THE NEWBERG REPORT — NOVEMBER 7, 2006

I still remember my immediate reaction in 1995 when I heard that the Cowboys had signed Deion Sanders. It wasn’t that Prime Time’s arrival would result in a shutdown of the opponent’s go-to receiver or would give Dallas a weapon on punt returns. Though those things would sink in a minute later, the first thing that came to mind was less about what the Cowboys were adding than what we were taking away from the nemesis Forty-Niners.

That’s a big part of what I was feeling before yesterday’s press conference introducing Ron Washington as the Rangers’ new manager. What I knew about Washington’s reputation made me think that maybe the thing that distinguished his candidacy to replace Buck Showalter from Don Wakamatsu’s or Trey Hillman’s was that hiring Washington would effectively weaken a division rival.

I still like that aspect of the Washington hire a lot. But it’s no longer the key factor for me.

I’d heard from a number of people that my appreciation of Ron Washington would grow exponentially once I had the chance to be around him.

They were right.

Tom Hicks said before an unusually large crowd of reporters yesterday afternoon that on Sunday, a few hours into Washington’s second interview with the Rangers (and the first in which Hicks was involved), he pulled Jon Daniels aside and asked, “What am I missing? Why isn’t this our guy?” It was then that Daniels told Hicks for the first time that Washington was his number one recommendation. Hicks and Daniels spontaneously scrapped plans to meet the next day to make a decision, and instead walked back up to Washington right then and made him an offer.

What was supposed to be a 5:00 meeting on Monday between Hicks, Daniels, and Thad Levine instead turned out to be a much larger meeting, with reporters from every local outlet, representatives from every department of the Rangers organization, plus Mark Teixeira and Kevin Millwood and Rudy Jaramillo in attendance.

And as advertised, Washington blew everyone’s socks off.

Daniels said that his checklist when the process of finding the club’s next manager began a month ago started with five traits: winner, teacher, optimist, communicator, and hard worker. He went into the search very familiar with Wakamatsu and Hillman. He knew Washington only by reputation, but after his first interview on October 17, Daniels realized he had a candidate who embodied all five qualities.

When Daniels dispatched new Rangers senior director of baseball operations Don Welke to meet with Washington in New Orleans on October 26, Welke asked the question that had been on my mind: Would you prefer managing in Oakland or in Texas? “Offer me a job and you’ll see,” Washington replied.

Eleven days later, the Rangers did, and Washington accepted. It’s reportedly a two-year contract (which Daniels pointed out is how much longer his own deal lasts), with two additional option years.

In many ways, Washington couldn’t be more different from Showalter. One is a high-profile baseball manager who got his first team at age 35, the other a baseball grinder who gets his first head gig at age 54. One addressed the media with as much polish and finesse as you’ll ever see; the other is as refreshingly blunt and unvarnished as you could ever imagine. One batted and threw left, the other batted and threw right.

One had a number of catchphrases that made their way into most interviews, among the most common of which was a player’s “sincerity.” The other is simply as sincere as it gets. Washington’s reputation is that he will say whatever is on his mind, good or bad, with no artifice and no veneer. Was he supposed to say at yesterday’s press conference that he’d like to bring Art Howe in to be his bench coach, especially when Wakamatsu’s future with Texas remains unresolved? If you were there, you would agree that Howe’s name probably wasn’t supposed to be mentioned. But it was, and that’s just Ron Washington being Ron Washington.

Daniels called Washington authentic, a class act, one of the most contagious personalities he’d ever been around. I saw Washington interact with people for two hours yesterday, and came to the same inescapable conclusion. His character and enthusiasm are infectious.

Washington was almost apologetic in classifying himself as a “player’s manager,” a cliché label that nonetheless can’t be avoided when describing his coaching style. “We’ve all got to have each other’s backs, through thick and thin,” Washington said, and it was impossible not to believe he meant it, and lives it.

I came away from the gathering believing we will win with this man in charge. On the one hand, what do I know? But on the other, isn’t that sort of the point?

I wrote this on October 5:

“It just looked like the players weren’t enjoying playing for Showalter. There was a palpable disconnect.

