into that winter ball dressing room with the widest of eyes. There were Latin players in one corner, American players in the other and a jar of pills on a table.

"What's in there?" he asked a teammate.

"Greenies, man," Ronnie was told. "Greenies."

On his own

The last thing a young Ron Washington needed was pep pills. He already got out of bed every morning going 100 miles an hour; who needed them? He stayed away, for obvious reasons, and continued to climb the Royals' ladder.

By 1972, Thrift wanted Ronnie to earn a spot on one of the franchise's minor league rosters, and when Washington made the Waterloo Royals, it meant no more dorms or ready-made cafeterias. This time, Ronnie was truly by himself; he had to find a place to live and also eat three square meals a day on his own.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Los Angeles DodgersWashington started out as a catcher, but with such a thin frame, it wasn't meant to be. He was moved to the infield.

It didn't help that he advanced and played in towns such as Jacksonville, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala. The racism was overt, to say the least, and Ronnie once walked down the street and had water balloons tossed at his head. He would be forced to rent out basements, and the only upside is he finally had persuaded his sweetheart back home, Gerri, to marry him.

They were young and fairly broke, but Ron forgot all his troubles the minute he stepped into a ballpark. "For those three hours, I was free," he says. Give up baseball for the real world? Never. He didn't mind going to winter ball every year like some others did. He didn't mind taking 250 straight ground balls off some coach's fungo bat. He was in; the alternative was nonnegotiable.

Of course, the problem with being self-made is there's always somebody out there who's not (or doesn't need to be), somebody who's bigger, stronger and … well, not faster. After six hardscrabble years with the Royals, the team decided to trade Ronnie in November 1976 to the Dodgers for a minor leaguer named Steve Patchin -- a catcher, of all things. The cruel part was Ronnie was on the verge of breaking through to the Royals' big league roster but his old buddy Frank White, already entrenched as the team's second baseman, was blocking his path. There was no spot for Ronnie, and Royals scouts weren't sure whether he was a future star or an expendable utility man. They decided on the latter.

Off to L.A's Triple-A affiliate he went, and, by September 1977, the powerhouse Dodgers made him a late-season call-up. He was finally in the show, at age 25, managed by Tommy Lasorda and surrounded by an infield for the ages: Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey.

His only buddy was another fledgling player, Jeffrey Leonard -- a future star for the Giants -- and Ronnie tried not to seem in over his head. One by one, Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker, Rick Monday and Steve Yeager had reached out to shake his hand, but Ronnie was convinced, from the start, that he was just a peon to them.

"I remember Jeff Leonard and I were watching TV, and Reggie Smith walked in and turned the TV off," Washington says. "And when Reggie walked out, I got up to turn the TV on again. He looked back around and said, 'I'm serious. This is the time to be thinking about baseball, not watching TV.' So I looked at Jeff and said, 'Let's get out of here.'"

The only way to be relevant was to get on base and, when given random at-bats by Lasorda, Ronnie slapped out seven hits in 19 at-bats for a .368 average. It turned out to be only a 10-game audition, but he beat out ground balls, played crisp infield defense and somewhat endeared himself to the veterans. He wasn't eligible to play on the Dodgers team that reached the World Series that October (losing to Reggie Jackson and the Yankees), but if anything ever happened to Lopes, Cey or Russell, Ronnie was on Lasorda's short list.

Early the next season in Triple-A, Ronnie's Albuquerque Dukes were playing in Salt Lake City in near sub-zero temperatures. There was snow on the side of the field and ice on the dugout steps -- but the umpires still wouldn't call it a night. Ronnie knew Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, might ask for a game report, so he hit a dribbler, sprinted full blast out of the batter's box and, on the treacherous field, tore up his knee.

This was the late '70s; there was no tidy ACL operation or knee ligament to be transplanted from a cadaver. The scar on Washington's knee was shaped like the state of California: long and wide. It was going to take years, not months, for Ronnie to re-emerge, and the Dodgers just shrugged and put him last on their minor league infield depth chart.

He would have to wait three years for his next major league at-bat.

