The man who might become the Washington Nationals’ next manager spent his first day in professional baseball at a strip club in Canada.
All these years later, Randy Knorr still howls at the details of how he wandered into the Silver Buckle Inn in Medicine Hat, Alberta, a sleepless 17-year-old who couldn’t believe his good fortune. He has recounted them to his players time and again, maybe on an endless bus ride through some godforsaken town in the Carolina League.
“Great storyteller,” said Nationals left-hander Ross Detwiler, who played for Knorr at three minor league levels. “And he’s got some good stories, too.”
His latest story, Knorr, 43, can encapsulate with one word: “Finally,” he said one day this spring, peering over a diamond as the Nationals took batting practice. He joined the franchise in 2001, four years before the Montreal Expos relocated, and hasn’t left. He has been a backup catcher, minor league manager, bullpen coach and, now, Manager Davey Johnson’s bench coach.
What has not changed is the losing. Despite success as a manager in Class A Potomac, Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Syracuse, he has not been part of a winning major league season with Montreal-Washington.
“Even in the minor league system, we just weren’t very good,” Knorr said. “You look across the field coming up, these guys are bigger, stronger and more talented than we are. I came up [as bullpen coach] in 2006. I thought it was just a bunch of misfits.”
That, Knorr says, has changed. He has watched the overhaul of the player development staff, the money poured into scouting and the draft. Knorr has been with the franchise longer than anyone except two team employees at any level: Mike Wallace, the clubhouse manager, and Rob McDonald, vice president of team travel. He has been something like the Nationals’ Forrest Gump, in the background at each twist of the franchise’s fate.
During one of his final seasons as a catcher, the Expos declined to call him up from the minors in September because Major League Baseball, which owned the team, refused to purchase another contract. Days after the Nationals drafted Ryan Zimmerman, Knorr managed his first game at Class A Savannah. Knorr was in the dugout for Stephen Strasburg’s first minor league start in Harrisburg. He wrote Bryce Harper’s name into the lineup card for Harper’s first professional game in the Arizona Fall League.
Last fall, the Nationals summoned Knorr after his season in Syracuse ended to assist with coaching. He walked into Johnson’s office the first day and asked, “What do you want me to do while I’m here?”
“I want you to stay with me the whole time,” Johnson replied.
Knorr provided Johnson information about the Nationals’ call-ups. He was familiar with almost the whole roster, having managed, at some level, about a dozen players on the Nationals’ projected 25-man roster this year. He sponged knowledge from Johnson all month.
“I took a lot of [expletive] from my friends because I was on TV a lot,” Knorr said. “Something would come up, and he’d ask me about the players I managed. What can he do? What’d you do with him? It gave him different choices.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo added Knorr to the Nationals’ coaching staff this winter. Since Rizzo became general manager in 2009, he has built a staff, from the front office to the roving minor league coordinators, that crafted a specific outline for the way the Nationals operate. When jobs opened, Rizzo has preferred to fill from within, promoting organizational stability and identity.
Rizzo hired his bench coach knowing the candidate would be a potential successor to Johnson. When Johnson leaves the dugout, Knorr, third base coach Bo Porter and first base coach Trent Jewett would be the most likely candidates to replace him.
“To me, there’s only 30 managers in the world,” Knorr said. “A lot of things have got to go right for you to have it. It’s not an easy job at the big league level. I think I can do it.”
If Knorr got the chance, it would be the pinnacle of a rollicking career. He won a World Series ring with the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays. He spent the bulk of his playing career in Canada, and on the final day, in 2004 with Class AAA Edmonton, he became an honorary citizen. In a pregame ceremony, Knorr was presented with a stuffed squirrel, Canadian bacon and a 12-pack of LaBatt Blue.
And then, yeah, there’s his first day. It was the summer of 1986. Knorr hadn’t finished high school when the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him, a 17-year-old catcher, out of Baldwin Park, Calif. He attended his graduation party at Disneyland, stayed up all night and flew straight to Medicine Hat, the Rookie-level affiliate.
“I had never been out of the country,” Knorr said. “I show up at about 10 in the morning. They’re all waiting on me. I hadn’t even been to sleep. I walk in and they said, ‘Let’s go, we got to go out and hit.’ I said, ‘What?’ So I go out and hit. They told me, ‘Go back to the hotel, get some sleep. You’re in the lineup tonight.’ ”
The team had set up Knorr with a room at the Silver Buckle Inn. He lay down, desperate for rest, and heard loud music pumping from the floor below.
“I said, ‘I ain’t going to get any sleep,’ ” Knorr said. “I walk down to the front desk, I go, ‘Is there a place to get something to eat?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you can go in the lounge there.’ I walk in. You open the door, and there’s this naked lady swinging down the pole. I go, ‘What a country.’ I just grabbed me a sandwich and sat right there in front. Watched her dance a little bit.”
Knorr has grown up in the nearly three decades since, a man who could be in charge of his own dugout one day. Even as he creates new stories, he knows he will keep telling the old ones.