When the franchise was still located in the nation’s capital, it was often said that the then-Washington Senators were “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” For Ron Washington‘s 2008 Texas Rangers, that adage could easily be changed to “Last in pitching, last in defense, and first in runs scored in the American League.” Currently in his second season as a big-league manager, Washington has his pitching- and defensively-challenged team hovering around the .500 mark as he looks to build a winner in Texas. A major league infielder for five teams over parts of 10 seasons, the 56-year-old Washington spent 11 years as a coach with the Oakland A’s prior to joining the Rangers in November of 2006.
David Laurila: How would you describe Ron Washington’s managerial style?
Ron Washington: I’d describe my managerial style as being according to what’s available on that day when I walk out there. If I feel like I’m able to go out there and be aggressive, and take it to a team, that’s what I’ll do. If I feel like I have to sit back and wait for the three-run bomb, then I’ll wait for the three-run bomb. If I have to play a winning type of baseball-what a lot of people call “small ball,” where you have to bunt and hit and run, move runners that way-I’ll do that. For me, the opposing pitcher always sets the day for you.
DL: Is there a specific Texas Rangers philosophy that you’re adhering to as a manager?
RW: Well, I certainly like to see how much we can work the starting pitcher of the opposing team. I think that if we can make him work, you find yourself in the middle of their bullpen, which is not the best part of most bullpens. So the sooner you can get to that middle part, the more advantage you give to yourself offensively.
DL: How do the experiences you had as a player influence you as a manager?
RW: As a player, I was always in organizations where we took it right to teams; we were stealing right off the bat, putting balls in play right off the bat, double stealing, going from first to third. I like playing that type of aggressive game. But there are also some days that you don’t use that aggression. I came through the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy, and during those days, that’s the type of game we played. From the first pitch, our whole objective was to try to upset the defense by making them make plays, and the more pressure that you put on the defense to make plays, the more opportunities you give to yourself for the opposition to make mistakes. You’re not always able to do that, because sometimes, like I say, you get a pitcher out there who is controlling the ball game, and if that happens there isn’t much you can do.
DL: How about your managerial style in the clubhouse: running a tight ship versus letting players do their own thing?
RW: Having been a player myself, I’ve always tried to allow the clubhouse to be the players’ clubhouse. I don’t get involved in what goes on in there other than the fact that I may go in there now and then. I think I told those guys when I first took over that the clubhouse is theirs; I just don’t want to see the police or the firemen in there.
DL: You came here from Oakland. How does Texas differ from Oakland?
RW: Oakland was more or less a pitching-rich organization. They didn’t try to make much happen on the base paths; they didn’t believe in sacrifice bunting until there was opportunity for you to win a ball game. They certainly tried to work the pitcher as much as they possibly could. They didn’t want to give up outs on the base paths, so we didn’t have a whole lot of speed. We mostly pitched and played defense, and by pitching and playing defense, whatever opportunities we had on the offensive end we took advantage of. Because our pitchers could keep us in ball games, we won a lot of 4-3, 2-1, 3-2, and 5-4 ball games. Here in Texas, having the offense that I have-and we’re still trying to put things together on the pitching side-we don’t play as many low-scoring ball games.
DL: Earlier this season you had David Murphy hitting ninth against left-handers. What was the thought process behind that?
RW: At the time Murph was struggling, but I wanted to have him in the lineup because he does bring a presence. He could play great defense, and every now and then he could walk into something. But he was struggling bad against lefties, and I wanted him in the lineup, and I felt the best way to do that was to put him at the bottom. And it worked, because it got him going again, and when it got him going again, I was able to move him back into the middle. And another thing with David is that when I put him ninth in front of Kins [Ian Kinsler], for some reason if he was able to work a walk, now I have me a guy who can steal a bag; I’ve got a guy I can play hit-and-run with; I’ve got a guy who I can go first-to-third with. So the ninth hitter isn’t always your weakest hitter. To me, the ninth-place hitter is more like a second leadoff guy. A guy like Vazquez, I’ll hit him ninth, even when I have an opportunity to hit him second, because for some reason that spot seems to come up a lot in ball games in big situations. And by my hitting him ninth, he’s one of the guys who usually comes through for me. What he does is generate stuff for the top of the lineup.
DL: What did it mean to you when Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager in 1975?
