Rizzo 'Simple' and Solid for Nats
Last week, as the Stephen Strasburg negotiations were reaching a peak, agent Scott Boras interrupted a long tirade about how dysfunctional the Nationals were. Suddenly, he wanted to identify one person out of the entire organization to praise.
Mike Rizzo knows his stuff, said Boras, or close enough to that. The Nats, however, probably wouldn't hire him as their general manager because he wasn't slick enough, articulate enough in TV interviews. Rizzo was too blunt, too honest and not afraid to tell you just what he thought, including what you didn't want to hear.
The Nats would hire some young gun who had never played the pro game, but had an Ivy League degree and could quote stats. As for Rizzo, who'd beaten the bushes for 11 years as an area scout and put 26 years into every corner of the game until he had a gut for evaluating talent, the Nats would bypass him for sure. But, someday, some team a lot smarter than the Nats would pick Rizzo to run their ship.
Just a few days later, on Monday night, Boras and Rizzo -- two failed minor leaguers with set jaws and tight lips, two men who never let anybody outwork them, two sawed-off guys who look like it costs them $20 to crack a grin and they're flat broke -- started screaming curses at each other, calling each other every baseball-brawl epithet.
Good, good, the negotiating was finally getting down to business. With 77 seconds left before the deadline, Rizzo closed a deal with Boras for a $15.1 million deal that was almost 50 percent higher than any given before to an amateur player. But was at least $5 million less than Boras hoped he'd get.
The deal showed all the best of Rizzo, who was officially named the Nats' general manager -- no more "interim" -- on Thursday. Through endless back channels, cross-checking and player evaluations, Rizzo had figured out Boras's hole card. Strasburg wanted to sign by midnight and follow his dream to play baseball, not fight over money. So, every Boras demand, beyond a reasonable Nats offer, would be a bluff.
Did Boras know that Rizzo knew? Is that what he really means by "knows his stuff"?
Minutes after Strasburg signed, Rizzo said, quietly: "The key was that we believed that the player wanted to play. We evaluated that correctly."
The Nats' official version is that Rizzo had the GM job locked up irrespective of how the Strasburg negotiations ended. Really? There sure was a lot of gratitude on Thursday. "Let's just say Mike bailed me out on Monday," President Stan Kasten said.
So now Rizzo, who replaced disgraced former GM Jim Bowden on March 1 and took over a franchise in every kind of turmoil, is one of the hotter properties in baseball. Rebuild a shattered bullpen so it's passable? Check. Fire Manny Acta (26-61) as manager and hire Jim Riggleman (17-17), who grew up in Rockville? All done. Steal center fielder Nyjer Morgan (hitting .362 with 22 steals in 44 games with the Nats) and reliever Sean Burnett in a trade for Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan? Done. Trade Nick Johnson and Joe Beimel for prospects, opening up first base for Adam Dunn, who may soon play it better than he ever did left field? That too. Pick Drew Storen from Stanford, who's tearing up the minors, with the 10th overall choice in the draft? Nice going.
There's probably more, like the rebuilding of the Nats' Dominican operation. But that certainly seems like it ought to be enough to get "interim" off your name.
At one level, Rizzo is easy to grasp. He considers "simple" a compliment. "My father is a simple man," he says of his 79-year-old dad who was a truck-driving foreman in Chicago and part-time scout, then in retirement a full-time scout. His 102-year-old grandfather, who is "tougher than all of us," worked on the railroads and the docks.