TEMPE – It’s 7:15 a.m. on Sunday, and Ron Washington is smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee in the dugout. The Atlanta Braves third-base coach is getting ready for his day, taking his “personal time,” as he puts it. But he can hardly get through that. He’s too popular. The sun is barely up over the crisp Arizona sky, and his players are already pestering him to teach them.
During the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, Washington has been teaching the ins and outs of infield play to black baseball players at MLB’s Dream Series camp to help them prepare for their high school seasons. It’s a reunion of sorts for a fair amount of kids who know each other from showcase tournaments. The program started four years ago for pitchers and catchers, and expanded this year to include infielders and outfielders. By expanding the positions, they’ve also expanded the coaching roster, which is how guys like Washington and former Angels manager Mike Scioscia got involved.
For “Wash,” it’s what he likes to do, but not the only thing he wants to do. He wants to be a manager in the big leagues again, but his phone isn’t ringing.
“It’s hard to explain,” the 67-year-old says. “Whenever you become the leader of a group, and I’m talking about a manager in the major leagues, that never leaves your system. Well, once you get that opportunity, it’s always running inside of you.”
But there aren’t a ton of black managers doing that job. Dusty Baker famously didn’t get his contract renewed with the Washington Nationals, who won a World Series two seasons later and beat Dave Roberts’ Los Angeles Dodgers on their way to the title. Other than Roberts, there are no black managers in the bigs. The last one before those two was Washington, who walked away from the Texas Rangers after the better part of a decade.
One doesn’t need a full statistical breakdown of the coaching ranks in Major League Baseball to see that fewer black players on rosters means less chance to rise through the ranks, thus few opportunities to eventually lead. Guys like Oakland A’s assistant GM Billy Owens aren’t growing on trees around the league.
In coaching circles, Washington’s ability to work with infielders is of wide renown, and there’s data to prove it. Just ask the Braves, whose first-base coach, Eric Young, is a former MLB player and happens to be black. Or the A’s, or any number of guys who came through the Rangers organization over the years.
Yet the looming question about the coaching ranks is not just a function of numbers. It’s an attitude that has to do with scouting, mentality and inherent biases against aptitude. To put it plainly, when you think of a “crafty veteran” — the type of player who is considered smart enough to stay around the league, whom people look at as good coaching material — you don’t think of a black player. Why? Because at a young age, guys seen as “speed” guys (read: black) are often shipped to the outfield, and over the years they don’t get the time or the opportunity to be seen as much more than graceful specimens meant to roam in space.
That said, there are guys like Lenny Webster, who learned the catcher position in the minor leagues in order to stay around, ended up becoming a World Series champion with the Minnesota Twins as a backup catcher, and played in the bigs for 12 seasons. His fielding percentage as a catcher was .995. So, you have to wonder how a guy with an obvious brilliance for the game and a desire to teach, as he did during the Dream Series and does as an instructor privately, can’t find his way to a big league coaching roster.
“That’s the battle I fought my whole career,” said Webster, who, like Washington is from New Orleans. “Unfortunately they look at us as we lack knowledge, we’re slow. With me, that wasn’t the case. I was a college guy. I went to school. I pride myself in being a great student and a student of the game of baseball. So, the best part of my game, or one of the best parts of my game was calling the game, my aptitude for the game. And I worked at that, you know, so that label that they put on me was totally false. You know what I mean?”
Which makes Ron Washington’s absence from MLB’s managerial ranks even more quizzical. He has the experience. He has the results. And when he was faced with situations in which he felt he failed off the field, he faced them. When he violated the league’s substance abuse program in 2009, he offered his resignation to the Rangers. They declined. And when he stepped down in 2014 after cheating on his wife, he didn’t drag her up on stage with him for his presser, like others do. He’s been pretty straight-up about his life.
“No, my phone’s not ringing. I don’t know why. I really don’t know why. I haven’t done anything in my background that should warrant that,” Washington explains before a coaches’ meeting. “People get an opportunity to come back from mistakes. I never ran from my mistakes. I faced people with my mistakes. I’m a better person than I was back there. And a lot of times we learn from adversity.”
Not dissimilar to the NFL, African Americans in leadership roles in baseball don’t get a ton of chances. Whether it be the brain trust of baseball minds being sucked out of the game through analytics — a whole other matter — or an inability to see certain players as prospects, it’s alarming that there are few black managers in MLB, nevermind players. Think about it. If the heyday of players is done and none of those guys are even close to dead, the coaching influence should be greater.
Which is what MLB recognizes and is trying to address with the Dream Series, beyond creating once-in-a-lifetime experiences for young players to learn. (To hear and get an education from Washington, even if for just a few days? Immeasurable.)
As for Washington, he’ll be headed back to Braves camp this year. He isn’t angry about it. Giving back to the game is his entire purpose in life at this point. He says that his baseball life is still fulfilling.
“My dream was to be a third-base coach and an infield coach. I got an opportunity to be a manager,” Washington said. “So no, I want to manage, but I’m still able to give in the process that I’m in. My plan for the 2020 season is to go back to Atlanta and help those guys continue to develop and be champions because that’s their mindset. I’m in charge of the infield. I want to have the best defense out there on the field and my kids have that mindset and I’m the leader of that mindset.”
Quite a few ballclubs could benefit from that mindset at the top.