World Se­ries ti­tle may not be enough to save Na­tion­als’ GM

Bob Night­en­gale col­umn: Wash­ing­ton’s Mike Rizzo en­ters sea­son as a lame duck.

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Bob Night­en­gale Colum­nist

Just 259 days ago, Na­tion­als owner Ted Lerner and his fam­ily cel­e­brated the fran­chise’s first World Se­ries cham­pi­onship, pour­ing cham­pagne on the field in Hous­ton, parad­ing down the streets in D.C., vis­it­ing the White House, and par­ty­ing like it was 1924, the last time the na­tion’s cap­i­tal had a baseball cham­pion.

You would think that at some point dur­ing these last 36-plus weeks since hoist­ing the tro­phy, you’d want to tell your vice pres­i­dent/gen­eral man­ager that you want him around.

You could have done the same with your man­ager, rip­ping up his woe­fully cheap con­tract that barely pays him more than the min­i­mum player salary and giv­ing him an ex­ten­sion.

In­stead, GM Mike Rizzo, the man who turned the Na­tion­als into one of the game’s elite model fran­chises, is 109 days from be­ing un­em­ployed. Re­ally.

The man­ager who guided the Nats to the im­prob­a­ble World Se­ries cham­pi­onship, over­com­ing a 19-31 start, Davey Martinez hasn’t heard a word, ei­ther.

The Na­tion­als have a club op­tion that pays Martinez $1.2 mil­lion in 2021, but there have been no talks about an ex­ten­sion or rip­ping up his old deal and giv­ing a new one. The Astros gave man­ager A.J. Hinch a new deal when he won the 2017 World Se­ries. The Red Sox did the same with Alex Cora when he won a year later.

But, of course, those teams didn’t have a GM who’s a lame duck.

So here are the Na­tion­als ask­ing Rizzo and Martinez to lead them through an un­prece­dented sea of un­cer­tainty, nav­i­gate a team through COVID-19 test­ing and safety pro­to­cols, with eight play­ers miss­ing since the start of camp – in­clud­ing their top two young stars in Juan Soto and Vic­tor Robles and hit­ting coach Kevin Long – but un­will­ing to sit down and dis­cuss a new con­tract.

It’s OK to have Rizzo out in front as the face of the $1.9 bil­lion or­ga­ni­za­tion, scold­ing MLB for its test­ing pro­ce­dures that drew con­sid­er­able praise from his play­ers, plead­ing not to fur­lough his em­ploy­ees, guilt­ing own­er­ship into pay­ing the mi­nor lea­guers their full salaries and even mak­ing sure the top ex­ec­u­tives and scouts re­ceived the same World Se­ries rings as the play­ers, only to now have the same se­cu­rity as the sta­dium’s beer ven­dor.

It’s in­sane, but again this is the same own­er­ship that fired man­ager Dusty Baker af­ter win­ning back-to-back di­vi­sion ti­tles. It’s the same own­ers who told Bud Black he was their new man­ager, only to of­fer him a one-year deal. The same own­ers who have per­haps the small­est and low­est-paid front office staffs in baseball.

The Na­tion­als’ en­tire front office baseball staff has only one per­son – Rizzo ($4 mil­lion) – earn­ing more than $500,000. Fran­chises such as the Yan­kees, the Cubs and the Dodgers are pay­ing three or four times as much to their front office staff.

And yet no one in baseball has had more over­all suc­cess than Rizzo since 2012, lead­ing the Na­tion­als to four di­vi­sion ti­tles and eight con­sec­u­tive win­ning sea­sons.

But you know what is Rizzo’s proud­est ac­com­plish­ment?

The Nats have had all this suc­cess with­out a sin­gle pub­lic scan­dal. No PED sus­pen­sions. No domestic vi­o­lence sus­pen­sions. No dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suits. Why, the only blem­ish was back in 2015 when out­fielder Jayson Werth was ar­rested for a reck­less driv­ing charge go­ing 105 mph in his Porsche trav­el­ing along the Belt­way.

