For Na­tion­als’ Rizzo, work is never done

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY BARRY SVRLUGA barry.svrluga@wash­post.com

Most of the lights were dark on United 1809, non­stop overnight from San Fran­cisco to Dulles, the fi­nal char­ter of the year. The sea­son was over, left in the mess of the fourth game of the Na­tional League Di­vi­sion Se­ries, won by the San Fran­cisco Giants. There is no uni­form way to process such a fate, when the re­lent­less­ness of 162 games crashes into a space that, by com­par­i­son, feels tightly con­fined, like crawl­ing from an open pas­ture into a cramped, air­tight box, no room to breathe.

“You’re try­ing to di­gest over 200 days of base­ball,” said Ian Desmond, the Washington Na­tion­als short­stop. “It’s just ... I don’t know. It’s so much to think about.”

So the plane was mostly silent, mostly dark, com­pletely somber. In the first row, one light shone over one open tray ta­ble, pa­pers pulled from a folder and spread about. This was in the wee hours of Oct. 8, 2014. Yet the pa­pers in front of Mike Rizzo had on them the Na­tion­als’ 40-man ros­ter for 2015, what the pay­roll might be in 2017, depth charts for the fu­ture. Not a sin­gle item per­tained to the bit­ter­ness that hov­ered through­out the cabin.

“This ismy ther­apy,” Rizzo said later. On that flight, in Rizzo’s men­tal cal­cu­la­tion, “this year” changed from 2014 to 2015.

Rizzo’s ti­tle with the Na­tion­als is pres­i­dent of base­ball oper­a­tions and gen­eral man­ager, but he is one of 30 men in base­ball known to the fan base as a “GM.” His job, at base, is to build a ros­ter of play­ers who com­ple­ment each other in the lineup and on the pitch­ing staff and then hand that ros­ter to the man­ager to do with what he sees fit in each of 162 games.

But that is a sim­plis­tic anal­y­sis, and those sheets in front of Rizzo on the fold­ing tray ta­ble in front of him would show it. The mod­ern gen­eral man­ager over­sees an or­ga­ni­za­tion of 200 play­ers, dozens of scouts, a front of­fice of more than 40 peo­ple that is re­spon­si­ble for player ac­qui­si­tion and de­vel­op­ment, sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis, what Rizzo has come to call a “global” view. He must un­der­stand how to ac­quire play­ers through the draft that cov­ers the United States and Puerto Rico; from Latin Amer­ica, where play­ers can sign as free agents when they’re 16 years old; from Asia, where Ja­panese and Korean pro­fes­sional teams can de­mand a fee for a player they de­cide to sell to the ma­jors; through free agency, in which re­la­tion­ships with agents and knowl­edge of the mar­ket are es­sen­tial; and through trades, in which the back-and-forth with other gen­eral man­agers might last weeks but which Rizzo loves.

“In that po­si­tion, you’ve got to be play­ing three-di­men­sional chess,” said Stan Kas­ten, the pres­i­dent of the Los An­ge­les Dodgers who held the same po­si­tion with the Na­tion­als from 2006 to 2010 and hired Rizzo first as a scout­ing di­rec­tor, then as gen­eral man­ager. “You’ve got to be think­ing about this year. I think all of us agree this year’s the most im­por­tant. But you can’t lose sight of the fu­ture. How do you bal­ance that?” ‘I can’t fall in love with ’em’

Rizzo is bald, fit, likes a rich cigar and a light beer. He grew up on Chicago’s Wave­land Av­enue, the same street that runs be­hind the left field wall at Wrigley Field, home to the Cubs. His fa­ther, Phil, drove a truck for the city, scouted base­ball on the side and im­bued in his four chil­dren a tough­ness wor­thy of the City of Broad Shoul­ders. Mike, the sec­ond youngest, car­ries it to this day. He used to take 250 ground­balls ev­ery Sun­day, smacked by Phil or one of his broth­ers. In 1982, 553 play­ers were taken ahead of him in the draft, but that he was taken at all was a tes­ta­ment not to his tal­ent but to what scouts call “makeup,” the way a player com­ports him­self and com­petes. Even to this day, if the sit­u­a­tion calls for a ver­bal brawl, Rizzo doesn’t mind throw­ing the first punch.

“Mike trusts, re­ally, one per­son the most, and that’s Mike,” said Harolyn Car­dozo, Rizzo’s ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant since he took the gen­eral man­ager’s role with the Na­tion­als in 2009. “And I won­der if it weren’t for the on­set of saber­met­rics, could he do this whole job him­self, with­out any­one? I won­der.”

So to those who know him, it made sense that Rizzo’s light re­mained on aboard United 1809. Three days ear­lier, when the Na­tion­als headed to San Fran­cisco, they had just lost a record-set­ting, marathon, 6-hour 23-minute, 18-in­ning game to fall two games be­hind the Giants. It was a game in which pitcher Jor­dan Zim­mer­mann had re­tired 20 straight men and held a 1-0 lead with two outs in the ninth. Zim­mer­mann then is­sued a walk, and Man­ager Matt Wil­liams re­placed him with Drew Storen, the closer. The next two Giants man­aged hits to tie the game, and a full nine in­nings later, rookie Tan­ner Roark al­lowed the home run that gave San Fran­cisco an epic win, not to men­tion a mas­sive ad­van­tage in the best-of-five se­ries.

