Sometimes, Randy Knorr sits in his room, all alone, and laughs. Late at night, he sits on his balcony overlooking Nationals Park. In the mornings, he leaves his apartment and thinks to himself, “Oh, my God. I get to go to that stadium to work.” He works with some of the best baseball players in the world, many of whom he has coached since they were minor leaguers. At each first pitch, as the Washington Nationals’ bench coach, Knorr is standing in the dugout of a major league baseball game.
“And then I realize: I got the greatest job ever,” Knorr said. “I can’t help but smile every day I come to the ballpark.”
He left home at age 17 to play baseball and hasn’t stopped. Knorr doesn’t forget that. After a cherished career in baseball, he would like to try one more job. The Nationals have known since winter that they would replace Manager Davey Johnson at season’s end. Knorr, 44, appears to have emerged as the top in-house candidate to replace him. Knorr wants to be the Nationals’ fifth full-time manager since baseball returned to Washington.
“Do I think I can do it? Yeah, I think I’d be a very good manager,” Knorr said. “But, hey, they got to make that decision. It’s a tough decision for them.”
Knorr joined the Montreal Expos in 2001 as a backup catcher, and he has remained with the franchise ever since. He managed at four levels in the Nationals’ system and managed 15 players on the Nationals’ 40-man roster in the minors. He was Ryan Zimmerman’s first professional manager at Class A Savannah in 2005 and Bryce Harper’s first in the Arizona Fall League in 2010.
“There’s a lot of people in here that have been affected by him in a positive way,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “There’s probably more players in the organization that have been affected by [him] and what he stands for. He’s a teacher of baseball.”
The Nationals’ talented roster makes their managerial vacancy attractive and will allow the team to cast a wide net. Names such as Matt Williams, Brad Ausmus and even Cal Ripken Jr. have circulated as possibilities. Could the best choice really be in the Nationals’ dugout, just a few steps to Johnson’s right?
Knorr carries a far smaller profile, but his relationships have garnered support within the clubhouse. His relentless positivity and endless capacity to think and talk about baseball have ingratiated him with players and the front office.
“I had a feeling before we started playing well, a lot of times, they think it’s the manager or the coaches’ fault,” Zimmerman said. “Which couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is, [players] just weren’t succeeding. I think he would be great.”
Knorr served as the Nationals’ bullpen coach in 2009, and after the season he told General Manager Mike Rizzo he preferred to be in the dugout. Rizzo told Knorr he could manage Class AA Harrisburg for the 2010 season. “I think you’re going to be a good manager in the big leagues someday,” Rizzo told him.
Knorr says he and Rizzo have not discussed the Nationals’ managerial situation again, aside from a brief conversation this month. Knorr asked him what he should say to reporters who asked him about his interest in the job. Rizzo told him to tell the truth — that he wants the job.
For the past two years, Knorr has watched every game next to Johnson. The positives of working with Johnson, a legendary figure and a brilliant baseball mind, outweighed the negatives. But there were negatives.
“I’ve learned a lot from Davey,” Knorr said. “But Davey is a pain in the [butt]. We have a pretty good relationship now. I think early on, it was about trust. I think in the past with Davey, I think every time Davey moved on from a team, the bench coach was always taking over. There’s probably a trust issue with him on that. I never once wanted to take his job. I’m the bench coach. I love my job doing it.”
Like Johnson, Knorr takes a hands-off approach to in-game tactics and does not micromanage. “I let them play,” he said. “I free them up.” But he would be less tolerant than Johnson of other teams stealing bases; he would emphasize more pickoff throws and faster deliveries.
He would also be more hard-line on hustle, which he already has displayed. After Johnson was ejected from one game, Knorr yanked closer Rafael Soriano because he did not like Soriano’s comportment in a non-save situation. Later, he publicly criticized Harper for not sprinting after a groundball.
“I don’t tolerate the peeling off and not running the ball out,” Knorr said. “I do not tolerate that one bit. I think it’s a disgrace to the game when you do it. People come to the game, they pay good money to watch you run, not jog. I can’t stand it. I watch it sometimes, and it drives me crazy.”
And if he saw it happen during a game?
“Out,” Knorr said. “He’s out of the game. Out of the game. I don’t care. That’s not the way you play the game. I’ve always been brought up that way. It’s not hard to do. I don’t understand why guys don’t do it.”
Knorr first considered managing in his 30s, at the end of an 11-year career. He won two World Series with the Toronto Blue Jays but never played more than 45 games in one season. Early in his career, his dearth of playing time bothered him. Larry Hisle, Toronto’s hitting coach, asked him one day, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so miserable?” Knorr told him he wanted to play.
“He said, ‘You’re in the big leagues, and you ain’t gonna be here forever. So you better enjoy every single day you walk to this ballpark,’” Knorr said. “I didn’t take it right away. He’d chip away: You better enjoy, because they’re gonna take it away from you someday. You’re not going to be in the big leagues. And then one day, it hit me. I said, ‘Wow, I am miserable and I’m in the big leagues.’ ”
Knorr decided then he would appreciate every day, and he has not allowed it wear off, no matter how many bus rides he took or how many times a manager yelled at him for asking about the batting order. Some of the men he works with tease him for smiling too much. He doesn’t care. The best part of his day now is when he looks out on the field and sees how far the players he managed in the minors have come.
Knorr has been with the same franchise since 2001, which makes the stakes high for him. He understands that a different manager would likely choose his own bench coach, and Knorr would be stuck: go backward in the baseball hierarchy, or find a new franchise.
“I don’t know where else I fit in,” Knorr said. “That’s the one thing about having this job. You kind of set yourself up for, if they make a change, you’re kind of out of the loop, you know? Most managers are going to want their own bench coach. It’s a great job, because you’re next in line to be the manager. But if there’s ever a change, you’re, like, the first one gone.
“It would be sad. If I had to leave, I’d have to leave this group of guys. I love them all, and I love watching them all play. It would be a sad day.”