One year later, Mike Rizzo reflects
One year ago today, Jim Bowden walked to the center of the Nationals clubhouse, a Starbucks coffee cup in his hand, and told the players, "I am resigning as general manager of the Washington Nationals." Bowden, after four years of constant dealing and oddball behavior, no longer ran the team. The Nationals, operating amid the chaos of an international scandal and a federal investigation, needed to find their second general manager.
Though Stan Kasten did not shed Rizzo's interim label until August, Rizzo has now been the Nationals general manager for precisely 365 days. When asked today if he knew the significance of the date, Rizzo took a sip of water and shook his head. When informed, he seemed to get a kick out of it. Rizzo is clearly proud, both of simply being a big league GM and of the work he's done to begin transforming the Nationals. In a conversation today, he reflected on how much the team has changed in Year 1 AB.
Q: What are your broad reflections of the last year?
Rizzo: It's significant enough to me not to recognize the day. I've kind of gone through the whole process just kind of day by day. Until I got a chance to really put my stamp on the organization, last year, it really was, we were looking day by day. Maybe a week in advance. We were just trying to adjust on the fly. Since then, since I've gotten the job full time, it's been really exciting to be able to put together a staff, put together a club employing your philosophy and stuff like that. It's been really gratifying to do that, and it's been really exciting, to see how much we've progressed.
Q. When you think about those first days and weeks, how crazy was that when you look back now?
Rizzo: It was extremely, extremely chaotic. The best way to describe it is, it was a day-by-day event just putting out some kind of fire every day. You rarely got a chance to step back and look big picture. They were all mini-emergencies, every day. Just trying to put out a fire. It was crazy. The president of the club says, 'Do this, get it done quickly.' I just went into action. I go into my get-it-done mode. You pull out all the stops. You employ all your resources, all your contacts, all your experience over the years, and get it done. That was a big fire. When I get back from that fire down in the Dominican, then Stan makes me the interim, acting, or whatever I was at that time. So I'm running the day-to-day club. I packed for a two-week trip. I haven't left yet. [Laughs.] It was quite the eventful spring. It just went right into the season. It was quite exciting and quite hectic and quite nerve-wracking. There's a lot of adjectives you could put to it. The people who were there on a daily basis realized the trials and tribulations that we went through. It was really a remarkable season. It really was.
Q. Is there one low point? Did it come during the Dominican saga, or did it come later? It's not like things were easy.
Rizzo: The low point of the season for me is when I had to fire Manny. That was difficult. A good guy, a good person, a good baseball guy took the fall for non-performance. He understood it as a professional. I understood having to do it as a professional. That was, to me, the toughest part. Right on the heels of that, though, we kind of had a new beginning. It was difficult firing him at 2 o'clock in the morning when we came back from that road trip. And then the next day, Jim was the new manager. The sadness of him being fired, the excitement of Jim's time starting. The all-star break wasn't much of a break. We'll put it that way.
Q. At what point do you feel you had your stamp on the team like you wanted it?
Rizzo: Like I wanted it, really not until this offseason. I thought I had a pretty good foothold in the latter part of the season. I think a watershed moment for the organization and for my regime was when we made the [Nyjer] Morgan trade. That was an important part of it. I thought that was the beginning of putting my stamp on it. Because it was something that wouldn't have been done under the old regime. That was an important moment. I felt in well control towards July, August of that season. I felt good in the GM skin. Going into the offseason was really -- obviously, getting the official pat on the back and the official title, the official job. More than that, ownership really allowing me to put my fingerprints on the organization from top to bottom.
Q: It must be strange thinking this is something you wanted to your whole career, but the first thing you had to do, that time, was something really difficult to go through.
Rizzo: It was. But I think all good things come to those who wait. I think that was just a part of the dues I had to pay. Other GMs have had a little easier road getting their opportunities. You know, I look back at it, I think it was a baptism by fire. It was the case of, 'Why don't you get your feet wet?' [Laughs]. It was 'Here it is. Run with it. Keep us afloat.' A lot of things took place. We made more roster moves than any team in baseball. In one week, we turned a whole bullpen over. We made a five-man sweep in one day. That was kind of the changes we had to make. It's so difficult when the season has begun to overhaul a roster. That was part of the things that I had to compete with, and I was competing without an assistant GM, without many scouts. We were in it on our own.
Q: Obviously, things will change. But do you feel like you're pretty much done with the skeletal change you wanted to make to the organization?
Rizzo: I think the majority of it is done. We're always looking to get better, obviously. Different opportunities present themselves at different times. I think the mass majority of it is. We got the guys in there we want. Now, there will just be some tweaks and some subtle changes. We've more or less overturned the major league roster, the front office staff, the majority of the scouts and the player development staff.
Q: That must be a good feeling -- you have a base and now you can tinker.
Rizzo: It is. It's a good feeling. I feel comfortable with the fact that we have three drafts under our belt [with Rizzo as the scouting director or GM]. We've got a fourth coming up with the first pick. We've got Roy Clark and Kris Kline heading the staff, two great track records. I think it usually takes five or six strong drafts to come up with a foundation of an organization. I feel we're at the point where we're getting there.
Q: What was the high point?
Rizzo: The successful signing of Stras was a high point. I'll tell you what, the day we dialed up with ownership when we were putting this winter plan together, the ownership meetings where we kind of plotted out what we were going to do, with me being the architect of it, and then helping me get through it, and them allowing me to do it, giving us the okay. 'Okay, here. It's a good plan. You explained it well. You explained the long-term ramifications, the short-term commitments. Where we'll be in '10, where we'll be in the end.' And then, having a plan is one thing. Getting the guys to sign with you at a time where it was difficult to get free agents to take us seriously and come over here was another part of it. One of the high points is when we got the Pudge Rodriguez deal done in the winter meetings. Really jumping out fast in the winter meetings and kind of setting a precedent that we're going to be aggressive. The Nationals are here, and we're not going to be tread on any longer. We're here, we're here to stay, we're here to beat you. We're not going to roll over.
Q: Given how much of a debacle it was last year, how different is the feel now than last year?
Rizzo: Knock on wood, it's smooth. Even when normal things happen, that will be an improvement. If a guy's not playing well or an injury happens, that's what's supposed to happen in spring training, not all this periphery stuff. The one thing that I'm most proud is, this is certainly a professionally run spring training with professional guys. There's no circus atmosphere. There's no carnivals. It's baseball like in 29 other organizations. That's a big part of it. We're getting to the point where, these professional guys, they wouldn't let it be any other way. Pudge isn't going to stand for anybody clowning around. Neither is [Adam] Kennedy or [Adam] Dunn in their own quiet way. They're not going to stand for it. Like we did in Arizona -- [shoot], the manager didn't have to say a word. You screwed up, Matt Williams put you in a locker. And that was end of it. Mark Grace, Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez -- those were the guys who gave the fines, jump peoples' [rear], put a guy in a locker. That's what we're trying to get here -- the veteran presence. [Ryan Zimmerman] is turning into that veteran presence, too. We're lucky our best player is our hardest worker.
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