- - Thursday, April 5, 2018

Before fans arrived at “The House That Rizzo Fills,” Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo talked with reporters about the road that led to Thursday morning’s announcement that the team’s owners had finally rewarded their savior with a two-year, $8 million contract extension.

“In fairly short order, we’ve become a good organization, coming from really, when we were a new franchise when we took over to one of the most consistent winning franchises,” he said.

Those comments took a few dings hours later, when the “good organization” took an 8-2 beating at the hands of the New York Mets in Washington’s home opener.

AUDIO: Sportscaster Mike Patrick with Thom Loverro

There was some grousing and booing from the announced sold-out crowd of 42,477 (there were a decent amount of empty seats), because people come to this ballpark now expecting to see their team win.

Which wasn’t always the case.

There were several references by Rizzo to the state of this franchise when he took over — first as interim general manager in spring of 2009 and later as the permanent GM. It’s important because, to fully appreciate why Rizzo deserves a longer extension than the two additionals years the Lerner family offered — and for a lot more than the $4 million a year he’s getting paid — you have to know how bad this organization was when he took over.

It was dead and buried, coming off a 102-loss inaugural season at Nationals Park, as former GM and franchise gravedigger Jim Bowden had turned the team in fairly short order into an embarrassment and laughingstock of the baseball industry.

After the Smiley Gonzalez Dominican baseball scandal forced Bowden out, then-president Stan Kasten handed Rizzo a shovel and asked him to dig them out — and he did.

He dug and dug until he built a baseball organization that has become one of the best in the game.

“What we built here, coming from where we started to where we are at, I think we are viewed in the baseball world as a franchise to be copied, and a lot of teams have done that,” he said. “In terms of our player development, the players who have come through it have good things to say about it. We’re proud of what we built here, the culture we built.”

That it took until now, Rizzo’s final contract year, is absurd, but it should serve as evidence of what the owners of this team are capable of, left to their own devices. The Lerners like to walk people up to the courthouse door before paying them, but that wasn’t going to work with Rizzo, who rightfully demanded a certain level of respect, which he has earned, and then some.

They couldn’t let Rizzo’s job security linger all season. One of their star players — the biggest wallet in the clubhouse — Max Scherzer had already called the Lerners out for letting it get this far in the first place, when he told me in spring training, “It’s really up to ownership to take care of that situation and not let this get sideways on us. It is important to me,” he said. “I don’t want to speak for other players, but it would be important to me. We have a leadership structure here, and he’s been a part of it. He’s good for this team and this clubhouse. I would be disappointed in ownership if they let this thing get sideways.”

They didn’t let it get sideways, but they didn’t exactly pave a smooth path, either.

Elite general managers — and, with a 559-419 won-loss record during his eight-year tenure, second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Rizzo is elite — get five-year contracts in baseball, not two-year extensions.

It’s not a commitment by the owners. It’s a concession — a concession that, without Rizzo and the organization he has built, Nationals Park, filled Thursday afternoon in a sea of red, could turn into a ghost town.

Then again, a two-year extension also swings the other way — it allows Rizzo to go elsewhere shortly for respect and recognition.

He loves Washington. He loves the city, and loves what he has built here. He bought a house here this winter, and everyone took that as a sign Rizzo’s contract would be taken care of. Not in the Nationals front office, though, where privately they still worried about whether the Lerners would step up. They welcomed Scherzer’s public support of their boss.

“My negotiating skills are much better when I’m negotiating a trade than for myself,” Rizzo said Thursday. “You don’t buy a house when you are negotiating a contract. I made no bones about where I wanted to be … I’m very happy with it, very satisfied with it.”

In D.C.’s red-hot real estate market, expect the value of Rizzo’s new house to continue to grow. And, in a baseball industry where quality executives are hard to find, count on the price for Nationals’ red-hot general manager to climb even higher two years from now.

⦁ Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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