Rizzo sim­ply will not tol­er­ate any­one embarrassi­ng or tar­nish­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Re­mem­ber when re­liever Shawn Kel­ley an­grily threw his glove to the ground in a blowout game in 2018 with Rizzo con­vinced the ges­ture was de­fi­ant to­ward Martinez? Rizzo chal­lenged to him a fight, and then re­leased him.

Re­mem­ber when Rizzo be­lieved that vet­eran re­liever Bran­don Kint­zler was a leak to the me­dia about club­house re­lease? He im­me­di­ately traded him to the Cubs for a low-level prospect.

It would be so easy now for Rizzo to stand on the rooftop of his home, walk­ing dis­tance from Na­tion­als Park, and scream to the heav­ens how own­er­ship isn’t re­cip­ro­cat­ing the same loy­alty. It’s not hap­pen­ing.

Rizzo, 59, is old school. He re­al­izes he’s still un­der con­tract. Not once has he ap­proached own­er­ship about his con­tract. He has too much pride to ask for an ex­ten­sion. If they want to keep him, they know where to find him.

Rizzo re­fuses to even talk about his con­tract sit­u­a­tion. You ask about it, the in­ter­view is over.

Still, he un­de­ni­ably wants to stay. This is his home. This is his town. This is his team.

He epit­o­mizes loy­alty. He’ll never for­get that the Lern­ers, and for­mer team pres­i­dent Stan Kas­ten, were the ones who gave him his chance. They could have grabbed a bril­liant and savvy Ivy League grad­u­ate like ev­ery­one else. They in­stead gave him a chance, a kid from the streets of Chicago with a fiery per­son­al­ity, a rough ex­te­rior and who’ll pay more at­ten­tion to his 70-year scout than an an­a­lytic spread­sheet out of a com­puter

He has the re­sume to re­ceive a fiveyear, $50 mil­lion deal like some of his con­tem­po­raries, but if the Nats are adamant about of­fer­ing less dur­ing this pan­demic, he’d cer­tainly lis­ten. It would be nice to sit down and just have a con­ver­sa­tion. If they don’t want to keep him, or try to of­fer an­other two-year, $8 mil­lion deal, hey, no hard feel­ings. He’s not afraid to walk away and ex­plore the mar­ket.

There were as many as nine GMs con­sid­ered to be on the hot seat this sea­son be­fore the pan­demic hit, and surely there will still be a hand­ful of open­ings, with a few own­ers al­ready tar­get­ing Rizzo.

“Mr. Lerner is the envy of baseball be­cause true baseball peo­ple in this game love work­ing for Mike Rizzo,” said Nats spe­cial as­sis­tant Dan Jen­nings, the for­mer GM and man­ager with the Mar­lins. “When we won the World Se­ries we had ev­ery true baseball per­son in the game cel­e­brat­ing with us be­cause we were work­ing for a baseball guy who truly rep­re­sents baseball peo­ple.

“He’s the best guy I’ve ever worked for, or worked along­side, by a long shot.”

It’s im­pos­si­ble to know if the Na­tion­als’ record, or a re­turn to the play­offs, will have any im­pact on Rizzo’s fate. The Lern­ers aren’t talk­ing. Cer­tainly, it’s their right to hire who­ever they want, at what­ever price they can get.

But this is a proud baseball fran­chise and shouldn’t be run like a con­struc­tion site, sit­ting back and mak­ing bids to get the cheap­est cost.

The crazy part in all this is that some of Rizzo’s scouts and front office em­ploy­ees have longer se­cu­rity than he does. Rizzo, un­cer­tain what would hap­pen to him, made sure they had con­tracts through 2021.

Then again, you’ve got to won­der, if Rizzo is gone, why would any­one want to stick around?

BRAD MILLS/USA TODAY SPORTS

Mike Rizzo built the Wash­ing­ton team that won the 2019 World Se­ries, but his job is not se­cure past this sea­son.

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