Surprise report, v.5.

I swear this is the truth.

I printed an old newspaper article about Miguel Velazquez last week, preparing to write his story while here.  I’d seen him at Instructs in September but not at full strength.  He’s not only among the most promising position player prospects in the system, he’s also among the organization’s most fascinating stories.

I realized Tuesday night that my week was nearing its end and I still hadn’t seen much of Velazquez (number three on my “32 Things”) in action.  He was top priority Wednesday morning.

I tracked number 98 down as he stepped in as one of righty Tim Steggall’s live BP foes.  Velazquez saw six pitches, and let four go by.  I had my super-corny hook: This would be a story about a player with enough restraint, enough discretion — now — to be different from the kid sentenced to three years’ probation in Puerto Rico for an incident in which his brother shot a man who’d tried to kill their sister, to let borderline pitches go by during a brief batting practice session that wasn’t going to last long.

Then the day changed.

The story was no longer about a 22-year-old kid in the process of overcoming a kind of adversity few in this game are faced with, of proving to the organization that he’s worth believing in, of putting his past in the past and moving forward with the desire to be something better, to eliminate doubts, to win in this game.

Wednesday would instead be about a man nearly three times older, facing those exact challenges.

Note to the nearly 100 new subscribers in the last 24 hours: If you want details on Ron Washington’s transgression, a failed MLB drug test that turned up positive for cocaine, evidently between June 8 (when his contract was extended through 2010) and July 14 (when the All-Star Game was played) (likely during the West Coast road trip the final week before the Break, based on one local column last night), I’m not your guy.  Just about every beat writer in town was at the press conference at which Washington delivered an emotional, contrite statement and took questions until there weren’t any more, as were at least three or four national baseball reporters.  You can get the facts, the timeline, and the baseball implications from them.

Also in the room, filling each of the 50 or 70 chairs that weren’t occupied by the dozen or so writers, and lining the back and side walls of the room, were just about every one of Washington’s players and plenty others who are auditioning to be.  His coaching staff.  A number from the baseball operations department.  Washington’s wife, Gerry.  Nolan Ryan.  And Jon Daniels.

It was an impressive show of support by the players in particular, all in street clothes and all there by choice, not asked by Washington or the front office or anyone else to attend.  They’d just learned the news moments earlier in the clubhouse, as the 57-year-old man addressed his club privately.  They didn’t need to be at the press briefing a few hundred yards away, having already heard from their manager everything they’d hear at the presser (if not more).  A 40-man roster showed up to support him.

According to one local report, Michael Young spoke up during the emotional team meeting, after Washington had apologized and before another handful of teammates got up and spoke, saying: “I’ve got his back.  Anybody who doesn’t feel that way isn’t a Texas Ranger.”

Washington reportedly avoided league suspension by virtue of the fact that he went to MLB and confessed before his positive test results.  He avoided dismissal as Rangers manager because, as he explained it, Ryan and Daniels declined his offer to resign.  Not without considering it, they admitted.  

“Just because someone in your family makes a mistake,” Ryan said, “doesn’t mean you stop loving them.”

Daniels added that when Washington came to him and Ryan with the admission, they were shocked, angry, disappointed — like he expects Rangers fans might react to Wednesday’s news — but then they decided to work through things with him.  “We still believe in him,” Daniels and Ryan each repeated several times to reporters.  The man known as a coach who believes in and fights for the underdog is now more of one himself.  

Man, I don’t know what to think about all of this.  It’s a setback for the man and the organization, a potential distraction for the ballclub.  Can it serve as a rallying point for the players?  Yeah, I guess, maybe, but this is a club of guys who didn’t need another rallying point.

Even if, taken at face value, yesterday’s news doesn’t impact Washington’s immediate standing with the franchise, does it affect his future?  How could it not?  He said he hoped the Rangers will continue to allow him to lead the club.  Ryan and Daniels have given him that opportunity by refusing last season to accept his offer to step down.  But going forward?  It’s not the reason his contract doesn’t extend beyond 2010, but it’s a reason, says team management.  How his team deals with this development won’t determine his fate in and of itself, but it’s a factor.  

This much I expect: There will be some in the media who will try and drive a wedge internally, suggesting Washington has lost his players and the ability to lead.  Get ready for it.  It’s already afoot.  

I thought T.R. Sullivan nailed this: “In this business, it’s not whether you are right or wrong but it’s how loudly you scream that counts.  Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter set the standard on that score and all others have blindly followed. . . . Righteous indignation and a call for draconian measures [are] the obvious card to play in such matters.”  

Guess I’m guilty myself of bringing a writer’s name into the discussion (aggravating the offense: I recommend reading Sullivan’s entire piece — http://trsullivan.mlblogs.com/archives/2010/03/of_ron_washington_rush_limbaug.html) — but rest assured there will be plenty who will see to it themselves that their names are part of the talk show prattle and water cooler talk.

(Stated another way, by Evan Grant: “[T]ypical of today’s media, the minute the story broke, we acted to try and make the story more juicy than it was.  In the first 12 hours after the story broke, columnists were jumping all over one another to make the most provocative claim about the incident.  Work in a charge of blackmail or hint at potential racism, and you are likely to draw more attention.”)

Even if there’s no truth to a wedge in the clubhouse or an extortion attempt or some other fraction of what’s written, stories will beget stories and will grow into become something bigger on the first trip into every city this season, and will drive local blog posts and radio segments as soon as the team has lost four of five, especially if that happens before the Cowboys report to camp.

And don’t get me wrong: The media is not to blame for any of this.  Washington is responsible for his incredible mistake and for creating a public relations mess and a point of embarrassment and humiliation, and it’s hard to imagine that gets erased from the ledger as long as his fitness to continue at the helm of the team is evaluated, now, the next time the team finds itself in an extended skid, next winter.  The men who preserved his job say they still believe in him, and I don’t doubt that, but his bad decision, however out of character, has to have endangered that trust, even if it’s intact at the moment.

Ron Washington has always been an advocate of the second chance, managing for an organization that believes in extending them — Josh Hamilton, Danny Gutierrez, Khalil Greene, Miguel Velazquez (whose story will have to wait for another day) — and he now he gets one himself.  

There’s honor in that, and a chance at some level of redemption, I suppose, but this is a franchise that feels it’s on the brink of something great, that’s heading toward a new ownership group (one that includes Ryan) intent on strengthening the club’s image, that had just about everything that really matters pointing in the right direction.  

Though I thought things were handled by Washington and the organization as well as could possibly be expected, Wednesday was a disappointing day, and in an unforeseen way, it may be critical for Washington’s club to get off to a strong start to the season to sustain the stability that the franchise has worked so hard to establish.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

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