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Ron Washington Has Atlanta Laughing (While It Learns)

LOS ANGELES — The phone buzzed with a FaceTime request and the old coach grinned. He tapped the screen and up popped the face of his star second …

Ron Washington Has Atlanta Laughing (While It Learns)

LOS ANGELES — The phone buzzed with a FaceTime request and the old coach grinned. He tapped the screen and up popped the face of his star second baseman.

If this scene happened during the off-season, it might have seemed normal. But Ron Washington, Atlanta’s third base coach, was sitting in his team’s dugout. Ozzie Albies, the second baseman, was upstairs in the trainer’s room getting a rubdown. And batting practice was closing in before Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.

Yet there they were, face to face via their devices. Albies was explaining that he would be down to begin his daily drills with Washington in a few minutes. Washington accused him of going soft with the massage. Finally Washington, dressed in yoga pants with shorts over them, requested that Albies bring him some uniform pants.

It was a glimpse into one of the most private and entertaining corners of this postseason’s baseball universe: The loving, lively and unique relationship between Washington and his group of infielders — especially, Albies.

With some colorful language, Albies suggested Washington run his own errand.

Bring my pants, Washington demanded from the dugout.

Freddie Freeman and the rest of Atlanta’s infielders goes through daily drills with Washington to stay sharp. Credit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

A few moments later, Albies arrived in the dugout, dutifully carrying a crisp pair of white baseball pants and a belt.

“I didn’t ask for a belt!” Washington scolded.

“Someone else got the stuff and handed it to me!” Albies snapped back, with both men no longer able to contain their laughter.

Within minutes, they were off to the grassy area in front of the dugout, each on his knees and facing the other from only a few feet away: Washington, 69, with his ever-present fungo bat, bouncing one-hoppers at Albies, 24, who was signed as an international free agent from Curaçao.

“That’s every day,” Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker said. “Every day. But you know what, you’ll drive yourself crazy if you don’t have that attitude every day in this sport. These guys have fun playing. It’s awesome.”

The results have been evident as Atlanta flourished in September and October, with Washington getting some acclaim for waving runners in successfully while the group of infielders he coaches plays airtight defense.

“I always mess with him. I love him, that’s why,” Ozzie Albies said of Washington. “And he loves us.”Credit…Patrick Mcdermott/Getty Images

Washington got a lot of attention with the Oakland Athletics of “Moneyball” fame, and took the Texas Rangers to the World Series twice before off-field issues resulted in his resignation. He acknowledges that his own mistakes — a positive test for cocaine use in 2010 and his resignation as the Rangers’ manager after he had an extramarital affair four years later — may cost him the opportunity to return to managing.

For now, though, Washington is entirely committed to coaching with Atlanta. The elaborate daily drills that he runs his six infielders through are like watching a tightly choreographed dance troupe prepare for a performance.

Six infielders — first baseman Freddie Freeman, Albies, shortstop Dansby Swanson, third baseman Austin Riley and the backups Ehire Adrianza and Johan Camargo — each work with the coach before batting practice. The sessions, according to Washington, last 4 minutes 35 seconds, during which he briskly hits 95 one-hoppers to each player. So 570 one-hoppers daily in around a half-hour of work.

The idea, as Washington hits to a variety of angles on both sides of each player, is to simulate the last hops of ground balls. “Because that’s the only hop that matters,” said Washington, who has long been regarded as one of the game’s best infield coaches.

“When you have a 69-year-old man out there outworking us, it makes us all want to work harder and that’s the key,” Freeman said. “We have a routine every single day. It’s just to wake your hands up, to make sure everything’s going right.”

The players have become so attached to these drills that Snitker loves to tell the story of the final day of the 2017 season. The team was in Miami that day, nothing left to play for, about to head home for the winter, yet the infielders were out before the game doing the drills with Washington.

“I don’t think they feel like their day is complete unless they do it,” Snitker said. “He has a great relationship with all of them, he loves them to death, he will do anything in the world for those guys and they know it.

“It’s special. The guy is a baseball rat.”

