- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

The Mike Rizzo who sat down at a podium Thursday, beaming proudly as he was named the Washington Nationals’ second general manager since they relocated from Montreal, owes something to the Mike Rizzo who sat down at a kitchen table 25 years ago and listened to his father tell him he wasn’t good enough to pursue his dream job.

Rizzo had just finished his third lackluster season as an infielder in the California Angels’ farm system in 1984. He was set to sign another minor league contract when his father, Phil - a truck-driving foreman who had gotten into baseball scouting part time - let his son know, in a scout’s blunt assessment, that he was chasing something he wouldn’t attain.

“He set me down like any father would,” Rizzo said. “We went over my career path, and he said, ‘Mike, you can be a minor league bum your whole life. You’re not going to play in the big leagues. You’re not talented enough for that. But you can still be a good baseball guy - as a coach, a manager, a scouting director or ultimately a general manager.’ It was a driving force in me getting to the position I’m at today.”

So when Rizzo learned Tuesday he would get the permanent GM job after what amounted to a five-month internship, after calling his wife and son he made a second phone call to the man he probably owes more than anyone else.

Phil Rizzo, now 80 and still scouting for the Nationals, shared an emotional conversation with his son. There was no need for tough love - just love and gratitude.

“He’s a simple guy,” Mike Rizzo said, his voice catching as he recalled the exchange. “He expressed his appreciation and love for me in his way.”

For Mike Rizzo, a long journey from the minor leagues through 11 years of inglorious area scouting and increasingly high-profile front office jobs came to a close Thursday. He was named the Nationals’ general manager at the end of a 5 1/2-month stretch when he helmed a baseball operation, maintained his former role as assistant GM and tweaked a disheveled roster. All the while, president Stan Kasten quietly checked Rizzo’s credentials against a group from around baseball that began at 75 names and dropped to around six by June 1.

Kasten talked to former and future GMs and found no one who better met the Nationals’ needs than the man currently shaping the roster.

“Having gone through all that, we felt that with Mike here, with what he did, this was the best fit,” Kasten said. “For this situation here, Mike was the best fit - in fact, the perfect fit for here, for now.”

Rizzo, who agreed to a multiyear deal, was named acting general manager March 2 and immediately set to work remaking a bullpen left in shambles by former general manager Jim Bowden. Showing a willingness to try cut-rate veterans and ship out underperformers when trouble mounted, Rizzo cobbled together a group that entering Thursday had a 3.38 ERA and allowed a .226 average in 32 games since the All-Star break after getting rocked to the tune of a 5.71 ERA in the first half.

He also landed center fielder Nyjer Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett in a June 30 trade with Pittsburgh, shipping out two players who had worn out their welcome - outfielder Lastings Milledge and reliever Joel Hanrahan - for two who have become central figures in the Nationals’ second-half resurgence.

Still, Kasten went through his search, believing all along that Rizzo and the Nationals would be better for having cross-checked his qualifications with others. In recent weeks, he came to the conclusion Rizzo was the best man for the job. And though he said it would have reflected more on him than on Rizzo had the team not signed No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg, Rizzo’s handling of those negotiations added an impressive flourish to his resume a day before he was told he had the job.

Now he inherits a daunting to-do list.

The Nationals must decide the fate of interim manager Jim Riggleman - a process Rizzo said the team wouldn’t address until after the season, though he added Riggleman would be considered for the permanent job - and fill out a front office that has been running a man down since Rizzo assumed Bowden’s roles.

Rizzo also must shore up a roster that has produced the worst record in the majors, even with recent improvements, and still lacks a veteran starter as well as long-term solutions in the bullpen and middle infield. But Rizzo will attack it with the same confidence he has displayed since March.

It’s a confidence honed through all those years driving around the country scouting, when Rizzo learned “you better like yourself because you’re with yourself all the time.” It goes all the way back to that kitchen table conversation a quarter-century ago, when Mike Rizzo the ballplayer first considered that Mike Rizzo the scout - even Mike Rizzo the general manager - would be a better fit.

“I did get up every morning with an attitude [of] ‘I’m going to beat somebody today’ if that means going to an extra game at night or driving 200 extra miles to get to the next game tomorrow,” Rizzo said. “I think my self-motivation is probably the thing that’s gotten me where I’m at right now.”

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