Reporting from Arlington, Texas
What Hurricane Katrina did to Ron Washington’s New Orleans home in 2005, the Texas Rangers manager nearly did to himself in 2009, his use of cocaine during “a weak moment” sparking a controversy that nearly swept him out of the game.
“I thought my job was over,” Washington, 58, said. “I really did.”
The rebuilding of Washington’s home, reduced to the studs by flooding and high winds from the devastating storm, is nearly complete, thanks in part to about $68,000 in donations from players such as Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi.
So is the Ron Washington reclamation project, the fourth-year manager rising from his potentially career-killing mistake to guide the Rangers to the third division title in the franchise’s 39-year history and an American League division series berth against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I’ve always been at my best when things are the toughest,” said Washington, the son of a truck driver and stay-at-home mom who grew up in New Orleans’ Desire Housing Projects, one of the city’s most crime-ridden areas. “That’s the athlete, the competitor, in me.
“What Katrina did to my house, I didn’t do that. I just had to deal with it. The other thing, I did to myself. And the way you deal with it is to stand up like a man, take it, be strong and move past it.”
Washington was a scrappy infielder whose blue-collar approach is reflected in the way the Rangers play. Once a team of mashers, Texas used pitching, defense and aggressive base-running to end the Angels’ three-year reign as division champions.
His athletic skills and fight-until-your-last breath grit were honed on the playgrounds of New Orleans, where Washington, one of 10 kids in his family, usually played ball and hung out with older, tougher kids.
“You have to survive, you have to keep your clothes on and keep your money in your pocket, because someone was always trying to get it,” Washington said. “I learned how to fend for myself because you had no choice. You get used and abused or you show people you’re not going to have it.”
But in the summer of 2009, there was little fight in Washington.
Sometime around the All-Star break, Washington used cocaine -- he hasn’t discussed the circumstances but said it was a one-time thing -- and he failed a drug test.
He offered to resign, but Rangers President Nolan Ryan and General Manager Jon Daniels stuck with him.
“They treated me as family, and they say you don’t turn your back on family,” Washington said. “They didn’t judge me. They supported me.”
Washington entered baseball’s treatment program, which required him to undergo weekly drug tests and counseling and to inform the commissioner’s office of his whereabouts all winter. As a first-time offender, his participation remained confidential.
But just as Washington was completing the program, news of his positive drug test leaked to Sports Illustrated, which published a story on its website March 17.
There were immediate calls for Washington to be fired, but Ryan and Daniels stuck by their manager.
“It’s not excusing what happened,” Daniels said. “We just took a step back, looked at what’s best for Ron, the club and the organization, and when we looked at it like that, it was clear.”
The first thing Washington did after meeting with Ryan and Daniels was to apologize to his players in the team’s spring training clubhouse in Surprise, Ariz.
“He told his side of the story, and then, one by one, guys stood up and said how we supported him,” veteran third baseman Michael Young said. “I was first, and at least 10 other guys spoke, one after another. I said, ‘Wash is the manager, he’s the guy we want leading the ship.’ And that’s the way it’s been.”
What did the support mean to Washington, who spent 11 years as an Oakland Athletics coach before Texas hired him?
“I couldn’t describe it in words,” he said.
Then it was time to meet the media and the public.
“I stood up, I took the criticism, and I accepted it,” Washington said. “My team, the organization, my family and friends stood behind me because they know Ron Washington.
“I made a mistake. In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out, but in life you only get one. I’ve had my one.”
Though Washington completed baseball’s mandatory treatment program, he underwent weekly voluntary drug testing all season.
In the months following the spring disclosure, Washington was surprised by the number of negative comments he heard from fans around the country: none.
“If there were any haters out there, they kept it to themselves,” Washington said. “I think it’s because I … was honest about what went on and didn’t try to get around it. People are forgiving.”
Did Washington regret not going public in 2009, when he failed the drug test?
“No, because I followed the process,” he said. “If MLB felt the best thing to do was go public, I would have.
“All my life, I’ve preached to kids that for every action there’s a reaction, and for every action, there’s a consequence. I had a weak moment. I didn’t shy away from it.”
It helped that the Rangers, despite going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May and through an ownership change in August, shed their reputation of wilting in the summer heat and pulled away from the Angels and Oakland A’s to win the division by nine games.
“Winning takes care of a lot of things, doesn’t it?” said Texas reliever Darren Oliver, a 15-year veteran. “I would hate to see how it would have been if we weren’t winning.”
The seeds for the division title were planted four years ago, when Washington set out to change the culture in Texas. The Rangers were usually prolific with the bats but pathetic on the mound and shaky in the field.
“My first couple of years here, we’d be down three or four runs in the seventh inning and I’m taking” a first strike, Washington said. “They weren’t used to that. They were used to banging their way back into a ballgame.
“Well, when I got here, we didn’t have those bangers, so we had to learn how to adjust and do things a different way. We had to learn how to pitch, to catch the ball, to run the bases and execute.”
The Rangers still have a few bangers, most notably Josh Hamilton (.359, 32 homers, 100 runs batted in) and Vladimir Guerrero (.300, 29 homers, 115 RBIs), but they’re a far more balanced team now.
They have a solid rotation headed by ace Cliff Lee, a deep bullpen anchored by hard-throwing rookie closer Neftali Feliz and an air-tight defense, thanks, in part, to Washington’s controversial-at-the-time decision to move Young from shortstop to third to clear room for Elvis Andrus in 2009.
They went from first to third on singles a major league-high 121 times this season. They led the AL with 53 sacrifice bunts and ranked seventh in the majors with 123 stolen bases. They advance runners with groundouts and take bases on pitches in the dirt.
The Rangers also led all of baseball with a .276 average, but won the division despite hitting only 162 homers, the fewest since they hit 159 in 1992.
“If you have a pitcher who has his stuff, there will be no banging,” Washington said. “But does that mean we have to lose, 4-3 or 3-2? No. We can win those games if we do the right things.”
If Washington’s philosophy sounds familiar to Angels fans, there’s a reason. He spent three years in the Dodgers’ farm system, and Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, the former Dodgers catcher, is among those Washington has been most influenced by.
“Scioscia believes in forcing the action, in pitching and defense, and I came from all of that,” Washington said. “I’m trying to make my team understand that you play the game each day the way the game asks you to play.”
Young, in his ninth season, has been a part of some powerful offenses, but this is by far the best Rangers team he’s been on.
“The pitching and defense are 10 times better, and Wash has a lot to do with that,” Young said. “If we make mistakes, they’re aggressive ones.”
The Rangers also have a mental toughness and a spirit of unity that Young has not seen.
“It’s the most resilient team I’ve ever been a part of,” Young said. “That’s definitely something we share with Ron.”
Indeed, Washington is a self-described “baseball lifer” who played 10 years in the minor leagues, 10 in the big leagues and spent 16 years as a coach before getting his first managing job for a club looking for its first playoff series win.
And now he’s overcame a self-inflicted wound to lead the Rangers into the postseason.
“It was a tough road,” Washington said, “but I’ve always been a guy who persevered.”