Rangers embody Washington's essence

ARLINGTON, Texas -- When you've nearly drowned in the Arkansas River, forging a professional baseball career doesn't seem quite so daunting. When you've nearly tossed away your managerial career with a cocaine dalliance, ignoring critics becomes pretty easy.

This is why Ron Washington doesn't care what we say. Or think.

Washington's life has been a challenge virtually from the day he emerged from his mama's womb, whether it was navigating the streets of inner city New Orleans as a youth or finding his niche in professional baseball.

Right now, all you need to know is he's the best manager the Texas Rangers have ever had in their mostly irrelevant 40 years in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Whitey Herzog. Billy Martin. Don Zimmer. Bobby Valentine. Buck Showalter.

None of them turned the Rangers into a consistent winner for whatever reason.

Johnny Oates made the Rangers a steady winner for the first time and established an organizational standard with three division titles in four seasons during the 1990s, but his one-dimensional clubs managed just one victory in 10 playoff games.

In Washington's five seasons as manager, the Rangers have improved their record each season from 75 wins in 2007 to a franchise-record 96 this season.

He led the Rangers to their first World Series appearance, and he's the first manager to guide the Rangers to at least 90 wins in consecutive seasons. Just so you know, the Rangers and the Philadelphia Phillies are the only teams to repeat as division champions.

The Rangers won 14 of their last 16 games and finished just a game behind the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League, which is why they have home-field advantage against the Tampa Bay Rays in their American League Divisional Series, which begins Friday.

Another trip to the Fall Classic and the Rangers will become the first AL team to make consecutive trips to the World Series since the Yankees made four consecutive trips to the World Series from 1998 to 2001.

These Rangers embody the manager's essence.

They play with his spunk and grit. And his emotion and swagger. And his relentless style, which pressures the opponent every inning with bunts, hit-and-runs, steals and double steals until it cracks.

In 2006, Showalter's last season, the Rangers ranked 15th in the AL in stolen bases (53) and 14th in runners advancing from first to third or home on a single (76).

The Rangers finished this season ranked fourth in stolen bases (143) and second in runners going from first to third or scoring on a single (95).

That's the manager's direct impact on the club. This is among the most versatile clubs in baseball.

This team doesn't wait for the three-run bomb, even though three players hit 30 homers or more.

It can create offense, a necessity in the playoffs, where pitching reigns.

Frankly, callers to sports talk radio should be trying to raise money to build Washington a monument for taking this franchise where it used to only dream of going, instead of consistently second-guessing his bullpen moves and making fun of his use of the King's English.

Too many Rangers fans choose to heap all of the credit for the Rangers' success upon Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels.

Don't misunderstand, Ryan gives the club stability and direction, and low-key billionaires Bob Simpson and Ray Davis provide the cash to sign high-priced free agents, such as Adrian Beltre, and youngsters with unlimited potential, such as 16-year-old Nomar Mazara, who received a $5 million signing bonus as an international free agent.

Daniels acquires the talent with shrewd trades, such as the deal that sent Frank Francisco to the Toronto Blue Jays for Mike Napoli, and a terrific scouting department is why the Rangers can make bold moves at the trade deadline.

Washington gets those players to maximize their potential with a deft combination of tough love, detailed instruction, passion and humor. He's demanding, but he gives every player more than enough time to succeed or fail, which is all he ever wanted as a player.

You're fooling yourself if you think 100 other managers could walk into the Rangers' clubhouse and win 96 games.

Sitting in the dugout Thursday afternoon after throwing 30 minutes of batting practice, Washington reflected on how differently his life would've turned out without God's grace.

As a 17-year-old, Washington attended a Kansas City Royals tryout camp. Of the 156 players at the camp, the Royals signed one player: Washington.

Two years later, the Army drafted Washington, but the Royals arranged for him to join the National Guard and spend two weeks each summer at the base in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

One summer, Washington was among a group of soldiers building a bridge over a section of the Arkansas River as a training exercise. Once the bridge was completed, the soldiers celebrated by jumping off the bridge.

Washington couldn't swim, so he put on a life vest before jumping. As the water enveloped his body, Washington felt the life jacket slipping off.

A fellow soldier dove in and saved him.

"My life, my family, everything literally flashed in front of my eyes," said Washington, who spent six years in the National Guard. "When you compare that to baseball, the game isn't that big of a deal. The reason I'm still here is that I've been through some things and it toughened me.

"When you get knocked down or go through something tough, you can either get up and fight or lay down like a kitty cat. I ain't never been no kitty cat."

The same approach helped Washington survive the most difficult time of his professional career after it was revealed during 2010 spring training that he had tested positive for cocaine during the 2009 season.

After meeting with the front office, Washington packed his things and waited to get fired.

Ryan and Daniels opted to forgive him. So did his wife.

More important, Washington forgave himself.

"That was the second time in my life that everything I've ever done flashed in front of my eyes," Washington said. "I couldn't believe I had almost thrown away everything I had worked so hard to get."

As one of two African-American managers in the big leagues, Washington knows it's never just about him.

He didn't just let himself and his family down. He let down former managers such as Frank Robinson and Cito Gaston, who paved the way for him.

And he let down those who have looked up to him during his baseball career.

And he let down those who might not ever get an opportunity to manage because he screwed up.

The reality, however, is that dumb mistake actually made him a better manager.

"At first, I thought people would hold it over me for the rest of my life and use it against me," Washington said. "That's when I realized it was out of my hands and I couldn't control what people would do or could do, so I let it go.

"I decided to focus even more on my job because the one thing I know is baseball. I'm a damn good baseball man. That's my strength. I know this from the bottom of my heart.

"I'm a lifer. God gave me the ability to absorb things about this game and teach this game."

The Rangers reap the benefits of his blessing.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.