Washington making most of opportunity

When the season began, there were four African-American managers in the major leagues: Dusty Baker in Cincinnati, Cito Gaston in Toronto, Jerry Manuel in Queens, and Ron Washington in Texas.

Gaston retired. Manuel was fired. Only Baker and Washington remain.

Baker did a masterful job in Cincinnati, as the Reds earned their first playoff berth in 15 years. Washington has had an even better year, leading the Rangers to their first pennant.

And earlier this week, with little notice, Washington claimed a share of baseball history: He became the third African-American to manage in the World Series, joining Gaston (1992 and 1993) and Baker (2002). In fact, Gaston and Baker were among the first to phone in congratulations to Washington after the Rangers won the American League.

“It blows away the myth that Afro-Americans can’t manage a championship ballclub,” said Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame slugger and first black manager in the majors. “It’s tremendous for him. Within a short time frame — four years — he’s got his team in the World Series. It’s a tremendous accomplishment. I’m very proud of him. I’m happy for him.”

It’s cause for alarm that there are only two black managers in the majors. But the industry also can celebrate Washington as a success story in Major League Baseball’s effort to promote diversity in managerial searches.

The MLB policy — now 11 years old — mandates that minority candidates be considered for high-profile jobs, in the front office and dugout. For two reasons, the rule should be held more sacred today than ever before: 1) It is the right thing to do, especially given the game’s longstanding contribution to social progress; and 2) Teams considering only the familiar names may miss the best man for the job.

Fortunately for the Rangers, their search led them to Washington.

He had been a coach with the Oakland A’s for 11 years when the Rangers hired him in November 2006. But the crucial juncture may have come in the offseason before that, when he interviewed for openings with Florida and Oakland.

Would Washington’s interview in Texas have gone as smoothly without his previous interviewing experience? Would the Marlins and A’s have considered Washington without the MLB policy?

We’ll never know. But if you believe, as I do, that Washington is a major reason why the Rangers are in the World Series, then you must acknowledge the importance of giving minority candidates the chance to “get their names out there” through the interview process.

Earlier this month, Washington admitted, somewhat surprisingly, “All I ever wanted to be in this game was an infield instructor and third base coach.” That changed with Oakland’s success in the early 2000s. He became more visible.

“The media in Oakland decided, ‘Maybe this guy is able to manage,’” Washington said. “They began to put that out, (and) some people gave me an opportunity for interviews.”

The interview game isn’t for everyone. Gaston, the only African-American manager to win a World Series, was fired by Toronto at the end of the 1997 season. He later interviewed for managerial openings with the Indians, Brewers and White Sox. Then he stopped.

“A couple times, I just felt like I was going to interviews so they could say they interviewed a minority,” he explained.

But near the end of his second tenure as Toronto manager, Gaston could reflect on what his success meant to the next generation of African-American managerial hopefuls.

“I think it opened doors, especially once we won a division championship and World Series,” Gaston said. “I still think there is a lot of work to do, as far as bringing minorities into this game. … But I know it’s a lot better than it was.”

Front offices and field staffs today are reasonably diverse, particularly when considering the number of Latinos in prominent positions. Yet, the low number of African-Americans on the field remains a concern for the industry. According to USA Today, black players accounted for 9.5 percent of the Opening Day roster spots this year. Unless a black candidate is hired for one of the four open jobs – Marlins, Brewers, Mets, Pirates – Baker and Washington will account for an even lower percentage (6.7) of managerial positions.

While there are only two, at least they are thriving.

In an interview prior to the World Series, Washington traced his success back to two things the Rangers gave him. One was an opportunity. The other was time.

“A lot of it has to do with your players and your coaching staff — people sending the message as to how you feel the game should be played,” he said. “Dusty did it in San Francisco. He had a few years with a club to find out how he wanted it done, and they did it. When Cito did it in Toronto, they put some pieces together, played his style of baseball, and ended up doing it in back-to-back years.

“I finally put a coaching staff together that went out and got my guys to understand the style of baseball we can play. And we accomplished that this year.”

Washington believes other managerial candidates could win in similar conditions — as long as they found “a general manager willing to take a chance.” For Washington, that was the highly respected Jon Daniels. And then the Rangers stuck with Washington last year, even after he tested positive once for cocaine use.

Now, even as his team faces an 0-2 deficit against the San Francisco Giants, Washington is four wins away from accomplishing something that only his friend Gaston has done.

“It would be really special, because of Cito, but I really want to join him because that’s what I want for my team,” Washington said.

He paused for a moment, reflecting on the history of it all. Then he smiled. Big.

“If we can pull this off,” he continued, “then I can dig a little deeper in my soul.”