Rizzo’s job on that flight was to buck up whomever he could. With the plane quiet, he walked to the back, to the play­ers. He made sure to touch base with both Storen and Roark. “They gave some­thing up,” Rizzo said, “so you’ve got to be at­ten­tive to them. You’ve got to let them know that you still trust ’ em.” He had to prop up Wil­liams, in his first year as a man­ager, as he wres­tled with the de­ci­sion that par­a­lyzed Washington: Should he have re­placed Zim­mer­mann with Storen? “He was hurt­ing,” Rizzo said. The flight back from San Fran­cisco, though, cou­pled that pain with un­mis­tak­able fi­nal­ity. Rizzo had a mean­ing­ful ex­change with Adam LaRoche, the team’s first base­man for the pre­vi­ous four sea­sons. The Na­tion­als had an op­tion on LaRoche’s con­tract they could have picked up for the 2015 sea­son, and though it was un­said in those hours af­ter the loss, both men knew the club would move on.

“It’s like you’re never go­ing to see each other again,” Rizzo said.

When they landed at Dulles around 8 a.m. and bused to Na­tion­als Park to pick up their cars and scat­ter into win­ter, Washington glowed in a bril­liant fall day. Rizzo went home to his condo down­town to try to get some sleep but couldn’t, so he threw on a pair of sneak­ers and came back to the ball­park, to his sec­ond-floor of­fice with its win­dows along South Capi­tol Street across from a U-Haul fran­chise, its view north­west to the Washington Mon­u­ment. He is fid­gety by na­ture. Stand­ing, hold­ing an ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tion, it’s as if he’s in the bat­ter’s box, ad­just­ing his sleeves and his belt and his col­lar. With the off­sea­son abruptly upon him, he couldn’t slow down.

“My mind was mov­ing,” he said. “My mind was rac­ing.”

There are two white­boards in his of­fice, one that holds mag­nets bear­ing the names of each player at each level of the Na­tion­als’ sys­tem, from rookie ball to the ma­jors, bro­ken down by po­si­tion, and another closer to his desk on which Rizzo can scrib­ble thoughts. For 72 hours, he found him­self in some­thing of a fo­cused fog. He didn’t sleep. His mind on the 2015 team. LaRoche would be gone. Re­liever Rafael So­ri­ano would be gone. Five key play­ers — Desmond, Zim­mer­mann, pitcher Doug Fis­ter, cen­ter fielder De­nard Span and re­liever Tyler Clip­pard — were due to be free agents the fol­low­ing win­ter. Rizzo had drafted Zim­mer­mann when he was the Nats’ scout­ing di­rec­tor, traded for both Fis­ter and Span, helped turn Clip­pard from a starter into one of the best setup men in the game, re­sisted over­tures from oth­ers in the or­ga­ni­za­tion who thought Desmond should have been traded fol­low­ing the 2011 sea­son.

“I’m very close to the play­ers,” Rizzo said. “They know I’ve got their back. I’ve never said a bad word about a player in my life to the media. Now, we’ve had some scream­ing matches with each other many times. But they know at the end of the day I’ve got their back.

“But I can’t fall in love with ’em. I don’t love ’em. I can’t.”

So on those sheets on the air­plane, on the white­board in his of­fice, they are names and pieces, all with skillsets and con­tract sta­tuses and dol­lar fig­ures at­tached to them, fig­ures in this game of three-di­men­sional chess. It was still Oc­to­ber 2014, the play­ers’ sea­son just over. Rizzo’s sea­son, in a way, had just started. He had to think about not just the next spring and sum­mer but the spring and sum­mer af­ter that. As con­structed, with no ad­di­tions, the Na­tion­als would likely be fa­vored to re­turn to the post­sea­son in 2015— and then could lose all those free agents the fol­low­ing win­ter. Would Rizzo be will­ing to trade one or more of those play­ers, break­ing up a group that had won two di­vi­sion ti­tles in three years, sac­ri­fic­ing the present for the fu­ture?

“Those are the ques­tions you ask your­self ev­ery day,” Rizzo said. “What you are risk­ing? You’re tak­ing some­thing away from a 96-win team. Can you re­ally do that?”

Rizzo’s sweet spot

The beer bot­tles stacked up at the cor­ner of the bar, Miller Lites and Am­s­tel Lights mostly, where Mike Rizzo had set up shop for the time be­ing. It was past 11 p.m. on a De­cem­ber night at Red­field’s Sports Bar, tucked at the north end of the lobby of the Grand Hy­att, right on San Diego Bay. Nearly ev­ery es­sen­tial de­ci­sion­maker from ev­ery ma­jor league team would make his way through the ho­tel over the course of four nights dur­ing the sec­ond week of De­cem­ber for base­ball’s an­nual win­ter meet­ings.

