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Rizzo 'Simple' and Solid for Nats
This is the uncomplicated Rizzo who says his father gave him only one life-evaluation speech at a kitchen-table sit down when he was 25: "You can be a minor league bum your whole life. You'll never make the majors. Or you can be a good baseball guy -- a scout, a coach, a farm director or ultimately a general manager."
Ultimately, as in the ultimate.
"My dad only gave me one piece of information for this [front-office] job. 'Don't lie,' " said Rizzo, adding later, "Sometimes that has gotten me into trouble."
Without doubt, the easy-to-grasp Rizzo who hates public speaking but loosens up instantly in any relaxed baseball setting is the genuine one. "I tell our area scouts, 'You better like yourself because you're with yourself all the time,' " he says. "All those years, I woke up in the morning and said, "I'm going to beat somebody today.' If I had to drive the extra 200 miles, I'd do it."
On one trip, he discovered slugger Frank Thomas. Who were his other prizes? "Remember Bob Wickman?" he says. Area scout: cheap motels and slim pickings.
However, there is another Rizzo who's harder to spot. It's easy to miss him. He'd make a great spy. He watches you. You don't notice him. Like any good baseball guy, he lives the game at the level of infinitely observed detail. No quirk of technique or personality is missed. Ask for a speech and he can't give it. But he can distill a player you've watched for years in a blink. "Love him. But he's getting old fast." Traded. "I can lose without jerks." Sent to AAA. "A fine athlete, not a good baseball player." Gone, too.
It's easy to misjudge him, too, because he is friendly -- right up until he isn't. When Milledge, after being sent to the minors, showed up late for his own finger surgery, Rizzo got him and his agent on the phone and read Milledge the riot act about his wasted talent and how far his stock had fallen in the game. "I don't think anybody had ever talked to him like that," Rizzo said at the time. "He's a good kid. I hope it helped him."
Then he traded Milledge to the baseball equivalent of Bulgaria -- Pittsburgh -- for Morgan, who is everything Milledge wasn't. The new Nats center fielder is a 29-year-old who'd never been coddled, wanted desperately to show his ability and had a perfect "80" score in "makeup" -- scout talk for attitude, work ethic, intelligence and being a good teammate.
Morgan represents much of what Rizzo values: speed, defense up the middle, instincts as a baseball player rather than an accumulation of physical tools. And that indefinable "high character" that comes in so many different personality packages but which scouts must recognize to survive.
Yes, scouting, for that is Rizzo's deep root system. For the last decade, baseball has had a debate between those baseball lifers with an eye for the game -- like Rizzo's dad and Boras -- and the younger, polished, generally more educated "Moneyball" types.
"I'm a hybrid," says Rizzo, who then does his ode-to-Sabermetrics riff about the value of knowing Value Over Replacement Player and WHIP. "My dad still doesn't buy it. But there's a place for it. Why not use all the tools?"
Then Mike Rizzo puts his hand over his mouth like he's about to tell you a secret. Remember, this is a man who thinks that it's nothing to drive the extra 200 miles, or figure out a 21-year-old's personality, then bet his team's future on it.
"Besides," he whispers, "it's not that tough."