For Nationals’ Rizzo, work is never done
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.
A season’s end means a season’s beginning forGMMike Rizzo.