Encountering 'Goose'

Half of Washington's battle was to erase from his mind that baseball could be over. No one could've worked harder to resuscitate a knee, but the pessimistic Dodgers still ended up shipping him to Minnesota in March 1980 for no-name Triple-A infielder Wayne Caughey. Washington was just as anonymous himself and knew he'd have to grind to reach the Twins' big league roster. When the chance finally arrived in 1981, he at least was going to make sure they wouldn't forget him.

He still had that catcher's mentality and was going to "attaboy" his way into his teammates' and bosses' good graces. Whenever a Twins player made a gem of a play or crushed a base hit, Washington would say, "Sweet." It caught on like wildfire, and, fairly soon, if a player even drew a walk, the Twins would expect to hear a "Sweet" from their new infielder. Before long, the word morphed into "Schweet," and, by 1982 -- with Ronnie established as Minnesota's top utility man -- the entire team called him "Sweetwater."

No doubt about it, Washington was seen and heard. He was the first player on the Twins to wear headphones on the team bus, and he'd crank up the volume so high that even guys in the front seat would cover both ears. He then would try talking with his headphones on -- which made him sound as if he was shouting -- but, the truth was, the Twins were dying to hear what he had to say.

His mantra, to anyone who would listen, was, "You do or you don't; you will or you won't." In his mind, baseball was about accountability, and, if he made an error, he'd be the first to say, "My pick ain't got no catch in it today."

[+] EnlargeGoose Gossage
AP Photo/Ron FrehmWashington once put down a bunt on Gossage, who wasn't happy about it.

Translation: I flat-out dropped the ball. And he'd tell Twins players that he learned to think and play this way at the Royals' academy. To prove his point, he told them he could bunt on anybody, and in 1983 -- as the team's new starting shortstop at the age of 30 -- he laid one down against Yankees fireballer Goose Gossage and beat it out.

Gossage, of course, was fuming, and he plunked Washington on the wrist on a subsequent pickoff attempt. Gossage walked over to fetch the stray ball, and when he was within earshot of Washington, he crowed, "Don't ever bunt on me again."

"OK, Mr. Goose," Washington said, thoroughly intimidated.

Of course, when he returned to the dugout after the inning, the entire Twins bench was belly-laughing. "Mr. Goose? You learn that at the academy, too?" outfielder Tom Brunansky asked. For once, Washington was speechless.

Either way, he was in the big leagues for good now. He was living the life he'd always dreamed of, though sometimes he couldn't believe his eyes. One day in the Twins' clubhouse, for instance, Brunansky says he saw a pitcher pour vodka into his orange juice, then light a cigarette. Washington saw that, too, and it brought him back to winter ball with the Royals. Baseball had a darker side, too, and it wasn't just in Puerto Rico.

"It wasn't hidden," Brunansky says. "The standard line was, 'You don't play on milk and cookies.'"

Washington was a cigarette smoker, too, and he began to light up like everyone else. The baseball culture of the '80s was B-12 shots after batting practice … a carton of Marlboros … amphetamines … marijuana … and, for some, cocaine. It wasn't just in Minnesota; it was all over the major leagues. Four Royals, including All-Star Willie Wilson, were sent to prison for drug use in '83. In 1985, the Pittsburgh drug trials described cocaine being sold from Three Rivers Stadium bathroom stalls and Tim Raines running the bases with a coke vial in his back pocket. Right or wrong, baseball players didn't bat an eye over it.

"Everybody was going for it," former Twins third baseman Gary Gaetti says, "and doing what they needed to do to win. I'm not glorifying it, but players could use amphetamines or greenies to do one thing or drink 10 pots of coffee to do another. They were looking for an edge. We all smoked cigarettes and drank our beers."

Says former Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek: "A lot of people would be surprised by what their favorite sluggers did in the clubhouse. Babe Ruth: He was eating hot dogs, smoking a heater and drinking a brew."

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesWashington's career in the majors ended in 1989, when he was with the Astros.

Washington wasn't immune from it, either. After batting a career-high .294 in 1984, his average dropped to .257 in 1986. Although Hrbek says, "I don't think Wash ever did anything wrong on the field," Ronnie knew he was hanging on by a thread. He was 33; his knee ached; and relief became a pill and a joint.