“So what? Shouldn’t millionaire ballplayers be expected to **** it up? Of course.

“But at the same time, if the idea is to give the players the best possible environment to win, it seems that having a manager that they want to play for (whether they ‘like’ him or not is not really the question) should be important. Right?

“I have no doubt that every man wearing a Rangers uniform gave it everything he had every night, but I believe in the ‘extra gear’ that some coaches and managers and bosses can get out of their people. I began questioning this season whether Showalter was bringing that out in the team.”

Whether I believe Texas will win under Washington doesn’t matter. Whether the players believe they will is vitally important. It’s been an unmistakable hallmark of the A’s teams of the last 11 years, during which there have been ace pitchers and closers and run producers and managers who have come and gone, but two constants: (1) a relentless, confident looseness among the players, and (2) Ron Washington. The two aren’t unrelated. A baseball team on which Washington has a say is a family, says the Rangers’ new skipper, from the top to the bottom. A group of men who not only have a common goal, but who work toward it as one.

Washington said his approach is simple: come in with a good attitude and a commitment, take care of the fundamentals, be prepared, and let the talent do the rest. He believes in players, and he instills in players a belief in themselves. “I’m good at communicating with players because I was one,” Washington said. “I’ll always be a player at heart.”

As refreshingly authentic and unpretentious as Washington is, don’t mistake it for a lack of self-confidence. He noted that the last thing he said during his first interview with Texas — which he said got off to a great start because of the class Daniels showed by personally picking him up from the airport — was this: “You’ve really impressed me. And I **** sure know I’ve impressed you.”

Daniels said that he made countless calls around the league during the interview process to try and find someone who would give him pause about hiring Washington, someone who might point out a negative, even a small one, that Daniels ought to factor into the decision process. He never found that person, never heard a negative.

Does Washington’s arrival mean Texas now has a shot at Barry Zito? “Don’t know,” Washington said, adding with more honesty than you’d expect, “I haven’t really thought about that.” How about you, Mr. Daniels? “Free agents and trades aren’t something we’ve discussed yet. Until a couple hours ago, Ron was still in the green and gold.”

More Washington honesty, when asked how he plans to handle the Rangers’ pitching staff: “I don’t know much about handling pitchers, but I know I sure could hit them.” He admitted that he will lean heavily on Mark Connor, who is staying aboard as pitching coach (and on Jaramillo, who remains as hitting coach).

And he wants to lean heavily on Howe, who was hired by Philadelphia just three weeks ago as a third base coach and infield instructor. Clearly, Howe’s name wasn’t going to be part of yesterday’s press conference before Washington mentioned it, but Daniels confirmed that he’s received permission from the Phillies to talk to Howe and that the former A’s manager will be in town today for that purpose. Daniels intends to make a decision on Howe quickly.

It seems like an inevitability at this point. Howe, whose first coaching gig was on Bobby Valentine’s Rangers staff in 1985, managed Washington in his last big league season (1989 in Houston) and managed six Oakland clubs with Washington on his staff. He seems perfect for this job: a steady, veteran big league manager with no ego, and a history and trust level with Washington.

As for the rest of the staff, there’s less predictability. Connor and Jaramillo stay, and bullpen coach Dom Chiti evidently stays, but while Daniels said he’d like Wakamatsu to stay (if he doesn’t get the Oakland managerial post), the fact is that if Howe is hired as bench coach then Wakamatsu would be asked not only to work for a man who beat him out for the job he wanted, but apparently to do so in a role of less stature than the one he’s had here for four years.

With Washington’s background as an infield instructor (for that matter, Howe’s as well), third base coach Steve Smith could be one of the incumbents who’s susceptible to being replaced by a Washington import. First base coach Bobby Jones’s 2007 role is also hard to predict.

Will the profile of player that Daniels targets this winter shift because of Washington’s arrival? Will the team add more speed than it would have otherwise? Not necessarily. Washington said he’ll adapt his managing style to the type of personnel he has. But one thing is certain: Don’t expect him to start taking the bat out of his players’ hands . . . unless a guy is struggling, in which case he’ll absolutely look to “create” offense in order to help get the player out of his rut.

