By Thomas Boswell
Friday, August 21, 2009
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.
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."