The Washington Nationals should ask Cal Ripken, Jr. to interview to be their next manager. He’s practically waving his arms to be invited to discuss the job. But the Nats should also erect a high wall for Ripken to climb over to get one of the plum jobs in baseball. Ripken has huge strengths, but also big questions marks that should concern a ready-to-wear pennant contender.
With Joe Girardi re-signing with the Yankees on Wednesday, Mike Scioscia returning to the Angels and Don Mattingly’s job looking secure with the Dodgers, the pool of truly appealing managers has shriveled. Dusty Baker, whom the Reds fired last week, has contacted the Nats requesting he be considered for the job. He has finished first five times but reached only one (losing) World Series in 20 seasons.
Those twists bring Ripken more into the frame, but star appeal, local connection and fan fantasy gratification are relatively minor qualifications for a big league manager. Ripken shouldn’t start off ahead of either respected Matt Williams or Nats bench coach Randy Knorr, who knows the team already. If Ripken, who has never managed, wants the job, then compete for it like the rest.
When you listen to Ripken, who abhors looking foolish, you have to redact every conditional phrase — every “maybe,” “a little bit” or “at some point” — to translate his self-protective answers into some semblance of what he actually means. The truth is usually there, because he’s so honest. But if he’s speaking publicly, it’s always slightly concealed. That’s just who he is.
Here’s what he said on Rich Eisen’s podcast Sunday with all the hems and haws removed: “I’d like to come back to baseball . . . I’m starting to get an itch . . . but I haven’t been asked to do anything . . . I have thought about how cool it would be to manage. Donny Mattingly said there’s nothing like being a player, but managing is the closest . . . I’ve always thought that . . . and I am feeling that I’d like to get back in.”
What job is Ripken thinking about? The Reds won 92 and 97 games the past two years but couldn’t get over the hump with Dusty: Cal might fit. The Cubs need a skipper but are rebuilding: Not likely. The Orioles already have Buck Showalter, who has saved them. The Phils hired Ryne Sandberg. So, be serious: Ripken wants the phone to ring, but a 202 area code on Caller ID would make him happiest.
Because Ripken’s name causes excitement, let’s regain our balance by looking at the two most comparable current managers: Sandberg and Mattingly. Therein lies a tale.
Sandberg, 54, like Ripken a first-ballot Hall of Famer, proved himself by managing in the minors for six seasons; he was passed over twice by the Cubs but stuck it out, proving how badly he wanted to manage. Mattingly coached for years at Joe Torre’s knee to earn the Dodger job. Why should Cal waltz in untested?
Do you want to hire someone who couches everything in terms of getting the job he wants on the terms he wants and, by the way, ask nicely?
As a player, Ripken was off all competitive charts. But he has avoided the field for 12 years to spend time with family and businesses. He knows how managers suffer because he watched his dad do the job for 13 years in the minors and two in Baltimore. Being Senior’s son is at least as much an internship as a few years as an MLB bench coach. Does anybody really thinks Ripken couldn’t “run a game” from the first day? But does Cal burn to manage?
Williams is another object lesson. Like Ripken, he earned over $70 million as a player. Matt doesn’t need to hit fungos, relay signs and wave home runners, but he has, just so he can manage. That’s a key résumépiece.
Should a successful general manager such as Mike Rizzo hire someone he knows only casually or by reputation when he’s observed Williams, Knorr and others at close range for years? Nothing matters more than GM-manager compatibility and respect. Rizzo and Davey Johnson had it.
If, for any reason or no reason, Rizzo isn’t sold on Ripken as a match, that’s enough for “No.” At least they’re both bald. And after Davey, Cal might be a beach day. But it’ll take a mighty confident GM to hire Ripken.
Also against Ripken is the generally poor record of Hall of Fame players as managers.
Why might Ripken fit the Nats exceptionally well? Jayson Werth says Ripken would be his first choice. Ryan Zimmerman has called Ripken a childhood hero and model. Charisma is dandy on Day 1. And Cal would sell some tickets. But what else?
Well, an awful lot. Ripken defines “student of the game.” What parts? All of them. One year he called pitches from shortstop in a pennant race. A great fielder but merely a good hitter, he understands brutal slumps. Every part of the game, except soft hands and an accurate arm, came hard to him.
Like his dad, Ripken would be a fanatic on fundamentals and defense, both Nats flaws this past season. He comes across as Too Nice, but those in the game know better. The ump jockey and blue-streak-cussing competitor is an inch under the surface. As an Oriole, when benches cleared, Cal was in heaven.
But some Ripken strengths could be managerial weaknesses. How do you say, “Skip, I could use a day off.” Johnson had the common touch and kept a relaxed tone. When the O’s were bad, Ripken sometimes withdrew into his own performance. A manager lays claim to every defeat. Can Cal?
Cal’s not the easy-to-grasp guy some think he is. In private he’s blunt, sardonic and opinionated about the reality of baseball politics. Unless the Nats are confident they know him to his depths, not just his image, they should be careful. He’s a huge baseball personage and a hard man to cross.
The Nats should ask Ripken to interview because he actually might be a great manager.But no rookie MLB manager should ever be a favorite to take over a team as talented as the Nats appear to be. Ripken should have to fight uphill. Anybody who doesn’t grasp that doesn’t want the job enough to deserve it.
If the Nats want Ripken, and can agree to terms (not easy), it’ll be quite a ride. If they don’t, they shouldn’t need to explain to players or apologize to fans. Ripken is as organized, diligent and knowledgeable as any man in baseball. But as a manager, he comes without warranty. Caveat emptor.