Rizzo promoted to GM of Nationals

WASHINGTON -- When he was a kid, Mike Rizzo wanted a job in the majors. As a player, not an executive.

When it was clear that wasn't going to happen, when he was released after a brief stint as an infielder in the minors with the California Angels organization in the early 1980s, the question was: What now? Rizzo sat down for a talk with his father, a baseball scout whose advice was to stick with the sport, but to switch his focus.

"He said, 'Mike, you could be a minor league bum your whole life. You're not going to play in the big leagues. You're not talented enough for that," Rizzo recalled Thursday.

Instead, Dad suggested, be a scout, coach, manager or general manager.

"His mother told me I was heartless: 'How could you do that to your son?" Phil Rizzo said in a telephone interview. "The hardest thing for me to do was to tell him not to play anymore ... to try to move on to bigger and better things. That's what he did."

Said the son: "It was a driving force in me getting to the position I have today."

After a lifetime of working his way up the ranks, including 11 years as a low-level area scout, always figuring -- well, hoping -- he would one day hear the words "Mike Rizzo" and "general manager" in the same sentence without "assistant" or "acting" or "interim" there, too, it happened. He took over Thursday as the full-fledged, permanent GM of the Washington Nationals, a job he felt he deserved for a while and the team finally decided in recent days he had earned.

"I took the long road," the 48-year-old Rizzo said, "and learned my craft."

He joined the Nationals as assistant GM in July 2006, after seven seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks, primarily as director of scouting. When his boss in Washington, Jim Bowden, abruptly resigned as GM during spring training March 1, Rizzo took over most of the day-to-day duties, but he was still technically an assistant general manager.

"I don't know if people know how hard this boy works," said Phil Rizzo, whose own first scouting job came in the 1950s and who now files reports for Mike Rizzo's Nationals.

After 5½ months of doing that work -- including signing No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg to a record deal just a few days ago -- Rizzo gets the big title, too.

"I certainly knew he wanted it. Before we hired Mike [three years ago], that was one of the things people said about him, both pro and con: 'You know, he really wants to be a GM," Nationals president Stan Kasten said. "I don't think he would have been a GM three years ago. He clearly is a GM today, because of what he's experienced, because of what he's done, because of what he's learned in the last three years."

Rizzo acknowledged his strength all along was player evaluation. He needed the on-the-job training under Bowden that Rizzo called an "internship into the general managership."

Kasten said he compiled a list of about 75 candidates back in March, a group he whittled to about a half-dozen people by June. Rizzo did have a "home-court advantage," Kasten said, but added that was not the final factor.

"This is a can-do guy. And he's proven to be 'can-do-more-than-I thought," Kasten said. "It's a joke, but it's true: I just hired a first-time GM with an awful lot of GM experience."

The promotion lends stability to a franchise that hasn't enjoyed much, dating to the days when it was the Montreal Expos and there was talk of folding the team. One of Rizzo's first tasks will be deciding whether to keep interim manager Jim Riggleman, who took over last month when Manny Acta was fired.

Rizzo was plain about the "holes" on his roster. This is, after all, a team on pace for a second consecutive 100-loss season and a fourth last-place finish in five years.

"We know we have a lot of work to do," he said, mentioning veteran starting pitching and bullpen help as priorities.

"We are, I think, really on the threshold of putting things in the right order and being able to become a competitive ballclub in the very, very near future," Rizzo said.

Despite his -- and his father's -- background in scouting, Rizzo conceded the importance of using statistical data when evaluating players. It's something he is new to, but also something he is growing comfortable pairing with his more traditional -- he called it "old school" -- methods.

"Mike has become much more adept sabermetrically -- he even uses that word in our meetings -- than he would have thought a year ago," Kasten said. "He identified that as something he'd like to step up in."

It's quite a week for Washington, one that will be capped Friday, when Strasburg is introduced to fans with an on-field, pregame news conference at Nationals Park.

It began Monday, when Rizzo sealed the $15.1 million deal with Strasburg. Kasten's one-liner during Thursday's news conference: "It's never a good thing to put on your job application for a position as GM that, 'I just gave away the most money in history to a draft pick."

The next day, Rizzo was told the permanent GM job was definitely his. His first call was to his wife. His second was to 79-year-old Phil Rizzo, the man who taught him, "Don't lie" and who steered him toward an off-field baseball career.

Rizzo teared up Thursday in describing that emotional phone call to Dad, recounting, "His first words to me were: 'It's about time."