Mike Rizzo stood in the middle of a mass of players in the Nationals clubhouse, a room covered completely in plastic sheets on Monday night. They dumped beer and champagne on him. He was left soaking wet, a feeling that wasn’t exactly comfortable when the players, team officials and owners migrated onto the field to continue the celebration in front of fans on the cool fall night. Rizzo smiled.
“They drenched me,” he said. “It was the most wonderful feeling that I’ve ever had.”
Rizzo, the architect of this NL East-clinching Nationals team, was moved. The excitement was evident in his face and his words. After spending years as a scout and moving up the ranks, he took over in the spring of 2009 as interim general manager of a Nationals team that won 59 games, and shepherded the team to a new height: the sport’s best record and now a division title. Few general managers would have been in the thick of Monday’s celebrations enjoying their work like that.
“It feels great,” Rizzo said, standing on the field, the commotion around him utter joy. “It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of people. The scouts on the road, the player development guys who don’t see their families for months at a time and our front office that works 18 hours a day. This is a team effort. This is all about the fans, the team and the guys who put in all the time. So we’re proud as we can be.”
Of the 25 players on the Nationals’ projected playoff roster, Rizzo signed, drafted or traded for 20 of them since arriving as assistant general manager in 2006. He made shrewd moves this offseason, hoping to compete instantly. The success arrived quickly, sooner than some expected.
Rizzo said that the watershed moment for the franchise’s turnaround was when then-team president Stan Kasten sent him to the Dominican Republic to fix the team’s operations there following a scandal that claimed the job of then-general manager Jim Bowden. After years of changes and losing, the Nationals had finally achieved new success: their first division title and Washington’s first playoff appearance since 1933.
“We want to be tough to play,” Rizzo said. “We want people to say that Nationals are coming and we’ve got to prepare for them. … There’s a lot of good teams in the playoffs. But we’re battle tested in the National League East, which I believe is one of the, if not, the toughest divisions in baseball. We’re going to show up and be ready to play.”
Long after the game was over, fans lingered in the stands behind the Nationals dugout. They cheered, held up signs and reveled in the glory. They watched the players being interviewed by reporters and on the giant scoreboard in right field. As players walked down the dugout steps back toward the clubhouse, fans chanted players’ names one-by-one. Ryan Zimmerman stopped and roared, his fists thrust in the air. Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez, Steve Lombardozzi and more did the same.
Fans spotted the team’s general manager and chanted “Rizzo! Rizzo! Rizzo!” He stopped, turned to the crowd and bowed. A huge grin spread across his face. He walked toward another group of players, his work of helping assemble an NL East-winning team now complete. He was off to savor the victory again.
FROM THE POST
This NL East title may be the first of many, Thomas Boswell writes.
Decades of baseball futility are over for Washington baseball fans, writes Barry Svrluga.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Nats’ magic number to clinch the top seed: 2*
*The Nationals are tied with the Reds for the best record in the National League (96-64), but since the Nationals beat the Reds in the season series (5-2), they’d hold the top seed in the event of a tie.
Current NL matchups
Nationals vs. Braves/Cardinals*
Reds vs. Giants
*The Braves have clinched a wild-card berth and home-field advantage in the play-in game. The Cardinals lead the race for the second wild card by two games over the Dodgers, who can be eliminated with one more loss. Every other NL team has been eliminated.