"I did amphetamines," Washington says. "It was in our era. I could say I didn't, but you could go find that out, you could go find somebody to say, 'Yeah, I did greenies with Wash.' But you could never find somebody that said they did cocaine with Wash."

Had he never hurt his knee, had he never hustled out of that batter's box during a Salt Lake cold front, Washington says he would've been a top-tier big leaguer. Instead, he ended up a part-time shortstop-second baseman-third baseman-outfielder who played 14 total years of winter ball and went to his baseball grave still wishing he'd been a catcher. The Twins released him in 1987; the Baltimore Orioles released him in 1988; and he finished his big league career in 1989 by playing seven nondescript games for the Houston Astros.

He doesn't remember much from that final season, other than the image of Astros legend Nolan Ryan incessantly riding a stationary bike in the clubhouse. Otherwise, he doesn't recall Ryan ever saying a word to him.

When the Astros released him, he finagled a Triple-A contract from the Rangers in 1990 and wrapped up his playing career with one final request: "Let me play catcher." In two games for the Oklahoma City 89ers, he hunched behind home plate, still weighing about 160, still telling the hitter to "swing … batter." Syd Thrift wasn't there to see it; no Twins were around to see it, either. But, afterward, Washington had only one thing to say:

"Sweet."

The transition to coaching

Washington wasn't through with baseball. Again, that was nonnegotiable. If he couldn't play in the minor leagues anymore, he'd play in the Senior Professional Baseball Association, where the Daytona Beach Explorers needed a part-time catcher. He might still be calling pitches there had the league not folded in 1991.

[+] EnlargeBilly Beane
Icon SMIBilly Beane, one of Washington's old friends from their days with the Twins, hired him as a coach in Oakland in 1996.

The Mets were smart enough to offer him a job as a minor league coach, and he accepted on the spot. The Academy had prepared him for a moment just like this. He spent two years coaching for the Tidewater Tides, managed the Capital City Bombers for two seasons, then returned for another year with the Tides. He might still be there, too, if one of his old teammates from the Twins, Billy Beane, hadn't become the Oakland A's general manager.

Beane knew all about Washington's pedigree -- he had heard Ronnie yap day and night on the Twins' bus -- and hired him in 1996 to be a first-base coach and eventually a third-base coach. Washington became famous for turning players such as third baseman Eric Chavez into remarkable fielders; there was no limit to the number of fungoes he would hit.

Washington still thought he could be playing in the big leagues, and if he didn't have chronic hamstring issues, he might've challenged players such as Jason Giambi to a race. As it was, he expected every A's baserunner to score from second on base hits and would wave them in almost 95 percent of the time, no matter the situation or their gait.

"Every game was like the first game of his life," Chavez says.

He would tell them what he used to tell the Twins: "You do or you don't; you will or you won't." Players considered him the most honest man in the franchise, and when Chavez earned his first Gold Glove, he presented it to Ronnie. Then, after Hurricane Katrina obliterated Ronnie's New Orleans home in 2005, Giambi -- by then with the Yankees -- walked over before a game and handed Washington a $25,000 check. Washington was grateful, but he was still upset that Chavez's Gold Glove had been ruined in the floods. The A's arranged for Rawlings to issue another one, and Chavez presented it to Ronnie again. The Oakland players were his guys, and he was content being a third-base and infield coach. In 2006, he was going to be turning 54, and he figured he had 30 years of baseball to go.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesPlayers such as Eric Chavez, who won a fifth straight Gold Glove in 2006, supported Washington. In fact, when Chavez received his first, he presented it to Washington.

At the time, his profile had never been higher. Members of the Bay Area media were touting him as manager, and, before the 2007 season, the A's job became available. Beane interviewed him but passed.

"I'd have loved for him to have had a chance to manage the A's," Chavez says. "To be honest, a lot of people said he was so good at coaching, it was hard to imagine him in another role. I heard [Beane] felt that. But a lot of us hoped he'd have a chance."

