Mike Rizzo, the man who built the Washington Nationals

September 29, 2012

Mike Rizzo’s view hasn’t changed. He does not watch the Washington Nationals from a suite high above the field. He sits next to the dugout or a few rows behind it, where he gauges the players’ reactions and hears what they say. He can see the movement of the pitches and how a fielder’s feet flutter. His players can see he is there with them, behind them, for them. He watches the game up close. The scout seats are still best. ¶ During his lifelong immersion in baseball, Rizzo held two dreams. The first ended at a kitchen table in a Chicago bungalow, where his baseball scout father gave it to him straight, the way Rizzos do: He would not be a big league ballplayer. The second began during the years he traversed the vast expanses of the Upper Midwest alone, looking at prospects. ¶ “Twelve years of driving the highways as an area scout,” Rizzo said earlier this month. “Not many GMs have done that. I know that for a fact.” ¶ The man who built the Nationals wasn’t born with some innate gift for judging baseball talent; he has no secret formula. Everything Rizzo knows — everything that helped him build the Nationals from hapless doormat to World Series contender — he learned on those highway odysseys, staring at the spot where the road met the dull, gray horizon. ¶ In the spring of 2009, Rizzo took over as interim general manager of a team that went on to win 59 games that season, fewest in the major leagues. After Saturday night’s victory, the Nationals have won 96, the most in the big leagues. 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. ¶ “You’re either a baseball man or not,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “To me, Pat Gillick is a Hall of Fame GM. I think Rizzo can be that good, if not better. He has all the same attributes.”

Rizzo built Washington’s first playoff team in 79 years with the methods ingrained over all 51 years of his life: hard work, acquired wisdom, fierce loyalty. In the modern game, the rise of advanced metrics and MBA-laden front offices came to dominate how teams constructed their rosters. Rizzo will not watch the movie “Moneyball” because he believes it disrespects scouts.

The Nationals employ a staff devoted to statistical analysis, but Rizzo prefers information from the scouts he handpicked — men he trusts, men who work like he does. He embraces analytics, but he feels they have become so widespread that they can offer only a marginal edge. The advantage, he believes, lies in people.

“We go with the eye,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know if you weigh it 65-35 or 70-30, but we’ll lean toward the human element.”

Driven and focused

Rizzo grew up on sports in a lower-middle class Chicago neighborhood, where he and his three siblings scrapped with kids from other neighborhoods and protected each other.

“It was a neighborhood where you either stood up for yourself or you got run over,” Mike said.

They played baseball on the corner of Waveland and Mobile, sewer covers as bases. When the ball got stuck in a gutter, Rizzo shimmied up to retrieve it, his left foot on one bungalow and his right foot on another.

To make ends meet after his minor league career ended, his father, Phil, drove a truck for the city while he scouted baseball on the side. He worked his way up to foreman, but the players he picked kept making the majors so the California Angels kept giving him more work. He turned into a full-time scout.

Phil sensed Mike, the second-youngest of three sons and a daughter, loved baseball most. He would sprint 90 feet down an alley, Phil timing him with a stopwatch. Every Saturday, Rizzo fielded 250 groundballs, and his little brother, Bernie, caught his throws at first base until his hand was red and bleeding.

One Saturday, Rizzo fired a ball high, over Bernie’s head. The ball bounced off a pole, smacked Bernie in the forehead, knocking him out. Rizzo and his father splashed cold water on Bernie to revive him. “Come on,” Mike told him. “We got 150 more balls to go.”

“He’s not very complex,” says Greg Mayor, Rizzo’s best friend from Chicago. “He’s driven and he’s focused. This one-dimension he’s on, he’s going to outwork everybody.”

In 1982, the Angles drafted him in the 22nd round. “He was a baseball rat,” said Bill Bavasi, then the Angels’ farm director. “He knew how to play the game.”

The Angels sent him to their Class A affiliate in Salem, Ore., where Rizzo met a tall infielder named Kris Kline. They shared an apartment and they stayed up late, talking baseball, evaluating their teammates and drinking cold beer. They woke up in time to watch Harry Caray’s pregame show and the Chicago Cubs.

“Greatest years of my life,” Rizzo says. “Every day you get to play baseball, then stay up late, sleep in late, get up and do it again. The camaraderie of the guys and the friends that you make. Those minor league dog days, they weren’t dog days to me.”

In 1983, a center fielder named Devon White joined Rizzo and Kline’s Class A team in Peoria, Ill. They saw him as athletic but raw. One night late in the season, White chased down a flyball in the gap, and Rizzo, whose baseball knowledge grew with every play he witnessed, experienced an epiphany: “He’s better than the rest of us.”

White would pass through Peoria like a comet, on his way to 17 years in the majors and seven Gold Gloves. Rizzo’s path to the sport’s highest level took a slower lane.

A tough conversation

In the winter of 1984, Bavasi called to inform Rizzo the Angels were releasing him. Rizzo screamed into the phone. He planned to keep playing and make the major leagues, until the night his father called him into the kitchen in the bungalow where he grew up. As a scout, Phil gave himself one rule: Never lie to a kid.

“Mike, let me tell you something,” Phil Rizzo told his son, while Mike’s mother stood at the stove cooking. “You can play in the minor leagues until you become a baseball bum. Mike, you’re a smart kid. Your mother wanted you to go to school and finish.”