Washington’s genuine nature and infectious way with people first surfaced during his days as a backup infielder for five organizations from 1977-89. In 1984, when the Minnesota Twins called up the prized prospect Kirby Puckett from the minor leagues, they placed him in a room on the road with Washington so Puckett would learn good habits.

He became a coach in the Mets’ system upon retiring in 1990. The team was hoping to move Tim Bogar, their eighth-round pick from 1987, from shortstop to second base. Washington raised his hand and said he could help.

“Bogar was my first pupil,” he said.

Washington helped Eric Chavez win six consecutive Gold Gloves during their time together in Oakland. Chavez gave Washington the third one to thank him.Credit…Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Washington led the Texas Rangers to two American League pennants, with the team losing the World Series in both 2010 and 2011.Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Eric Chavez, a defensive star at third base in Oakland, was Washington’s most famous student, because Chavez, in a gesture of gratitude for the hours of tutelage, gifted Washington with the third of his six consecutive Gold Gloves. It’s still displayed at Washington’s home.

Players like the results, but they also are drawn to Washington’s approach.

“You have to develop a relationship, and the way you develop it is you let them have say so in whatever you’re doing,” Washington said. “Whatever you’re teaching, two people should be learning. As the instructor, I should be learning what’s right and what’s wrong with the person I’m working with. And he should be learning what I’m instructing him in.”

That package of skills led him to the manager’s chair with the Texas Rangers from 2007-14. He guided the Rangers to American League pennants 2010 and 2011, and they came within a strike of winning the World Series in ’11 before being stunned by St. Louis.

He was so valued that when he tested positive for cocaine use, the Rangers kept him and helped him through it in 2010. But he resigned in September 2014, disclosing that he had to repair his marriage after the affair.

Washington wasn’t a star in his 10 years in the majors, but teams routinely asked him to guide younger players. A transition to coaching happened immediately upon retirement.Credit…Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

Seven years later, he is hoping to manage again but there have been no offers.

Whatever the reasons, it’s well established that opportunities for Black managers have been scarce. Arizona State’s Global Sport Institute recently studied the hiring and firing patterns from 2010-2019 and found that managers of color were more likely to be fired and less likely to be rehired than their white counterparts.

Washington, like Willie Randolph, Davey Lopes, Jerry Royster, Cecil Cooper and Larry Doby before him, has not gotten a second chance. A handful of Black managers have gotten a second job and Houston’s Dusty Baker, the one notable exception, is managing his fifth club.

“As far as peace goes, No. 1, I made peace with myself. No. 2, made peace with my family. No. 3, what else can I do?” said Washington, who celebrated his 48th anniversary with wife, Geri, this year. “I’m at peace. I was put on earth to do this, to make a difference in people’s lives. I have done that. I continue to do it.”

His team will testify.

“Being on the field with Dansby, Ozzie and Freddie, it’s like I’ve got to step up my game to be able to keep up with those guys,” Riley said. “Working with Wash every day, he’s watching every little thing. Every ball he’s hitting, he’s making sure you’re making the right moves.”

Washington would like a second shot at managing a team, but for now he is making baseball fun for Atlanta. Credit…Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

After watching his team’s other infielders work with the new coach back in 2017, Freeman signed up to join them in 2018. He wound up earning a Gold Glove.

“That’s all because of Ron Washington,” Freeman said. “You never stop learning in this game and Wash helped me realize it.”

Sometimes the learning extends off the field, too. While Washington and Albies jabber at each other nonstop, the familial relationship is obvious.

“He might say a word and I’ll ask him what it means and it’s just something he heard, and I make him go look it up,” Washington said. “Next day, he’ll come up and I’ve looked it up myself so I can be aware of what it is. And it started helping his vocabulary.”

Two of those recent words, Albies said, are “embellishment” and “proceed.”

“He’s the best,” Albies said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s early, late, cold, hot, he’s always there.”

As Atlanta, up by three games to two in the N.L.C.S. heading into Saturday night’s Game 6, hopes to get past Los Angeles for its first World Series appearance since 1999, Washington is there, keeping everyone ready, and also keeping them loose.

“What a novel idea,” Snitker said. “To have fun playing baseball.”

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