The two keys to winning, in Washington’s estimation, are pitching well and catching the ball, and those are two areas he’s committed to improving (though he’s very comfortable with the bullpen and with Millwood as the anchor of the rotation). He did note that the club “may start infusing young talent and let them grow,” which sounds like a bit of a campaign for DH Jason Botts, and possibly center fielder Freddy Guzman, who Mike Hindman points out is leading the Dominican Winter League in stolen bases (and hitting .289/.360/.356).

But Botts’s name and Guzman’s name aren’t the ones you’ll see discussed the most this off-season in terms of which current Rangers stand to benefit most from Washington’s arrival. That player will be Hank Blalock, and it won’t be close. A number of factors are in play, not the least of which is the sense that Eric Chavez, the sweet-swinging, left-handed-hitting third baseman drafted out of a Southern California high school, is the Athletic most closely identified with Washington’s ability to make young players better, not to mention Washington’s most vocal proponent among the A’s. An effort to get Blalock to the next level — to unlock him, some will say — will be a common bullet point in the papers and on the talk shows this winter.

Until now, Blalock’s name has been the one pinpointed in most articles discussing what veterans the Rangers might have to trade in order to get the pitching they need, fed in part by the fact that he was on the verge of being dealt a year ago to Florida in a package for Josh Beckett. But I bet you a theme begins to develop in the papers that, even if Blalock is a player whose name pops up in trade discussions more frequently than anyone else’s, the truth is that he might have more value to Texas as a Ron Washington mission than he does as a trade chip.

Should it be a concern that Washington wasn’t hired by Oakland once Ken Macha was fired (as some players were lobbying for when Macha was temporarily let go a year ago)? Maybe the real story there is that Washington has too much personality — or too much popularity with the players — for a Billy Beane club.

Other bits and pieces:

Washington played at Manatee Junior College, just like Rangers outfield farmhand Larry Grayson, who was drafted by Oakland in 2000 before enrolling at Manatee.

Smith managed Washington in 1990, his final year as a player, with AAA Oklahoma City. That club boasted a roster that not only included Juan Gonzalez and Dean Palmer but, fascinatingly, featured Rangers managerial candidate John Russell and future big league pitching coaches Brad Arnsberg, Randy St. Claire, and Wayne Rosenthal.

Washington was a teammate of Johnny Oates with the 1977 Dodgers.

Washington and Beane both played for the 1986 Twins.

On the 1988 Cleveland squad were Washington, Julio Franco, and Brook Jacoby.

On May 28, 1988, Washington busted up the no-hit bid of Brewers righthander (and former Ranger) Odell Jones with a one-out, pinch-hit single in the ninth.

After retiring as a player following the 1990 season with the 89ers, Washington coached in the New York Mets organization for five years (managing Low A Columbia to a 64-77 record in 1993 and a 59-76 mark in 1994). He then joined Oakland’s staff in 1996, serving as first base coach for one year and then infield and third base coach for the next 10. He’s been credited for the dramatic defensive improvement made by several A’s infielders, including six-time Gold Glove winner Chavez, who gave Washington his 2004 trophy, with the inscription: “Wash, not without you.”

That trophy and most of Washington’s baseball memorabilia are gone, as his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Washington will appear at ******* in the West End tomorrow night and at Academy Sports at Forest and Central on Thursday night. You have to go. You’ve got to be around this guy.

Eric Nadel’s pregame manager’s show, always a can’t-miss, will be pure gold with Washington around.

And you know what? The three hours every night that follow the pregame show could be pretty cool, too. Washington said more than once yesterday that he’s only going to be considered a success if his players get the job done. The important point underlying that statement is that he was brought aboard because the Rangers think he’s best equipped to enhance the players’ chances of doing just that. He’s old-school, he’s genuine, he’s energetic.

But maybe most importantly, he’s unabashedly confident, and if his style of management helps his players take on some of that same confidence, then ultimately it may be more than just a throwaway expression to suggest that Oakland’s loss will have been, most assuredly, the Rangers’ gain.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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