Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington makes the most unlikely of journeys from cocaine to Champagne.
Ron Washington should've been fired.
I know it. You know it. Shoot, even he knows it.
"Wouldn't have blamed them if they did," the Texas Rangers manager said of team president Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels back in spring training. "But they stood by me. My team stood by me. I'm truly blessed."
In July 2009 Washington revealed to Rangers management that he—during the season, no less—used cocaine. Even in a sport besieged by steroids, it was unseemly, unprecedented stuff. Never before—or since—had the head coach or manager of a major American sports team confessed to using an illegal drug in season and subsequently tested positive for cocaine.
Washington offered to resign. But Texas' braintrust believed in him and the Rangers played for him.
He lost his dignity, but kept his job.
"It was the right thing to do," Ryan says these days. "We believed it was a one-time thing what he did, and we thought that long-term he was the right manager for us."
And now, Washington's 2010 Texas Rangers are in the World Series. A season that began in February in Surprise, Arizona, with Washington's public drug revelation continued its weird, wonderful sojourn with last Friday's American League Championship Series vanquishing of the big, bad New York Yankees.
From a cocaine admission to a Champagne celebration, with a bankruptcy auction sprinkled in just for fun.
And the best, most bizarre part: The fun is just getting started.
After how the Rangers dominated the Yankees—outscoring them 38-19—is there any reason to believe they won't trample the inferior San Francisco Giants in the World Series? Having conquered the Brooklyn Bridge on the East Coast, going West to nab the Golden Gate Bridge shouldn't be a problem.
The Rangers, who beat the team with the best record in the American League (Tampa Bay Rays) and the defending champions (Yankees) to earn a trip to the Fall Classic, should handle the Giants reasonably easily. While San Francisco did upset the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS, they have a record six one-run wins this post-season. The Rangers—fueled by an offense that has produced 17 home runs and 16 stolen bases—have won their seven playoff games by run margins of four, six, four, five, eight, seven and five.
The Rangers have Cliff Lee, one of baseball's best all-time playoff pitchers, and Josh Hamilton, the likely AL Most Valuable Player. The Giants—let's be honest—are a gaggle of Zach Galifianakises who pitch well but are led offensively by Cody Ross, a guy they signed off the junk pile on August 22 and who would have a difficult time making Texas' 25-man roster.
Pinch yourself. The Rangers are not only in the World Series, they're favored to win it.
It was a surreal, silly, stupendous scene in Arlington last Friday night. In a clubhouse where those of us in the media have witnessed countless funerals, to see it decked out in protective plastic and drenched in celebratory spirits was both difficult to comprehend and delicious to digest.
"This is great, definitely worth the wait," said longtime face of the franchise Michael Young. "But we want four more wins. Winning the American League is a great accomplishment, but we want to win the whole thing."
Said Washington, "This is a dream come true."
Watching the tears and smiles after Rangers 6, Yankees 1 in Game 6, you felt warm and fuzzy for franchise old-timers like radio voice Eric Nadel, stadium presentation guru Chuck Morgan and Mr. Ranger, Tom Grieve. But you also smiled along with Washington, the modest, imperfect human performing this area's all-time coaching superhuman feat.
I first met Washington in early February 2007. He had just been hired by the Rangers and, while I found it refreshing, his enthusiasm and optimism seemed forced. Contrived. Almost disingenuous. Couldn't be real, could it?
"Can we win the West? Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt," Washington preached to me in his office on a gray, snowy day. "Seems like every year the Rangers have it going until around the All-Star break, then they collapse. But nope, no more. I'm going to take them all the way to the finish line. This is not the same old Rangers. I'm going to take the shackles off this team. I want the players to be who they are, not a bunch of guys looking over their shoulders and worrying about petty stuff. If you're a prankster, prank. If you're quiet, don't say a word. As long as they keep the firemen and the police out, the clubhouse belongs to them. I know these guys have it in them, and it's my job to get it out. When we start clicking, we'll take no prisoners. We're going to win here, and win big."
I scribbled, and nodded. But inside I guffawed. The Rangers? Winning big with a first-time manager who was passed over as candidate by his own Oakland A's franchise a couple times? And figuring that a glass-half-full attitude has anything to do with pitching and defense? Yeah, right.
But the last laugh—the World Series giggle—is now on me and other skeptics. Washington has indeed shrugged and believed his way to a championship.
Hurricane Katrina flattened his house in New Orleans. Alzheimer's has taken his mother's memory. Former owner Tom Hicks admitted Washington was this close to being fired early in 2008 (his birthday and a subsequent 18-9 streak saved his job). And critics constantly chastise his "gut" strategies and poke fun at his curious and infamous subject-verb agreement that has birthed classics like "That's what baseball do." (E-Ron-ics, I like to call it.) There's even a longtime commenter on my Sportatorium blog who goes by the handle "Wash Hater."
But through it all Washington—only the third black World Series manager along with Cito Gaston and Dusty Baker—is the eternal, at times irrational, optimist. He smiles. He smokes cigarettes. He reminds players to "respect the game." He is emotional and demonstrative during games, reticent and reverent afterward.
With positivity and perseverance he's improved the Rangers from 75 to 79 to 87 and—this year—90 wins. We have to credit Clint Hurdle for more patient hitting and Mike Maddux for deeper pitching, but under Washington, the Rangers are an attacking team that takes extra bases and plays with passion.
Claw. Antlers. Wash.
He's become an endearing figure this season. Lost in his story are his guts and belief in his style. Less than 24 hours after his team coughed up a late-game lead in a Game 1 loss to the Yankees, Washington restored the Rangers' confidence by—in the bottom of the first inning of Game 2—calling for a double-steal that resulted in a run.
Washington has overcome bankruptcy and Rich Harden and cocaine and, now, history. After a playful run around the infield last Friday night amidst the fireworks and the confetti, he finally got a Gatorade dousing behind home plate, courtesy of frolicking players Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz.
Don't look now, but the manager who began on a short leash is authoring the Rangers' longest season. And the man who should've been fired is about to be crowned.
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