- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mike Rizzo still has the game book from the days when he started as a scout for the Chicago White Sox in 1986. He uses those days as a point of reference, particularly on days like Saturday, when Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner announced the team is picking up Rizzo’s contract option as the team’s president of baseball operations and general manager.

“I used to take the lineups of every high school game I was at, and box it out — fill in every box with grades for each of these high school players,” Rizzo said, sitting in the Nationals’ dugout before Sunday’s homestand finale against the Miami Marlins. “I still have the game cards from when I scouted my first game for the White Sox — the days of getting in a car and driving 300 miles to see a game, seeing three games in one day.”

The path Rizzo has taken to the Lerners’ decision to secure his place as the Nationals’ top baseball man is the hard, dirt road that has been replaced by the paved roads that run now from boardrooms to front offices.

The new breed of baseball general manager won’t have the game books from their early days in the business to remember how far they’ve come. They’ll have to rely on looking at their framed Ivy League degree or their first Wall Street brokers’ license.

“I guess there are different ways to get the GM seat these days,” Rizzo said. “I am proud and honored for the path I took to get here. I often say to our scouts in the field, ‘I’ve done what you are doing. When you in the Midwest somewhere driving through snowflakes in May 300 miles to see another kid, you need someone to tell you that you could be the president or general manager of a baseball team someday.’”

The Lerner family wisely decided that the former minor-league player-turned-scout from Chicago who diligently climbed every step of the ladder in baseball development — from area scout to farm director to Nationals GM — was worth keeping around for a few more years. The option on his contract will keep Rizzo in charge of one of the most successful organizations in baseball through 2018.

Few doubted that the Lerners would do anything but retain Rizzo, 55, but they let the decision to keep him hang until about a month before a June 15 deadline.

Now, everyone in the organization can breathe a sigh of relief, because while the expectations were that the Lerners would agree to the option, owners can be an unpredictable lot — and behind the scenes, the Lerner are no different.

“I never really thought it was that big of a question,” Rizzo said. “I felt it was more of a timing thing. The relationship I have with Mr. Lerner specifically and the rest of the family is great. It’s been great since the day they bought the franchise. I feel honored to be president of baseball operations and general manager and run the franchise. I’m happy that it is behind us and we can put our total focus on things ahead of us.

“There is a comfort level for the people who work in the organization,” he said. “A change for someone in my position often means a change throughout the organization. It can have a ripple effect, so there is stability with news like this. They feel comfortable that I will be around for the long term. It does reverberate throughout the organization, and I think there is a sense of relief that is it behind us.”

Max Scherzer, fresh off a 20-strikeout performance, welcomed the news. He walked by Rizzo in the dugout on Sunday and congratulated him with a fist bump.

“I had a lot of players had come up to me and asked, ‘What is going on here?’” Rizzo said. “I would tell them, ‘Don’t worry about me, just worry about what you need to worry about. It will be fine.’ But it was nice to hear that from players. I’ve got a relationship with all these guys, some of them for a long time.

“We have a respect factor between us,” Rizzo said. “My job is to deliver good and bad news, so a lot of the conversations that I have with players are unpleasant. But, I’ve found over the years that the conversations, if you are forthright and talk to them man-to-man, they may not agree with all the decisions but they respect the fact that I am there in front of them. I never lie to them or deceive them. The news is the news, good, bad or whatever. You get it straight, and I think that they appreciate that.”

You want it straight? Here it is — Rizzo saved this franchise.

He took over an organization that had been buried by the Lerners’ fair-haired boy, former general manager Jim Bowden, in 2009 following the Smiley Gonzalez scandal — the joke of baseball. Rizzo dug his way out until the Nationals reached the point where they have won two National League East division titles in four years, accumulated the fourth-highest win total in baseball since 2011, and Rizzo himself has the second-highest win total of any general manager in baseball.

Still, there is unfinished business.

“I would like to be identified as someone who helped make baseball in Washington a success, and that means championships, trophies, parades down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Rizzo said.


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