In 1984, after three years at Class A, Mike Rizzo sat at his kitchen table with his father. In Italian families, Rizzo said, all the big decisions are made at the kitchen table. Phil Rizzo was a baseball lifer, a Chicago scout. Mike Rizzo had just been released, but he wanted to keep playing. Phil told him not to. He wasn’t good enough. “It was,” Rizzo said,” a blow.” Phil Rizzo told his son to get an education. He could work as a scout, or in the front office or, maybe, one day, he could even be a general manager.
Almost 30 years ago, Rizzo would never have envisioned telling that story like he did yesterday. Rizzo, now in his fourth year as general manager of the Nationals, gave a speech and answered questions at a National Press Club luncheon, a captivating hour that Rizzo turned into an ode to scouting, an appeal for fans to come to Nationals Park and a synopsis of his philosophies. He told stories, revealed his biggest regret as a GM and explained why he is boycotting the movie Moneyball.
Throughout the discussion, Rizzo oozed both appreciation for how far he has come and confidence in the job he has done. He called becoming the Nationals’ general manager “the best that ever happened to me.” Later, he called the Nationals “the talk of baseball” on multiple occasions.
“We want to win for our fan base,” Rizzo said. “For too many years, we had to play the likes of the Phillies, the Mets, the Braves and the Marlins undermanned and outgunned. It’s like going to a gunfight with a knife. Not anymore. We’re fully armed, extremely dangerous, and we’re the talk of baseball. We’re young, athletic and fast-moving. If I were a baseball fan in Washington, D.C., I wouldn’t miss a minute of what’s going on this year. It’s going to be the place to be and the ticket to have.”
Later, Rizzo added, “Get your tickets now. You don’t want to be at the station when the train has already left.”
Rizzo began by detailing his rise in the baseball industry. While with the White Sox, he signed Frank Thomas (“my favorite player”) out of Auburn, when the future Hall of Famer played tight end on the football team. He signed Nomar Garciaparra out of Georgia Tech with the Red Sox. Both players fit into his core beliefs in how to build teams: power arms, athletes up the middle, boppers on the corners.
Having cut his teeth as a scout, Rizzo ascribed the Nationals’ success, going from the worst team in baseball to a contender, to scouting. The “watershed moment” for the Nationals, he said, came after the 2009 season, when the Lerner family gave Rizzo permission to overhaul baseball operations and Rizzo hired 17 scouts and executives, including director of player development Doug Harris and vice president Roy Clark. Rizzo said it was the most important thing that ever happened to the Nationals.
He singled out his favorite recent successes in the draft, trading and free agent signing. Rizzo held up Jordan Zimmermann as an exemplary draft pick. Steve Arnieri, the Nationals’ Midwest scout, discovered Zimmermann – “a kid from a town of 700 who couldn’t get a scholarship at the University of Wisconsin,” Rizzo said – at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and convinced Rizzo to draft him in the second round. Zimmermann has blossomed into one of the best young right-handers in the game. “One of our scouts did their job,” Rizzo said.
At the 2010 trade deadline, Rizzo sat with all of his scouts in the Nationals’ “war room” when “perfect storm” surfaced, he said. Their scouts loved Wilson Ramos, a Class AAA catcher for the Twins. The Twins were in contention. They had recently lost closer Joe Nathan to surgery. They had signed catcher Joe Mauer to a long-term extension and did not envision needing Ramos. The Nationals sent Matt Capps to Minnesota for Ramos.
“We found the team we could expedite one of their top prospects for a player that wasn’t going to fit with us long term,” Rizzo said. “Our closer for the rest of the season gave us our backstop for the next 10.”
Rizzo also gave his staff credit for the trade that brought Michael Morse from the Mariners for light-hitting outfielder Ryan Langerhans. “Without scouts,” he said, “there would be no Beast Mode.”
Rizzo said “the most intriguing” free agent signing he made this winter was reliever Brad Lidge, because of what he represented. Lidge had the chance to sign with several teams, but he pursued the Nationals. “That tells a lot about where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” Rizzo said.
While detailing the “next wave” of Nationals prospects, Rizzo mentioned two by name: Alex Meyer and Matt Purke. Meyer, a 6-foot-10 flamethrower from Kentucky, “looks like he’s 11 feet tall on the mound,” Rizzo said. “He’ll be here soon.”
When the question-and-answer session began, the first three questions were about Bryce Harper. One attendee asked Rizzo, “Why do you think your method for building a team will be better than [Jim] Bowden’s?” Rizzo nearly spit out the water in his mouth as he stepped to the dais.
Rizzo said he likes the team the Nationals have right now, even with all their injuries – “a long list and a painful list,” he said – and is not itching to add to it.
“Sometimes if you tinker with chemistry and you tinker with success, you end up retarding progress instead of moving forward,” Rizzo said. “That being said, I guarantee there are scouts at games right now looking for ways to improve our ball club.”
Maybe the most compelling question came when Rizzo was asked for his worst trade as Nationals GM. If he had one to do over, he said, it would be closer Joel Hanrahan, whom he traded to the Pirates along with Lastings Milledge for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett. “He was a guy we probably gave up on too soon,” Rizzo said. At the time, Hanrahan was out of minor league options and “was struggling mightily,” Rizzo said.
“At least we got a really good mainstay for our bullpen,” Rizzo said, referring to Burnett.
Asked for the most difficult of being a GM, Rizzo said, “the totality of the job is the toughest part.” For example, he signed Capps on Christmas Day. But he wasn’t complaining. “This is the life I’ve got, and this is the life I love,” Rizzo said.
In another nod to his abiding respect for scouts and scouting, Rizzo said he would never watch the movie “Moneyball.”
“Yes, it’s true, I’m boycotting the movie,” Rizzo said. “Because I think it depicts baseball people as dummies that just sit in the room, spit tobacco, and say stupid things. So I did boycott the movie, because scouting is my life and it’s near and dear to me. And I don’t like it to be depicted in that regard.”
Rizzo has read the book, he said, and he has great respect for A’s General Manager Billy Beane.
Before last night’s Take Back The Park series began, Rizzo was asked about how to keep opposing fans out of Nationals Park. “Beat ’em,” he said. He went back to something former team president Stan Kasten said often.
“You will get the attendance you deserve,” Rizzo said. “We deserve a great attendance. We’re playing the hell out of baseball.”
Rizzo praised the fans the Nationals have been getting. “They know when to cheer,” Rizzo said. “It’s a very smart baseball crowd.”
Finally, I would be remiss to leave out how Rizzo responded when asked about his dealings with the local beat writers: “An intelligent bunch that works extremely hard.”