About a week later, Jon Daniels, the Rangers' 30-year-old general manager, went out on a limb and hired Washington as Texas' manager. Daniels is a 1999 Cornell grad who just six years before had been an intern for the Rockies. He was the youngest GM in baseball history when hired in 2005 at age 28. Washington was 25 years older, old enough to be the kid's father. But Daniels researched the man, heard about his days as a catcher, heard about the day Ronnie's mother grabbed him by the ear in front of Thrift. He decided he was hiring a pure baseball man, loaded with integrity.

He was staking his name on it.

Moving on to Texas

Washington couldn't wait to work with players such as Michael Young and Ian Kinsler. He was going to manage the same way he coached in Oakland: with a sweat.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonWhen Washington moved to Texas, he planned to take the same approach he'd had in Oakland with players such as Mark Kotsay, seen here in 2004 -- supportive and encouraging.

The Rangers, at the time, were notorious for being one-dimensional. They could score, but they'd be scored upon more. They didn't stress defense, and they didn't run the bases with authority. Washington, in a perfect world, would change the culture.

But his first year was relative torture. The roster was loaded with free-swinging power hitters, such as Sammy Sosa and Mark Teixeira, and Washington semi-feuded with Teixeira for not working the count more. But other players, including Young and Kinsler, liked Ronnie's emphasis on fundamentals and how he could laugh at himself. One night, he sprinted on the field to argue a call and pulled his chronic hamstring. "By the time I got there," he says, "I forgot why I was mad."

The team was a work in progress, finishing 75-87 in 2007, but the revelation of 2008 was outfielder Josh Hamilton. An admitted cocaine addict who had nearly snorted his way out of baseball, Hamilton arrived in Texas from Cincinnati and blasted 32 homers and drove in 132 runs. He played all out. If the team could ever get pitching, it might be on to something. And that's where one of Ronnie's old teammates came in.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington & Jon Daniels
AP Photo/D.J. PetersRangers general manager Jon Daniels announced the hiring of Washington as the team's manager in November 2006.

Before that same 2008 season, Rangers owner Tom Hicks hired Ryan to be team president. Not that Ryan officially doubled as pitching coach, but he implored Rangers pitchers to stop nibbling and take back home plate. In some circles, there was a sense Ryan was undermining Washington -- a manager he hadn't hired -- and rumors persisted Ryan would replace him with Steve Buechele, whom he had brought on as a Rangers TV analyst that August.

But the pitchers responded, and the position players kept showing up at the ballpark earlier and earlier. From his spot in the outfield, Hamilton would watch his manager talk to players during BP or during pitching changes and would ask him later what he was preaching. Everyone was amazed Washington was unafraid to start swift 21-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus. Age wasn't an issue; baseball smarts were. Ronnie was running his own sort of academy, and Young and Kinsler bought in, too.

By the end of the 2008 season, the Rangers were a second-place team, and right before the '09 All-Star break, they were narrowly in first place. Washington had settled into the job, and Ryan was now seeing what Daniels saw. Maybe the pressure was lessening, maybe not. But one night around the time of the All-Star break, the manager says he had a night out with friends. It was a night that reminded him of his days in Minnesota -- baseball talk with buddies, beer, cigarettes.

Problem was, somebody brought cocaine.

Cocaine and the aftermath

The morning after, Washington woke up in a panic. He looked in the mirror and saw a fraud. He didn't want a soul to know -- not even his wife, Gerri -- but the same thought percolated over and over in his head: You do or you don't; you will or you won't.

Either way, he was certain baseball was over, permanently. Players do cocaine, not 57-year-old managers. Who would have him after this? He knew he was due for a drug test after the All-Star break -- all managers have been tested since the Mitchell report -- and he assumed the drug would still be in his system. His options were to cross his fingers and wait for the results or to tell someone. He chose the truth.

"Because I have always been honest," he says. "I am about right and wrong. That is the way I lived my life; it's either right or wrong. And what I did was wrong. I could've waited for things to come back and had a scandal happen, but the only thing I knew to do was call somebody, and the first thing I thought was to call Major League Baseball."

He dialed the league's employee assistance program, admitted his transgression and was told to alert the two people in the Rangers organization who mattered to him most: Ryan and Daniels.

