Bad Situations, Positive Things
Earlier this week, Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten appointed Mike Rizzo to head up a tough project in a foreign country. Rizzo knew baseball scouting, not business, yet this project called for him to be a navigator, a negotiator and a real estate agent. Rizzo knew hardly any Spanish - "Muy poquito," he said - but he was given a plane ticket to the Dominican Republic and 72 hours to make everything work.
During that time, Rizzo dismantled the same baseball facility that his boss, General Manager Jim Bowden, had once sold as a core of the organization. And when Rizzo returned on Friday to Space Coast Stadium, having relocated the Nationals' base in the Dominican to a site 30 miles away from controversy, Rizzo got to tell the story of what just happened. He had become Kasten's appointee to talk about a job well done.
"Well, I told Stan when this all happened, sometimes out of bad situations, sometimes positive things can happen," Rizzo said. "And this is certainly one of those cases."
On this day, Rizzo's role within the organization connected to more prominence - and more importance - than ever before. Another day passed without Bowden's firing, which only meant that as Rizzo talked about what he had done, the baseball world wondered what he will become.
"That right there is a powder keg in Washington," one baseball executive said, "and Rizz is a good solution."
For now, Rizzo remains Washington's assistant general manager. But he is also the only in-house candidate to replace Bowden, under FBI investigation, and under fire for his connection to the fraudulent signing of the player known as Esmailyn González, who emerged from the very facility that Rizzo shut down.
While in the Dominican, Rizzo visited that facility - which the team had rented from recently fired employee José Rijo. After scouting eight new locations, he settled on a complex in Boca Chica. The 2-1/2 fields at the new site are "gorgeous," Rizzo said, and the eight pitching mounds are "beautiful," and the players will be housed in a "beautiful resort," three to a room, with "air conditioning, cable TV, bathroom, four meals a day, 24-hour security." Washington's prospects were "exuberant" about the relocation, and received a pep talk about making it to the United States and helping the Nationals win a World Series.
"It's something that doesn't compare to anything I've ever done," Rizzo said on Friday. "It was - when we landed today, I said, 'Do you believe what just happened?' "
Rizzo came to the organization in July 2006, just weeks after the signing that netted González, whose real name is Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo, $1.4 million. By then, he had already developed a reputation - during almost seven years as the Arizona Diamondbacks' scouting director - as one of the game's premier talent evaluators. He had a love for physicality: pitchers with velocity, corner outfielders with raw tools. His philosophy favored college players, too. Carlos Quentin - that was a Rizzo guy. Same with Conor Jackson and Stephen Drew and Brandon Webb. Rizzo received and deserved much of the credit for revamping Arizona's farm system, ranked as one of baseball's worst in 2002.
Rizzo was, at heart, a born scout, and scouts are born optimists. They walk into stadiums every day thinking they'll spot the next big thing. And in Arizona, Rizzo worked frantically to do so.
"On any high-dollar [international] player, Mike would go look at him," said Joe Garagiola Jr., Arizona's general manager from 1998 to 2005. "And he'd work it. He'd be in Miami, fly to the Dominican to see a workout, and fly back to Miami to see a game that same night."
But then, something happened. Garagiola resigned on Aug. 7, 2005, to take a job in the Major League Baseball offices. Rizzo was passed over for the Arizona GM job. He stuck around for almost a year, but felt ready for a new organization and a higher job.
"Honestly, the opportunity more than anything else, that's why he left," said one current Arizona front-office member, who requested anonymity. "He saw the opportunity. In one regard it was tough for him to leave because he had really put his imprint on the organization. But in this lifetime we all have a goal, and Mike, he wanted to be a GM. He saw the road to that position a little more clearly in Washington."
Within the industry, Rizzo's baseball acumen is widely respected. And though some question his ability to be a deal-maker - vital for a general manager - Garagiola said that, in Arizona, Rizzo "handled a lot of contract negotiations. He basically handled all the Stephen Drew negotiations with [Scott] Boras, and they don't get any tougher than that."
On Friday, Rizzo got his first chance to talk about a different sort of deal-making, the kind that had occupied the bulk of his previous week. As he spoke, Washington's new Dominican director, Fernando Ravelo, stood to his left. Assistant director of player development Mark Scialabba stood to his right. Kasten stood just to the side, observing.
When Rizzo finished talking, he headed toward a stadium elevator. Kasten extended a hand and said, "Good job, Mike. Great job."
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