- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

— Mike Rizzo arrives for work every day looking like the most comfortable man around, the events surrounding the Washington Nationals for the past three weeks notwithstanding.

Typically dressed in a pair of slacks and a Tommy Bahama shirt, Mr. Rizzo seems like he’s either coming from the golf course or headed to some tiki bar on the beach. Never mind that since the start of spring training he’s traveled to the Dominican Republic to shut down the Nationals’ operations there, assumed the bulk of the team’s general manager responsibilities since Jim Bowden resigned and, at least temporarily, inched closer to the biggest goal of his career.

It’s part of Mr. Rizzo’s job right now to restore a sense of calm to the Nationals. But even if it weren’t, he’d probably still be having the time of his life.

“When you’re in charge, the buck stops here, so I have many more decisions to make,” the Nationals’ acting general manager said. “As far as the working day goes, it’s 24/7. You’re always on call, and that’s the way I like it.”

Mr. Rizzo, 48, touched on a number of topics Tuesday in an interview with The Washington Times, including his impressions of Stephen Strasburg, the presumptive top pick in June’s Major League Baseball draft; the news that team President Stan Kasten will continue to handle negotiations on a long-term deal for Ryan Zimmerman; and his thoughts on how to restore the franchise’s respectability in the wake of Mr. Bowden’s resignation and the team’s role in an ongoing federal investigation into MLB signing practices in the Dominican Republic.

He also exuded a relaxed confidence that he’ll get the Nationals’ general manager job permanently.

“I’m confident I’m going to be the long-term solution here,” Mr. Rizzo said.

If that indeed is the case, Mr. Rizzo will bring a new approach. He took little issue with the perception that the Nationals’ reputation has been sullied, saying the only way to fix that is to do things differently.

He’s taking over - temporarily, at least - a team in disarray.

The Nationals are coming off a season in which they posted the worst record in baseball, suffered unrest within the organization, saw too many empty seats in their new ballpark and failed to close a deal with a first-round draft pick.

Things got worse during spring training this year, when the Nationals suffered two major embarrassments.

The team acknowledged in mid-February that a teenage Dominican shortstop it signed for $1.4 million had used a false identity and actually was four years older than club officials thought.

Mr. Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo also were linked to an FBI investigation into the skimming of signing bonuses of Dominican players by officials from several major league clubs.

The club fired Mr. Rijo, and Mr. Bowden resigned on March 1.

“The game goes on. No matter what happens around us, there’s going to be a game at 1 o’clock,” Mr. Rizzo said. “That’s how we get back on message and on point. … The respectability factor is, we’ve got to conduct ourselves in a way that the Lerner family expects us to. We’re changing the culture here.”

He said he already felt a change in the Dominican Republic during his trip there - “I heard from many people who have sensed a total overhaul in the culture,” he said - and feels the changes are already starting to build better relations around the game for the franchise.

“We’re gaining respect in the Dominican and in baseball circles,” he said. “Doing the right thing, in time, will switch the culture and make us that type of first-class organization.”

While Mr. Rizzo’s new role on the major league side will siphon some of the hours he’d typically use to prepare for the draft, he’s plenty familiar with Strasburg, the San Diego State flamethrower whom some scouts have labeled a once-in-a-generation prospect.

“He’s in a special category of amateur pitchers,” Mr. Rizzo said. “Going into the draft and having a 10-year All-Star career are two different things. He certainly has separated himself in the 2009 draft class. …

“When you’re picking first, you’re fortunate to have a guy that sticks out as a first-round pick. He’s a unique talent.”

Because they failed to sign first-round pick Aaron Crow last summer, the Nationals will be the first team in the draft’s history to have two picks among the top 10. They’ll receive a compensatory selection (10th overall) in addition to their regular pick (first overall).

But now Mr. Rizzo has the Nationals’ big league roster to worry about.

Mr. Rizzo, who joined the club in 2006 as its assistant general manager, said the Nationals’ biggest goal between now and the start of the season is to find veteran relievers who could help a bullpen struggling through spring training. He didn’t rule out the possibility of trading Nick Johnson but said the oft-injured first baseman, who could be moved if newly acquired Adam Dunn lands at first, factors into the Nationals’ plans.

“He’s a great player, and he’s got the capabilities of playing every day for us,” Mr. Rizzo said. “We’re a much better lineup with him in it.”

The one area of the Nationals’ roster management that Mr. Rizzo isn’t spearheading is the process of signing Zimmerman, the club’s young star, to a long-term deal. He said he was involved when Mr. Bowden was still the general manager but that Mr. Kasten will be the one dealing primarily with Zimmerman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen.

“As far as I’m concerned, Stan’s as good a negotiator as there is in the business. Why not defer to a guy with that kind of experience and business acumen?” Mr. Rizzo said. “I have no ego about who does what, as long as we get the job done the right way.”

Asked whether all contract negotiations would work that way, or whether Zimmerman’s was a special case, Mr. Rizzo said, “When you’re talking about that much money, there’s going to be a lot of people involved in the decision. I don’t know of many contracts that are done now without ownership’s direct involvement, the president’s direct involvement and the GM.”

With Mr. Kasten attending to family matters after the death of his mother, Sylvia, last week, Mr. Rizzo has been more or less on his own since he took over. Mr. Rizzo said he’s been in communication with Mr. Kasten via e-mail and expects the team president back in Florida next week. But he said there hasn’t been more discussion with Mr. Kasten than Mr. Bowden would have had.

It’s difficult to see Mr. Rizzo’s new role as anything other than an audition for the permanent job. He’s well aware of that, but also knows the best way to land the job is to perform like he already has it.

“I rarely think about the opportunity of the moment. You’re just so entrenched in the day-to-day dealings of a baseball team. This isn’t about me. … Do I think about the opportunity I have? I’ve thought about it, and I’ve appreciated it and now it’s ‘get to work,’ ” Mr. Rizzo said. “If ownership has different ideas [about the future], we’ll discuss it.”

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