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Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireAfter admitting his own cocaine use, Josh Hamilton returned to baseball and had a strong 2008 season.

"That was the toughest thing I ever had to do in my life," Washington says.

He suspected they would fire him on the spot, but on the morning of Wednesday, July 22, 2009, before a game against the Red Sox, Washington asked Daniels and Ryan to come to his office after the final pitch. The next day would be an off day, and he figured it made more sense to have the news break on a non-game day. He was thinking of the team; that was Ronnie.

After the Red Sox game -- a 3-1 victory -- Washington waited alone for his bosses. He remembers sitting in his office, shaking, knowing 40 years of baseball was for naught. The two executives walked in, and he started with the entire explanation. He told them he'd had a weak moment. He spared no detail. He wept.

Daniels described it as "a punch in the gut." The other thing Daniels will say is that he was "pissed." This was his hire. He had turned over the franchise to this man, and not only had Washington betrayed his trust but he potentially had exposed the team's premier player -- Hamilton, a recovering addict -- to drugs on the road.

Daniels says he asked tough questions, that he wanted to know whether Washington had a recurring cocaine problem. The manager swore this was a first-time mistake and Hamilton had been on his way to St. Louis for the All-Star Game when the drug use occurred. "Without a doubt, I told him, 'No way,'" Washington says of whether he used drugs with Hamilton.

Emotions were raw, and the manager says he looked over at Ryan. The former pitcher looked agitated, the same way he used to look after giving up a run. In Washington's playing days, no player was as feared as Ryan. Gaetti used to tell the story of how, in his first spring training as a rookie, he hit a towering foul ball off Ryan that just missed being a home run. The next pitch hit Gaetti between the shoulder blades.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Tim Heitman/US PresswireWashington's mantra: "You do or you don't; you will or you won't."

So Washington kept waiting for Ryan to blow a gasket, but the Hall of Famer seemed measured, wanted to give it thought. The fact was, Ryan says, he understood to a degree. He had played in the '80s; he'd seen the amphetamines and weed, and he wasn't naive about the cocaine back then, either. People close to Ryan say he considered this a carry-over from Washington's playing days, a naivete fostered by a 40-year run in the fantasy world of baseball. Drugs had been the accepted norm. He wasn't making excuses for Washington, but, assuming this was in fact a first-time offense, he seemed inclined to give him a second chance.

Washington offered to resign. But he says he told both men: "The thing I want you to do for me the most is help me preserve my career. My reputation." Daniels and Ryan told him they had to do some investigating, and they'd get back to him on the off day.

"He broke down over it," Ryan says. "The realization set in that he might have destroyed what he had always wanted to be, which was a major league manager. But he was willing to do whatever we asked of him."

As they did their due diligence, Daniels says, MLB assured him that Washington had never had a prior positive test. Maybe it wasn't truly his first time using cocaine; in this day and age of baseball, people are skeptical about everything. Daniels warned Washington that, if the news got out, the public might not buy his story, that 57-year-old men don't generally use cocaine out of the blue. But Washington strongly reiterated his stance, and there was no evidence to discredit him. Ryan and Daniels admired his frankness from the previous day; plus, the team was playing well, and both men felt, from a purely selfish baseball standpoint, they were better off retaining him. What's more, without the game, they felt as if Washington might self-destruct. So they called him in, told him they would keep his drug use private and he should get ready for the second half of the season.

Baseball had gotten him into this mess; baseball would dig him out.

Dealing with the fallout

Washington promised there would never be a second positive test, and he would get to prove it. For the rest of the 2009 season, as well as the ensuing offseason, he says he underwent three mandatory drug tests a week, as well as psychiatric counseling. He felt cleansed. But the best antidote was how the Rangers finished the '09 regular season.

They finished in second place with an 87-75 record, and Ryan and Daniels felt better about sticking with their man. But with his contract expiring after the 2010 season, they still weren't going to rush into an extension, either. The fact was, Ryan had backup plans. He had hired former Rockies manager Clint Hurdle as a coach that offseason and had turned Buechele into a minor league manager. He had options if Washington slipped up in any way.

