And it immediately called to mind a past Ripken flirtation. In September of 2013, as Davey Johnson’s tenure petered out, Jayson Werth volunteered that Ripken would be his top choice to take over the club.
“It’s very flattering that people think of me that way, and I have thought about how cool it would be to manage,” Ripken said a few days later, which did not put to rest these thoughts. After hiring Matt Williams, GM Mike Rizzo said “we didn’t interview Cal,” but acknowledged that they did have conversations about the job.
“We had a mutual decision that it wasn’t the right time for Cal,” Rizzo said. “Cal is a guy I know very very well, I respect a lot. I’ve had a lot of candid conversations over the last couple years with him. He’s been at a lot of games here and has sat with me a few times. And he’s got great baseball acumen. But we mutually agreed that this just wasn’t the right time or place for him.”
The following winter, Ripken acknowledged exploring the matter “very early” with Rizzo, saying the GM asked him if he’d be interested in the job. And when discussing those conversations this past summer, Ripken said he and Rizzo “had some serious discussions about it,” adding that “with many things in life, it’s about timing, and so you have other considerations. I would say timing was an issue there, but it was fun talking about it.”
Well, it continues to be fun, for all of us. Ripken even answered a (joking) question about the Nats job last week, from Fox 5 movie reviewer and reporter Kevin McCarthy.
“You know, I’m not good at dealing in hypotheticals,” Ripken said. “So I guess I’d have a comment when something becomes real.”
And yet when you actually consider the matter beyond the headlines, it feels like a move that would be great for offseason excitement and newspaper columns and marketing opportunities, but far less than ideal on its merits. Here are five reasons the Nats might be wise to pass on the Iron Man.
The biggest criticism of Matt Williams in recent days — and of Mike Rizzo for hiring Matt Williams — has focused on Williams’s lack of experience. He had never been a manager, had rarely even interviewed for managerial jobs, and yet landed a position in command of one of the most talented teams in baseball. One first-round playoff loss and one failed season later, the hire sure looks like a mistake.
Ripken has even less experience than Williams, who had spent four years as a base coach. While he’s been around the game continuously, as a broadcaster and a powerful force in youth baseball, he hasn’t spent every day in a dugout in years. Rizzo already said on Monday that he’s leaning toward someone with Major League managerial experience; Ripken’s resume is the very opposite of that. If the Nats actually turned to Cal in this context, and the hire didn’t work, you could build an entire block of parking garages out of the told-ya-sos.
2) Bullpen decisions
Among Williams’s many perceived failings — poor communication, poor dugout demeanor, poor late-game strategy, poor relationships with players, poor follow-through on promises to imitate early-20th-century sluggers — his biggest managerial fault was likely his handling of the bullpen. From two decisions that went awry in the 2014 playoffs to a host of 8th-and-9th inning misfires this season to the complaint that he treated relievers poorly to his repeated misadventures with Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon, it just seemed like Williams was never completely comfortable pulling those bullpen levers.
As of this writing, the bullpen would appear to be the biggest challenge in preparing for 2016. Certainly, handling that bullpen will carry the biggest spotlight for the next manager, whether or not Papelbon is on the roster. And a shortstop who almost never left the field and, again, has not been forced to make such split-second decisions late-inning does not seem like the best person for that task.
3) The Baltimore divide
I don’t believe regional rivalries should be the major consideration in hiring a manager. But there’s a reason Ripken’s name keeps coming up in this market, and it has nothing to do with hard-to-find commemorative packages of Old Bay. He is locally relevant and resonant, especially in the Maryland suburbs between Washington and Baltimore, where fans are split between the Ravens, Redskins and Orioles and Nationals. In the ’80s, I would venture that no sports figure who didn’t wear burgundy was as popular in Montgomery County as Ripken was.
So there’s something needy and backward-looking about snatching up someone with that resume, some small hint of the “no real baseball fans in Washington” slur. Just the thought of fans in orange jerseys giving Ripken a standing ovation inside Nationals Park — or, heaven forbid, resuscitating the National Anthem ‘O’ — makes 2016 feel like less of the fresh start it should be. Furthermore, the continuing MASN dispute has some Nats fans disgusted with every aspect of Baltimore baseball. We just don’t need another fanbase divided by tensions over one larger-than-life figure.
4) The Redskins example
I don’t mean this as a cheap shot. Honestly. But something about bringing in a beloved former star with a huge name but no big-league experience smells like an Ashburn move destined to fail. It’s trying to hit the lottery with the untested Steve Spurrier and trying to tap into nostalgia with the beloved Gibbs, wrapped into one.
It’s the move that would sell the most offseason tickets, prompt the most early-November headlines and create the biggest early-November press conference, none of which have been hallmarks of the Nats rise. It’s winning the offseason, the sort of hire whose preseason hype is almost impossible to match once the real games begin.
Okay, maybe that’s a little bit of a cheap shot. By the way, the team’s next manager will make seven in 12 seasons. Over the past 12 years, the Redskins have had just four head coaches: Gibbs, Zorn, Shanahan and Gruden.
5) The end
Over the last 40 years, the two most popular baseball stars among Washingtonians have likely been Cal Ripken and Bryce Harper.
(I know, I know, you personally never rooted for the Orioles, stalwart Baltimore-hating D.C. native that you are. But somehow, the team managed to attract thousands of thousands of followers here in the ’70s and ’80s, and Ripken was beloved by many of them.)
For a lot of D.C. sports fans, Ripken is in the Joe Gibbs category: someone who’s almost idolized, someone who can’t be questioned, someone who conjures up memories of a good and pure childhood, someone who spent a career in athletics without picking up a single stain.
Which means if things go south in a Ripken regime, it would be a lot more complicated to pull the plug than it was this week. Rizzo can zap Matt Williams from Nats history without anyone shedding a tear. He’s the easy, and obvious, scapegoat for an organizational disaster. But if Ripken presided over a struggling team, how would the fanbase react to stories detailing Ripken’s failings? To blemishes on that near-flawless resume? To Rizzo axing one of the most popular sports figures in town? It would put the GM in a terrible, and possibly untenable position, one of his own making.
So enjoy imagining Cal Ripken in a Curly W. Because the idea is almost certainly far more enjoyable than would be the reality.