Mike believed in his father’s judgment. Through a family friend, he landed a graduate assistant coaching job at the University of Illinois. He instructed kids barely as old as him, and he received an education.

By the time Rizzo finished his year at Illinois, Larry Himes, the scouting director who drafted him with the Angels, had become the White Sox general manager. Himes remembered Rizzo’s feel for the sport and his work ethic, and he hired him as an area scout in the Upper Midwest.

“When I was a beginning scout, I was with the all the old-time scouts,” Rizzo said. “Your ears are open, your mouth is shut. You make sure you beat them to the ballpark, and you make sure you stay later at the ballpark.”

He started his scouting trips by packing the car for a month. Cellphones did not exist in 1986, so he brought enough quarters to make a thousand phone calls from a thousand pay phones off a thousand desolate highway exits. He called coaches to make sure the weather would hold. He drove 500 miles to scout a baseball game, and then drove 200 more miles, freezing cold and alone, so he could hunt down more prospects the next day. He made carbon copies of his reports: one for the office, one for the scouting director, one for himself. The job tempted him to say, “the hell with it” and take one night off, one night of HBO and sleep in a motel room. He let the other guy do that.

His life in baseball — playing, coaching, scouting, thinking, talking — melded into a singular database. He noticed how a player swung or moved his feet to field a groundball or ran the bases. He remembered what those players became. The accumulation of his experiences, the quality commonly called wisdom, shaped his judgments.

“I like to call it knowledge more so than gut,” Rizzo said. “Gut implies that I’m taking a chance: ‘I’ve got a feeling here; I’m taking a chance.’ I think, when you evaluate, you’re not taking a chance. I feel better when I see it than when I read it.”

His transition from scout to executive began in 1998, when the Arizona Diamondbacks hired him as their scouting director. He wore a tie to work, gave input on free agent signings and trades and negotiated major draft contracts.

“This is not going to a 40th-round pick’s house and giving him $1,000 and a plane ticket,” said Joe Garagiola, then the Arizona general manager. “This is going to Newport Beach and sitting in Scott Boras’s conference room and all that entails.”

As the Diamondbacks’ farm system became one of the league’s best, Rizzo started to believe himself ready to become a GM. When the Diamondbacks chose Josh Byrnes to replace Garagiola, Rizzo searched for a new team. He saw an opportunity with the Nationals, and he became Jim Bowden’s top assistant in 2006.

Rizzo has been in Washington for six years, four as the general manager. He was the first new hire after the Lerner family bought the team, and now they are the only people he answers to.

“Anyone who thinks that earning Ted Lerner’s trust is easy is on another planet,” said Nationals Special Assistant Harolyn Cardozo, one of Rizzo’s closest confidants in the organization. “But he sees the faith that Mike has in his own judgment. It really is contagious. Mike’s also been proven right. They still debate. I think that Mr. Lerner trusts Mike because Mike trusts himself.”

‘Nothing handed to me’

Success has done little to smooth Rizzo’s Chicago edge. “I don’t care how many tuxedos Mike wears to work,” said former Nationals team president Stan Kasten. “You’re never going to confuse him with an upper-crust guy.”

Rizzo surrounds himself with men whose judgment he trusts — Kline, Bill Singer, Kasey McKeon, Roy Clark, so many more — and then defends everyone within his circle.

“He treats that family like he would treat us,” his brother Bernie said. “He always had my back.”

Major League Baseball has levied a fine to only one current general manager. Rizzo has been fined twice: last season for screaming at umpires in defense of catcher Ivan Rodriguez and this season for calling Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels “fake tough” after Hamels admitted to purposely hitting 19-year-old rookie Bryce Harper with a pitch.

“I’ve been called a bull in a china shop by an executive or two,” Rizzo said. “I wear that like a badge of honor.”

Shortly after Rizzo became the Nationals’ general manager, he and Kasten put together contracts for their employees. Rizzo found one of the salaries insulting; Kasten insisted he would accept. They argued. Rizzo leaned close, his nose inches from Kasten’s.

“You better take care of your people,” Rizzo screamed. “Or you won’t have any people.”

When Rizzo became the Diamondbacks’ scouting director, he hired Kline, his old minor league teammate. When he moved to the Nationals, Rizzo was allowed to bring two people with him, and one of them was Kline, who is now the Nationals’ scouting director.

“He would do anything for you,” Kline said. “Everything that he said that he would do as far as my baseball career has gone, he’s done it.”

When Rizzo thinks about his staff, he never forgets his days in the car, the time he spent alone. He thinks about the men on his staff doing what he once did, skipping anniversaries and their son’s first games. When younger scouts ask Rizzo for advice, he tells them, “You better like yourself in this game.”

“I’ve been lucky in this game, very, very fortunate,” Rizzo said. “But nothing was handed to me. I say it straight out: There was nothing handed to me.”

Last Sunday morning, Rizzo walked from the home dugout to shallow center field in Nationals Park. He stopped to sip coffee and peck on his cellphone. He heard the popping leather of pitchers playing catch behind him and smelled the fresh-cut grass. Maybe he thought about his dad, 83 years young and scouting for the team Mike runs. He walked back off the field and readied to watch the playoff team he assembled.

He later thought about that moment and said, “I’ve been in enough [dumpy] parks to appreciate this one.”

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