SURPRISE, Ariz. – Robert Washington worked seven days a week. Monday through Friday he drove a frozen-food truck. On the weekends he dressed up nice and went to the rich people's houses in New Orleans' Garden District and served the food at parties.
From that catering work, he made enough to give each of his 10 kids 50 cents for meal money that week. He never divided it up into five dimes. It was two quarters. The Washington kids would learn not to spend all of their money in one place at a young age. Because if they did, Robert wouldn't give them any money the rest of the week, and hunger is a lesson that need be taught just once.
Sometimes, when he had some leftover money, Robert would buy one of his kids a present. In 1959, he brought home a baseball glove for Ronald, eighth of 10 Washington children. They never had played catch. Robert was too busy working. Ronald understood. He just knew to take good care of his glove.
So when the rest of the boys at the sandlot would leave theirs on the field in between innings so the ones without gloves could play, Ronald never did. He kept it on his left hand, molding the leather to the contour of his fingers. When he left the field and hopped the train that tick-ticked back to his neighborhood, Ronald wore the glove around his waist, his belt looped through its opening.
"I never left my glove," says Ronald Washington, known around baseball by truncated versions of his birth name, either Ron or Wash, or by his formal title, manager of the Texas Rangers. "A lot of times guys would forget their glove. And it wasn't easy to get a glove. My parents couldn't just go and buy me a new one. If I lost mine, that was it.
"When something is mine, I don't let go easily."
Ron Washington caught himself. When he gets going, the man can talk faster than the Micro Machines guy, and sometimes a curse word slips out. He has spent nearly 40 years in baseball, and his mouth – more Pigpen than Charlie Brown – has never been a problem. Now that he's in the big office, on TV all the time, in the newspapers, decorum matters, and, like his players, he's using spring training to get ready for the real grind.
"I'm trying," he said.
Washington, 57, does a lot of trying these days. He's trying to rehabilitate a clubhouse wounded by four years of former manager Buck Showalter's meddling. He's trying to prove the game's youngest general manager, Jon Daniels, made the right hire in selecting someone with no managerial experience above Class A. He's trying to take advantage of an opportunity rarely presented to black men, with him and the New York Mets' Willie Randolph the only managers in a game that increasingly features less African-Americans.
The first part, at very least, is working. Less than two weeks into camp, the Rangers are free and loose, their trust in their manager strengthening. Washington won the job by winning over Daniels and Rangers owner Tom Hicks over burgers at Hicks' mansion. Soon thereafter, he got in touch with the Rangers' two best players, shortstop Michael Young and first baseman Mark Teixeira, and asked for their support in rescuing the team's morale.
"It took me about 5 minutes," Young said. "That's when I knew this would be the guy who could push this team over the top. We're going to focus on fundamentals, work extremely hard, have fun, have each others' backs and win. Those five things are going to take us far.
"Him being here makes you eager. I've never been more excited to start a season than I am this year."
Such faith from his players came on Washington's resume. He had spent 11 years with the Oakland Athletics, most of them as third-base coach and all as an infield adviser. Third baseman Eric Chavez so appreciated Washington he gave him one of his five Gold Gloves.
Washington was preternaturally upbeat, his lips always moving, his lean frame full of kinetic energy. He bellowed pet phrases – "Pickin' machine!" is a favorite – after a particularly good play and patted them on the back following bad ones. Never lacking for personalities, the A's realize they are one short this year.
"We're all going to miss him, but we're happy for him, too," Oakland shortstop Bobby Crosby said. "We all knew he wanted a manager's job. He set a foundation here."
Washington's came from the Royals Baseball Academy, the before-its-time creation of Kansas City owner Ewing Kauffman. The Royals sought out players with natural talent – great speed, eyesight and reflexes – and taught them fundamentals. They lived in dorms, had meals provided and weren't paid much.
Almost all of Washington's money went back home. His mother, Fannie, had taught the Washington children that money earned comes home. They grew up three or four in a room, tight-knit by proximity, and obeyed their mother, even if they wanted to keep the money for themselves.
By the time Washington made the major leagues in 1977, he had been traded from Kansas City to the Los Angeles Dodgers and was out of his parents' purview. He was 25, more than seven years removed from signing with the Royals Baseball Academy, and thought he'd finally made it.
The next season, Washington blew out a knee. It was devastating for a player whose speed and versatility were his greatest assets. Two years later, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins. Washington fought for a job every year. He played 14 seasons of winter ball in Mexico and Venezuela to make up for the at-bats he didn't get in the big leauges.
Following the 1986 season, Minnesota manager Tom Kelly summoned Washington, then in his mid-30s, for a meeting and didn't quite know what to say.
"Before Tom Kelly could finish," Washington said, "(Twins president) Andy MacPhail told me I was cut. I just took a penny out and said, 'I'm like this old penny. I'm going to show up somewhere.' "
He bounced around, playing his final three seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros, coaching with the Mets and moving over to Oakland before the Rangers hired him in November. And here he is now, still the same penny, only shined up real good, looking like it came off the mint yesterday.
"I haven't reached the pinnacle of it yet," Washington said. "If we can take the Texas Rangers to a division title, which they haven't done for a long time, ask me that question then. I've done everything as a player that I could do – that I could do. I've done everything as a coach that I could do. But I haven't done anything as a manager."
On a shelf in Washington's office is a set of dominoes wrapped in cellophane. He used to play all the time with Oakland, him and former A's hitting coach Gerald Perry against outfielders Bobby Kielty and Mark Kotsay. Kielty, who calls himself "The Dominologist," likes to say he and Kotsay won the season series because they are better. Washington chooses the more philosophical explanation.
"It all depends on the bones you get," Washington said. "If I get the bones, I can work it."
Washington likes applying life lessons to baseball. Think positively and you're more likely to succeed. Support and encouragement works better than berating and belittling. Give him the bones – the players, the staff, the respect and, yes, a little bit of the luck – and he'll work it.
Every morning Washington comes into the office and takes 10 minutes to straighten out his desk. This job begs order. By the end of the day, of course, it's a mess. He's got to read everything. The notes from the commissioner's office on minutiae. The clips that tell him what people think of him and what he said, so he knows to keep his positions consistent. The scouting reports.
Whatever the duty entails.
"When my daddy got home, we had a ritual," Washington said. "He'd get in his lounge chair – you know, back in those days, I'm quite sure, daddies had soft lounge chairs that they just drop in and melt into – and me and my brothers had days where we'd have to take his shoes off and get his slippers.
"To be honest, we couldn't wait for daddy to get home to do that. He had those steel-toed boots. And I took pride in that. It was my job."
Washington looked around the room. Robert died in 1984. Fannie has Alzheimer's. He wishes they could see him, even if his office is bare, a canvas awaiting its masterpiece.
Every day, a few paces from his door, stand about 50 players, each hoping to make the Rangers' opening day roster. Washington knows what it feels like to be one of them, and he knows it's on him, as much as anyone, to get that roster right, to get those bones, and when all of that weighs on him, that and the knowledge that some managers get only one chance to prove themselves, he doesn't worry, no sir, no (expletive) way.
He's known how to handle 50 of something for a long, long time.
- Ron Washington
- Ronald Washington