Texas gave Washington the Hamilton pardon

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Of all the hard-to-believe whoppers baseball lobs at its fans vis-à-vis drug use, Ron Washington’s explanation of his positive cocaine test set a new standard on the BS meter. The Texas Rangers manager said Wednesday he took the cripplingly addictive drug one time last year, at age 57 no less, and just happened to have the misfortune of running into a Major League Baseball-mandated drug test in the days thereafter.

Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington admitted that he tested positive for cocaine in 2009.
(Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)

Either Washington is the unluckiest drug user in the world or a man so desperate to save his job that he stretched the truth in hopes no one would uncover anything more. The onus, then, rested on the Rangers to ferret out the truth, not just because this is the man they chose to guide their on-field product but because they also employ perhaps the most notorious drug addict in baseball history, outfielder Josh Hamilton(notes).

The Rangers chose the easy route instead. Washington told them it was a one-time incident. Rangers president Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels said investigators from MLB told them it was isolated. And that, apparently, was good enough.

Such blind acceptance comes from people who are either naïve, stupid or compromised, and neither Ryan nor Daniels is naïve or stupid. They found themselves in an untenable situation, one that commingles drugs and race, and wished it away. It didn’t cooperate.

The conference room in which Ron Washington admitted to the world he took cocaine last year was in a grim municipal building in center field at Surprise Stadium. There was a blank dry-erase board, a gray dais on which he rested his nervous-twitching hands and nearly every seat filled, some with his Rangers players and others with inquisitors wondering how a baseball lifer who came up in the heyday of baseball’s cocaine era would be so dumb as to risk blowing his dream job.

“I am not here to make excuses,” Washington said. “There are none.”

He read a prepared statement, one that asked for forgiveness and outlined his entry into MLB’s treatment program. Washington has been tested three times a week since his positive, which occurred sometime between June 8, 2009, when the Rangers picked up his 2010 option, and the All-Star break in early July. Washington said he completed the program two weeks ago, and because of the news first broken by SI.com, he said he would voluntarily submit to further testing going forward.

Never did he use the word cocaine.

“I don’t think the circumstances are important,” Washington said.

Texas’ position was obvious: It needed to fire Washington. He’d even offered his resignation, only to be told by Rangers management it wouldn’t be accepted. Washington committed an illegal act by possessing cocaine, used it in the middle of a season and still was spared. The Rangers were in first place in the American League West for 27 of the 35 days between the contract renewal and the break, and Ryan and Daniels lived with their manager being a drug user because they had no other choice.

By bringing in Hamilton before the 2008 season and lauding his efforts to stay clean, the Rangers cast their lot as an organization that gives second chances. For them to then fire Washington for his alleged one-time use would scream of double standards and hypocrisy and racism.

Hamilton is white. Washington is black. There are only four black managers today – Toronto’s Cito Gaston, Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker, the New York Mets’ Jerry Manuel and Washington – and to fire one while continuing to support Hamilton was something the Rangers were unwilling to do, particularly with the knowledge that Hamilton had relapsed before the 2009 season on a night of binge drinking during which he said he did not remember whether he used illegal drugs.

By treating Washington’s incident as a slip-up and allowing MLB to investigate whether he had any sort of a drug problem, the Rangers did a disservice to their players, fans and anyone else with a vested interest in the franchise. Texas allowed a third party to chart the course for its discipline.

“We had a lot of discussion, a lot of soul searching on it,” Ryan said. “We felt like we would treat him as we would our other employees through our program, through HR, and this is what we chose to do.”

Yes, that’s what they chose to do. Take the most prudent course imaginable. Let human resources handle it.

Ron Washington’s decision to use cocaine was a shame, really. He was never a great player, a utility infielder who went on to inspire loyalty from his players as the third-base coach in Oakland. His vivacity and the grit he provided to complement Daniels’ polish got him the Texas job in 2007, and he managed the Rangers to an 85-77 record last year.

Now, he’s branded. He came up in the Kansas City organization, a haven for cocaine use, and in Baltimore he played with Alan Wiggins, who was in the throes of a cocaine addiction and later died of AIDS. Long before steroids, cocaine was the demon of baseball, hooking players who partied, slept, popped amphetamines, played and repeated the cycle nightly.

Even if this was Washington’s first time using cocaine – and what would compel a 57-year-old to use a drug that almost nobody uses just once remains a mystery – he knew the repercussions, the damages, the stories. He saw them. He lived in the same clubhouse as them.

He swears he isn’t one of them.

“I didn’t have a drug problem,” Washington said. “It was a one-time thing.”

It sounded like Brian Roberts(notes) trying steroids just one time, and Andy Pettitte(notes) using human growth hormone once, and all of the other athletes who admit to discretions only when pressed and in the most limited way possible. It’s the truth until someone proves otherwise.

“Just because somebody in your family makes a mistake,” Ryan said, “doesn’t mean you quit loving ‘em.”

Love involves Washington fighting his demons with his family and friends and the rest of his support network. It entails continuing the counseling he believes helps him understand why he damaged himself and his loved ones. Rehabilitation does not, however, necessitate employment, no matter how compromised the Rangers organization finds itself. Though the backlash of changing managers would have been severe, the tone sent by the message – drug use of any kind will not be tolerated – would resonate for much longer.

Management can be “shocked, disappointed, angry,” all of the things Daniels said it was upon Washington delivering the news that he had taken a drug test and was going to test positive. And yet the Rangers had a chance to rid themselves of this and all the baggage that accompanies it, and they didn’t take it.

They listened and sympathized and ultimately stood by Washington, and heaven did they hope it would fade away, and when it didn’t, they had to stand there with straight faces and say their manager was the unluckiest drug user in the world and nothing more.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 17, 2010