Over the years, the meet­ings have mor­phed from what was an es­sen­tial time to get to­gether and swap ideas and play­ers to an around-the-clock ru­mor-fest fu­eled by re­porters, agents, scouts, so­cial media and ex­ec­u­tives.

Some peo­ple in base­ball be­lieve, with e-mail and vir­tual con­fer­enc­ing and doc­u­ment shar­ing and all the con­ve­niences of mod­ern life, the gath­er­ings have passed their time. Rizzo dis­agrees. “I love ’em,” Rizzo said, and he knew ex­actly how the week would go, end­ing with him col­laps­ing into an air­plane seat, sleep­ing the en­tire flight home.

Each morn­ing of the win­ter meet­ings, Rizzo gath­ered his staff of ex­ec­u­tives, an­a­lysts and scouts in a suite on the eighth floor of the Manch­ester Grand’s Seaport Tower. His own room was ad­ja­cent, and it is there he would re­tire to take the most im­por­tant calls, those from other gen­eral man­agers should a deal be get­ting close. But in the morn­ings he would in­fuse his staff with energy, sur­round­ing a large ta­ble in the cen­ter of the room, lap­tops open and buzzing, as they con­sid­ered all op­tions to im­prove. Po­ten­tial trade sce­nar­ios are writ­ten on a white­board. Rizzo takes notes on them all and asks cer­tain groups to break off to talk about and pick apart play­ers.

“This sce­nario is per­fect for him,” Wil­liams said one morn­ing, stand­ing in the hall out­side the suite. “It’s com­pletely his sweet spot be­cause he gets to talk to all the scouts. They talk the same lan­guage.”

The Na­tion­als had sev­eral po­ten­tially mov­ing parts. They could deal Clip­pard, per­haps at the height of his value. They could shake up the sport and trade Desmond or Zim­mer­mann. Left-han­der Ross Detwiler, a for­mer first-round pick, also had only one year re­main­ing on his con­tract, there was no place for him in the ro­ta­tion, and he hadn’t been par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive as a re­liever. For years, Rizzo would be at these meet­ings of­fer­ing his opin­ions to his gen­eral man­ager about play­ers he had scouted, play­ers that might be trade tar­gets. Now, he would ask his staff: What do you think of this guy? And he’d have to trust them.

“It was the tough­est thing I had to learn,” Rizzo said. “When I have an opin­ion, when I’ve seen a guy and can rely on my eval­u­a­tion in­stincts, I’m good with mak­ing that de­ci­sion. The tough­est part is to make de­ci­sions, make trades, make ma­jor trades, do ma­jor ac­qui­si­tions on play­ers that you haven’t re­ally seen re­cently or at all, and you’re trust­ing your eval­u­a­tors to give you the road map on what de­ci­sion to make.”

By de­sign, though, the men in that ho­tel suite had been in the game for decades. When Rizzo first be­came a scout, his pol­icy was to get to the ball­park early, not say a word and lis­ten to the vet­er­ans. Now, the scouts in that room were the types of guys he used to lis­ten to — con­fi­dent in what they see, what they know, not a Yes Man among them.

“Ev­ery­body’s opin­ion counts, but . . . there’s cer­tain times that I’m gonna test you,” Rizzo said. “You’re gonna say that, ‘ This guy’s no good.’ Well, why is he no good? When I put the heat on some­body, if they back off it, then that says some­thing about their con­vic­tion on that player.”

There is no end to the con­ver­sa­tions, not dur­ing the meet­ings, not all year. That night, Rizzo sat at the bar and swapped old mi­nor league sto­ries. He leaned against the wall to lis­ten to Kasey McKeon, who serves as the Na­tion­als’ di­rec­tor of player pro­cure­ment. Jimmy Gon­za­lez, Jeff Zona, Fred Costello — all his scouts, all his guys — chat­ted as mid­night passed. The topic did not wa­ver: base­ball.

At 1 a.m., the lights came up and the bar closed. Rizzo walked into the lobby. The el­e­va­tor awaited, fol­lowed not long af­ter by the next morn­ing’s meet­ing and the rest of the off­sea­son — his sea­son be­cause he still had a team to im­prove. Ex­cerpted from “The Grind: In­side Base­ball’s End­less Sea­son,” an in­depth look at how the ev­ery­day­ness of the ma­jor league sched­ule wears on ev­ery as­pect of an or­ga­ni­za­tion, pub­lished July 7 by Blue Rider Press.

“Mike trusts, re­ally, one per­son the most, and that’s Mike. And I won­der if it weren’t for the on­set of saber­met­rics, could he do this whole job him­self, with­out any­one? I won­der.”

Harolyn Car­dozo, Rizzo’s ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant since he took the gen­eral man­ager’s role with the Na­tion­als in 2009

“The Grind: In­side Base­ball’s End­less Sea­son” ex­am­ines what it’s like to live through sports’ long­est sea­son— MLB’s 162 games.

ALEX BRAN­DON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A sea­son’s end means a sea­son’s be­gin­ning forGMMike Rizzo.

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