Ron Washington reflects on his cocaine use

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The man, just some guy Ron Washington knew nothing of, other than the fact he had come to ruin his life, accepted the cup of evidence without expression.

More than a year after his positive drug test, Ron Washington says: ''I just hope that at some point people can get to the point where they can forgive me.''
(Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIRE)

The man held the cup to eye level. Satisfied, he threaded the cap and gave it a firm twist, then delicately laid a tamper-proof sticker over the cup, ensuring that this cocaine-laced urine did indeed come from Ron Washington, manager of the Texas Rangers.

He handed Washington an ink pen. Washington signed. The man said, ”Thank you,” and received a nod in return. Washington closed the office door and listened for the man’s footsteps before returning to his desk.

He sat in his chair and stared at the lineup card he’d been interrupted from filling out. His hands shook.

He thought, ”Now, what am I going to do?”

Ron Washington’s father, who ran a truck route in New Orleans his whole life and then ran plates of food at other people’s parties on weekends, had been dead for 25 years. Cancer, they said.

Washington’s mother, who bore 10 children, lost one at birth and another in Vietnam, had the last of her clarity leave her four years earlier, when Hurricane Katrina broke the levees and rotted her home and her routine. Alzheimer’s, they said.

Their seventh child was a lean, sinewy kid who didn’t have time for the treacherous snares of the Ninth Ward. He’d take the three one-dollar bills his father lay on the dining room table every Monday morning, thin stacks identical to his brothers’ and sisters’, and stretch them through a week’s worth of bus fare and school lunches. He’d return home every night spent from school and afternoon baseball practice and just getting through the day, he said, ”Just chasing a ball.” It was more than that, though. Ron Washington was relentless.

Over enough decades, Washington piled enough of those days on top of each other to become a ballplayer, then a coach, then, finally, a manager. He’d become what they call ”a lifer,” often enough a term for the game’s invisible journeymen; the fungo hitters, batting-practice pitchers, talent scouts and babysitters who watch major league games on television like everyone else.

But not Washington. He’d made it. He’d piled enough of those jobs on top of each other to lead a big league ballclub, and then to help make that club relevant. He’d risen to the job in his mid-50s, somewhat late by industry standards, but about right for a lifer who would be pleased to represent all the other lifers, the African-Americans and the invisible journeymen who knew a thing or two about this game.

Even today, he says, ”I’m a lifer,” proud, the way one might say, ”I’m an American,” or ”I’m a father.” What Washington means is he’s a survivor, and a teacher of the art of surviving, and a lover of other survivors.

Fannie Washington is 89 years old. She awakens each day in a New Orleans assisted-living facility and starts her life over again, unable to place the names and faces of her children, or their children. Her boy Ronald visits when he can, and he’ll sit across from her and put his hand on her arm to reassure her. She’ll push it away. ”Don’t you touch me!” she’ll snap. ”I don’t know you!”

”You know me,” he’ll say softly. ”It’s me. Your son.”

Gerry, the girl Ron married going on four decades ago, often enough sits nearby.

”She doesn’t mean anything by it,” she’ll tell Ron on the drive home.

Fannie is a lifer, too. A survivor.

In her lucid days, Fannie would have her favorite sayings, among them, ”The Lord sits high and looks low.” It had served them all when James, Ron’s brother, did not return from the Vietnam war, and through the trying and tense times in East New Orleans, and as they raced the rising water and coming destruction of the hurricane.

And so when on a Monday afternoon in July 2009 a team trainer rapped softly on the door and announced, ”Wash, you’re on the list for testing,” Washington thought indeed it was his time. The Lord would have to look very low that day.

Washington glanced up from his lineup card. Maybe he didn’t hear. Maybe he didn’t want to.

Rangers third baseman Michael Young says of his manager: ''I was proud of him. And I’m proud to play for him.''
(Tim Heitman/US PRESSWIRE)

”What?” he said.

”Yeah,” the answer came casually. ”You’re on the list.”

At 57 years old, Washington had used cocaine the previous week in Anaheim. Managers and coaches were tested randomly, usually once a year. His number had come up. The man waited outside. He invited him in.

When the door was closed again and only one person knew what the contents of that cup would reveal, Washington reached for his telephone and dialed the number for Major League Baseball. I just took a drug test, he told the person on the other end. I think I’m going to test positive. What do I do?

He was told there was a program. He was told to tell his bosses.

Later on Monday, the phone rang on the desk of the president of the Rangers. Nolan Ryan picked up. The call was from New York, from Major League Baseball. When the conversation was over, Ryan walked down the hall to the office of his general manager, Jon Daniels. Daniels wasn’t surprised to see Ryan before a game. But Ryan pulled the door closed behind him and frowned.

