HARRIS: Cal Ripken Jr. would bring buzz as manager, but Nats need substance

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Cal Fever! It’s here.

Have you caught it yet? Have you ordered your No. 8 Nationals jersey with “Ripken” across the back as a holiday present for your favorite Nationals fan? Have you taken time to picture Cal Ripken Jr. himself in one of those jerseys?

The buzz is building. The Nationals need a new manager. Ripken is ready to get back into baseball, 12 years after concluding a stellar playing career with the Orioles that saw him make the All-Star team 19 straight seasons.

So it’s automatic, right? Nats need a manager, Ripken wants back in, What’s not to love?

Not to throw more cold water on an area that’s had enough rain the past few days, but there’s a lot not to love about the idea of Ripken managing the Nats. To borrow a line from Bob Marley, it’s time to stop that train.

As incredibly cool as it would be to have an icon like Ripken as the manager of the Nats, it is not a good idea. Not now anyway.

There’s no question Ripken is a legend around these parts. He’s as much Washington as he is Baltimore. When he was playing every single day for years and years on his way to breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games mark, Washington didn’t have a baseball team. This was an Orioles town and a lot of that love remains even though the Nats have been around since 2005.

There’s also no question he knows the game. You don’t play it as well as he did for as long as he did without knowing baseball. He’s the son of a manager.

Odds are, Ripken will be a good manager one day.

But the Nationals‘ current situation makes it less than an ideal place to find out if that time is now, because Washington can’t afford to make a mistake with this choice.

Ripken would be a splash hire. Choosing him would be discussed around the world. The attention would be considerable.

The Nats don’t need a splash hire. They need a solid hire, a strong manager who has experience doing exactly that at some level: managing.

Washington is an elite team that has lost some of its luster after a disappointing 2013 season that saw the Nats miss the playoffs a year after posting the best regular-season mark in baseball.

Over the final weeks of the 2013 season, the Nationals went 33-15. That’s not a small stretch of good baseball. It is almost a third of a season.

After the mediocre (at best) first two-thirds of the season, the strong finish wasn’t enough to rescue the Nats. It did show they were still as talented and capable as people expected. They will rightfully be expected to contend in 2014.

They don’t need a name. And though he’s a gigantic name, that’s all Ripken is right now. Not a speck of managing or coaching experience.

They don’t need someone who will command a lion’s share of the attention. Ripken isn’t the type to demand that, but it will come if he’s the manager. Plenty of media folks will show up at spring training. It won’t be to write or talk about Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg or Jayson Werth. It will be to talk about Ripken.

They need a manager, one with a strong personality who is able to manage a clubhouse as well as he is able to manage a game. One who is content to wave the baton as conductor of the team without an extra spotlight shining on him.

For those reasons and more, someone like Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr or Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams are much better choices for the job than Ripken.

Let’s be clear, we don’t know that Knorr and Williams are the only other candidates or even candidates at all. General manager Mike Rizzo has stayed quiet and will continue to do so. He could have a dozen other names on his list and the new manager could well be someone whose name has yet to be mentioned anywhere.

Knorr and Williams are the names that have been mentioned most and, though neither has major-league managing experience, they are examples of what the Nats need right now. Williams, a five-time All-Star, had a better career as a player. Knorr has more experience managing at the lower levels.

They’re not getting back into the game years after they stopped playing and taking over as manager of what should be one of baseball’ best teams. There’s a risk with any hire, sure, but there’s much less risk with someone like Knorr or Williams.

There’s a track record that goes beyond being one of the greatest players ever. Ripken is an icon and will always be one. His stature has opened and will open many doors for him. The door to the manager’s office of an elite team should not be one of them. You need more than a name to earn those keys.

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