RW: Well, I thought it was a breakthrough. Frank has always been looked upon as a guy who had a lot to offer in the game of baseball, and he’s achieved a lot in the game of baseball. So it was nice that he was able to pass all that knowledge, and all that wisdom, and everything he’s been through, like the World Series and playoff situations, onto other people. It just meant a lot, because one thing is for sure: Frank Robinson is a good friend of mine.
DL: How much has changed in the 33 years since that time?
RW: I think that everyone now, no matter their race, creed, or color, is getting an opportunity to be in every part of the game of baseball. That’s something that wasn’t there in the past. Everyone now is getting an opportunity, and that’s all you ever want. I’ve always believed that to become a big-league manager, to have an opportunity in the high echelon of baseball, you have to be given that opportunity. In my case there had to be a general manager who could convince an owner that I was a guy who could be in charge and take this organization where they want to go.
DL: You’ve received a lot of accolades for the work you’ve done with infielders over the years. How would you assess the infield defense you have here in Texas?
RW: Well, we’re last in the league in defense, but that doesn’t, to me, portray what we have in the way of defensive guys. I mean, we’ve been mixing and matching at third base. We haven’t had Hank Blalock for the full season, and he’s been an All-Star who can make the plays there. So we’ve had to mix and match, and sometimes when you do that you’re putting people in a position where you’re exposing them to a lot more than they’re used to. We have Michael Young, a five-time All-Star, at shortstop. You know, we all have deficiencies and we all have our weaknesses, but he’s a very intelligent ballplayer. But most of our defensive problems were in April; in April we just couldn’t catch a cold. If look you back at from May to now, we really haven’t been that bad of a defensive club. It’s just that the numbers show that, and sometimes the numbers can show something that’s not really reality. Ian Kinsler, he’s in his third full year, and he certainly has improved in the two years I’ve been here. I’ve always believed that a ballplayer needs five years out there before he starts to realize his full capability. All he can do is get better, because he’s still young. And at first base-we’ve been struggling over there, too, all year. We’ve put guys over there that maybe shouldn’t have been over there. But now that we have Chris Davis, who we feel will be a staple over there, we think that position should get solidified. Going into the years to come, our defense will be better; there’s no doubt about it. Just like any part of the game, it’s a process; defense is no different.
DL: You began your playing career as a catcher before moving to the infield. Do you feel that teams should try to develop more athletic catchers?
RW: You need athleticism more in this game, because the players are bigger and stronger. That’s a good thing. Developing catchers is more than just being back there, catching the ball and throwing it back to the pitcher, and putting fingers down. You have to be able to figure out how to get a team out for nine innings; you certainly have a lot of homework that you have to do, which includes the guys coming to the plate, their weaknesses and their strengths. You also have to play to the guy at the plate and know who is on deck. If there’s a guy in that lineup who you don’t want to have hurt you, then you have to make pitches to get around him, because you know you’re capable of getting out the guy that is on deck. So it takes a lot, and in the game of baseball they bring them to the big leagues so young and so fast, that sometimes it takes them time to catch up to the game.
DL: Tommy Lasorda was your manager when you broke into the big leagues. What impact did he have on you in the short time you were with the Dodgers?
RW: It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had, because Tommy was certainly good at motivating, and he was good at making you feel like you were a part of things. The best thing that could have happened to me as a young kid, when I finally got to the big leagues to play for Tommy Lasorda for those 10 games, was that I was around guys like Reggie Smith, Davy Lopes, Dusty Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, Steve Yeager, Rick Monday-these guys are all winners. And there was Manny Mota, Mr. Pinch Hitter extraordinaire. These guys were all winners, and when you came up as a youngster, you were seen and not heard, and you were influenced by their winning attitude. That’s the one thing I remember most.
DL: How much can a manager impact a player becoming a winning player?
RW: I think that you impact considerably, because you’re the leader, and in the game of baseball, there’s a lot of adversity and the players usually follow the manager’s lead. So if the manager is strong, the players are strong. If the manager is positive, the players are positive. The players take on the manager’s attitude, so he has more influence than anyone, really. In this game, if you have a team that’s not competing to win, things can be awfully rough if you have a manager that’s giving in to adversity. Adversity is something I’ve never given in to. I’ve always been positive as a player, I’ve always been positive as a coach, and I’ll always be positive as a manager. A lot of the things those guys are going through are things I’ve experienced at some point in my career. I’ve been there.