”Oh, this isn’t going to be good,” Daniels said. ”Whaddya got?”

”Have you spoken to Ron today?” Ryan asked.

Daniels, who’d traded for Josh Hamilton(notes), who’d endured Hamilton’s backslide, was initially shocked, then angry, then mystified.

”All right,” he said finally, ”let’s try to take a step back here. Is there a bigger issue? What are we looking at?”

Ryan and Daniels decided then to allow Washington time to come to them. They waited for a day and a half. The Rangers were playing well, contending in the AL West and in the process of sweeping a three-game series from the Boston Red Sox. Washington on Wednesday afternoon approached Daniels and assistant general manager Thad Levine. His eyes were filled with tears. The team would have the next day – Thursday – off. He needed to talk to them after the game.

”He was crushed,” Daniels said. ”So were we.”

Washington told them he’d used cocaine before the All-Star break. He said he’d not used it before or since. He talked about the anxieties he’d been feeling, how he’d attempted to cope, what a terrible mistake he’d made. He apologized. He offered to resign, then and there, to leave the job he’d worked so hard for and go back to New Orleans, a place for rebuilding, to save them all the embarrassment.

”The toughest thing to deal with is when you do things to yourself,” Washington said this week, more than a year after the test, six months after the results became public, a couple days before the Rangers clinched their first postseason appearance in 11 years. ”No outside forces caused it. There begin to be a lot of people you have to answer to.”

Himself, first of all. But, then, there would be Gerry, his wife. Eventually, when Sports Illustrated published the story of the big league manager who’d tested for cocaine, he’d have to come clean to his friends, and his players, and the world.

The Rangers wanted him in counseling. They wanted no more surprises. They struggled with the concept of a middle-aged man turning to cocaine, but they chose to believe. What they wanted most of all was honesty.

The next day, when baseball was in the midst of spring training and roiling with the news of Washington and cocaine and demands he be fired, Washington admitted he’d smoked marijuana and taken amphetamines as a player.

”Whoa,” Daniels thought wryly, ”too much honesty.”

But, Washington, who had completed the drug program, endured extra testing and eventually returned to the regular pool of annual random tests, continued to apologize. For every television camera, he bore the consequences. For every newspaper, he promised to be a better man. For every fan, he wore the taunts and bowed his head.

”I couldn’t react in a negative manner,” Washington said, ”because they were right.”

And he managed his ballclub.

”I was proud of him,” Rangers third baseman Mike Young said. ”And I’m proud to play for him.”

For lifting the Rangers from a dead decade, for ripping the AL West from the clutches of the Los Angeles Angels, for keeping it together through a Texas summer, Washington is likely to challenge Ron Gardenhire of the Minnesota Twins and Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays for manager of the year. He was, in the end, not a distraction at all. He was able to bear up under the humiliation of his missteps. It’s what lifers do, of course.

Months ago, when the burden was great and the criticism was as overwhelming as it was justified, Washington allowed himself hope for recovery. He spoke of forgiveness, of a compassionate hand in an age of sledgehammer justice. He’d cried plenty over this, over his choices, over his bad timing, over the stain he’d smeared across his name and his organization and his sport and the people who believed in him.

There is no way to know if he was punished for a single indiscretion or saved from much more. There is only understanding, or there is not. The rest is for Ron Washington, who, at 58, was left to rewrite his gravestone. Or can he?

”I don’t know if I will be able to,” he said. ”People will have their opinions. People that don’t know me will probably never forgive me. For the thousand that don’t like you, there’s a thousand that do. … But if those thousand took a chance to come and try to find out what Ron Washington is all about, I believe they’d be persuaded.

“I was wrong. And those that will never give me right, I can’t change that. Because I was wrong. This is a very forgiving society. I just hope that at some point people can get to the point where they can forgive me.”

He’d have to go first. Whatever anxieties and vulnerabilities hounded him, they’d follow. Whatever happened in Anaheim that night, there are other lonely cities and lonely nights just like it. There are other men out there – himself included – who indeed have the power to ruin his life. The man that showed up in his office with that cup and that earnestness that day? He wasn’t there to ruin it. He was there to save it.

”I’m at peace,” Washington said. ”No matter what happens from this point on, I’m at peace. I hope I’m able to have a place in the game of baseball until my brains don’t work anymore or I can’t function. I’m a lifer. This is what I have a great passion for and I will always have a passion for it. I don’t think I could survive without it.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Sep 26, 2010