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Texas Manager Ron Washington rebuilds a team, a home and himself

Hurricane Katrina took his home, and he risked losing his job after using cocaine and testing positive. But he rises from challenges to guide the Rangers to a division title win.

October 04, 2010|By Mike DiGiovanna

Reporting from Arlington, Texas

What Hurricane Katrina did to Ron Washington's New Orleans home in 2005, the Texas Rangers manager nearly did to himself in 2009, his use of cocaine during "a weak moment" sparking a controversy that nearly swept him out of the game.

"I thought my job was over," Washington, 58, said. "I really did."

The rebuilding of Washington's home, reduced to the studs by flooding and high winds from the devastating storm, is nearly complete, thanks in part to about $68,000 in donations from players such as Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi.

So is the Ron Washington reclamation project, the fourth-year manager rising from his potentially career-killing mistake to guide the Rangers to the third division title in the franchise's 39-year history and an American League division series berth against the Tampa Bay Rays.

"I've always been at my best when things are the toughest," said Washington, the son of a truck driver and stay-at-home mom who grew up in New Orleans' Desire Housing Projects, one of the city's most crime-ridden areas. "That's the athlete, the competitor, in me.

"What Katrina did to my house, I didn't do that. I just had to deal with it. The other thing, I did to myself. And the way you deal with it is to stand up like a man, take it, be strong and move past it."

Washington was a scrappy infielder whose blue-collar approach is reflected in the way the Rangers play. Once a team of mashers, Texas used pitching, defense and aggressive base-running to end the Angels' three-year reign as division champions.

His athletic skills and fight-until-your-last breath grit were honed on the playgrounds of New Orleans, where Washington, one of 10 kids in his family, usually played ball and hung out with older, tougher kids.

"You have to survive, you have to keep your clothes on and keep your money in your pocket, because someone was always trying to get it," Washington said. "I learned how to fend for myself because you had no choice. You get used and abused or you show people you're not going to have it."

But in the summer of 2009, there was little fight in Washington.

Sometime around the All-Star break, Washington used cocaine -- he hasn't discussed the circumstances but said it was a one-time thing -- and he failed a drug test.

He offered to resign, but Rangers President Nolan Ryan and General Manager Jon Daniels stuck with him.

"They treated me as family, and they say you don't turn your back on family," Washington said. "They didn't judge me. They supported me."

Washington entered baseball's treatment program, which required him to undergo weekly drug tests and counseling and to inform the commissioner's office of his whereabouts all winter. As a first-time offender, his participation remained confidential.

But just as Washington was completing the program, news of his positive drug test leaked to Sports Illustrated, which published a story on its website March 17.

There were immediate calls for Washington to be fired, but Ryan and Daniels stuck by their manager.

"It's not excusing what happened," Daniels said. "We just took a step back, looked at what's best for Ron, the club and the organization, and when we looked at it like that, it was clear."

The first thing Washington did after meeting with Ryan and Daniels was to apologize to his players in the team's spring training clubhouse in Surprise, Ariz.

"He told his side of the story, and then, one by one, guys stood up and said how we supported him," veteran third baseman Michael Young said. "I was first, and at least 10 other guys spoke, one after another. I said, 'Wash is the manager, he's the guy we want leading the ship.' And that's the way it's been."

What did the support mean to Washington, who spent 11 years as an Oakland Athletics coach before Texas hired him?

"I couldn't describe it in words," he said.

Then it was time to meet the media and the public.

"I stood up, I took the criticism, and I accepted it," Washington said. "My team, the organization, my family and friends stood behind me because they know Ron Washington.

"I made a mistake. In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out, but in life you only get one. I've had my one."

Though Washington completed baseball's mandatory treatment program, he underwent weekly voluntary drug testing all season.

In the months following the spring disclosure, Washington was surprised by the number of negative comments he heard from fans around the country: none.

"If there were any haters out there, they kept it to themselves," Washington said. "I think it's because I … was honest about what went on and didn't try to get around it. People are forgiving."

Did Washington regret not going public in 2009, when he failed the drug test?

"No, because I followed the process," he said. "If MLB felt the best thing to do was go public, I would have.

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