By spring training 2010, Washington was hoping it was all a nonissue. Vladimir Guerrero had joined the team's monster lineup, seemingly assuring another stirring season, just as Washington was completing his mandatory counseling and drug tests. He volunteered to continue the three tests a week, to give his bosses peace of mind, but, generally, he felt the incident was behind him.

Then, poof, the story broke. Jon Heyman of SI.com reported the incident March 17, causing the entire Rangers organization to scramble. Washington had known this day might come, but was devastated nonetheless and quickly called his coaching staff together to explain. He then rounded up a handful of core players and recounted the incident again, down to the gory details of what he used and why.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington & Nolan Ryan
John Cordes/Icon SMINolan Ryan and Daniels did not fire Washington, telling him they would keep his drug use private.

He broke down in the player meeting, and Hamilton told his manager he loved him. "Obviously, I have been through things, and Wash has done nothing compared to what I have done as far as that," Hamilton says. "He had a moment of weakness, made a mistake. But he owned up to it. He learned a lot quicker than I did."

The next step was for Washington to address the entire organization -- 60 players, plus staff -- in the soundproof clubhouse. Witnesses say his eyes were watering as he stepped to the center of the room. His wife, Gerri, was by his side, and that was a whole other agonizing subplot. He hadn't told her about the cocaine before that day, out of sheer embarrassment, and he had spent the morning begging for her forgiveness. They didn't have children; they only had each other. So it was just a raw day for him.

He was literally sobbing, and Hamilton remembers thinking, "He's a broken man." Washington told the players, "I made a mistake. I'm embarrassed; I apologize to the organization, my family and you guys. Here's what I did, but I'd like to move forward. I still believe I can lead you guys. But it doesn't mean anything unless you guys believe it, too. I don't want you to feel sorry for me. Don't accept my apology because I'm asking for it. I want your heart, but I want your heart only if you want to give it to me."

Daniels remembers thinking it could go either way. If no one said a word, Washington presumably had lost the players. But within seconds, Young, the team's most revered veteran, stood and said, "I've got your back; we're behind you, Wash."

To hear Daniels tell it, there was then a "Captain, my Captain" moment. One by one, other players stood up to support him -- the same way he had supported them when they struck out.

"I couldn't stop the tears," Washington says. "And I didn't want sympathy from those tears. I just felt that I let some people down, and what gets me is that everybody in baseball knows Ron Washington, and what Ron Washington is about, and [July '09] was not Ron Washington."

After the confession, Washington went to meet the media, and the players followed en masse, standing behind him at the lectern. "There was power in numbers," Young says. "We pretty much said, 'Listen, if we consider this to be our issue, not Wash's issue, this won't be a story. This is all on us, not just on Wash. This is all about us now.'"

Somehow, the team grew closer. Ryan and Daniels could see it right away. Somehow, the Rangers had taken on Washington's personality even more and had begun to grind. They didn't mind his F-bombs. They took the extra base, played consistent defense and were in first place every day after June 8. Of all places, they clinched the AL West in Oakland -- right smack in front of Billy Beane.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images"The thing I want you to do for me the most is help me preserve my career. My reputation," Washington says he told Daniels and Ryan.

Washington felt in command again, like a catcher again. He and Frank White spoke at length, reminiscing about the academy, and in early September he got a chance to play in a Twins Legends Game because the Rangers happened to be in Minneapolis that weekend. He lined two singles up the middle, as the entire Rangers roster stood on their dugout step watching their manager play. He pulled his hamstring chasing a fly ball; and the players mockingly booed him. Washingon's baseball life really was passing in front of his eyes. He had a chance to visit with Brunansky & Co., who reminded him of "Mr. Goose" and the way he used to chirp, "Batter, batter … swing batter."

They also reminded him how much they all used to fear Ryan, and Brunansky's comment to him was, "Having Nolan stand by you now is like having the President of the United States behind you. Nolan's God-like."

Washington doesn't disagree, He believes Ryan, the team's new part-owner, and the rest of the organization "saved" him.

"I'm at peace again," he says. "My reputation's intact."

And as the Rangers approach the postseason, management has assured Ron Washington that he'll get his contract extension.

He's hoping for 40 more years.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.