Washington Post: Mike Rizzo built contending Nationals teams before, but ‘personally, I needed to get here’

Oct. 31, 2019 at 5:01 p.m. EDT

HOUSTON — Mike Rizzo has a few stories he has told so often, those who have pried into his memory enough can recite them by now, their plots and cadence honed by repetition. One of them concerns the hours after the Nationals lost Game 4 of the 2014 National League Division Series to the San Francisco Giants, on a mostly quiet plane back to Washington, surrounded by the soon-to-disperse remnants of what once looked like a World Series contender.


Rizzo, to hear the general manager tell it, sat on that plane, flipped on his light and started scratching out plans for the 2015 Nationals roster, right then and there.


The point of the story, or the similar ones he told after later losses about being back in his office at Nationals Park a few hours later, was to illustrate that his Nationals were a work in progress. Those disappointments were never the end of anything but just facts of baseball life.


But he will have new stories to recite in the years to come, about what he did in the hours and days after the Nationals finally won their first World Series, the one he said just last week that he needed to feel he had achieved his goals here — the one that, so often, looked as if it might never come.


“Personally, I needed to get here,” Rizzo said. “And I needed to win the World Series.”


These tales won’t include solitary lineup sketching in the dark of a despondent plane. They’ll begin with smiles, with watching Daniel Hudson fire his glove into baseball history and Rizzo wrapping his son, Mike, in one arm and his fiancee, Jodi Fick, in the other. They’ll include his brief speech onstage, which included a reference to the 90-year-old special assistant who had wanted this even more than he did — his father, Phil Rizzo, a longtime major league scout who has been offering advice, solicited and unsolicited, to his son throughout his Nationals tenure.

“He’s forgotten more about baseball than I’ll ever know,” said Rizzo, drenched in celebration precipitation as Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blared so loudly he could hardly hear the question.


Rizzo’s time in Washington hasn’t included many moments like those, of affection or tears or sentimentality. Since he took over as general manager in 2009, Rizzo has often projected an image of defiance. He has spent years insisting that a few October bounces shouldn’t undermine the legacy of his Nationals, who have won more regular season games since 2012 than any team but the Los Angeles Dodgers.


He rarely makes the pundits’ lists of genius GMs. Despite perennial regular season success, he never developed the star power of Theo Epstein or the innovative reputation of Jeff Luhnow. Thanks to multiple fluky Game 5 failures, Rizzo’s teams were always considered good enough for the regular season but never built for much in October. Rizzo’s Nationals have now won as many World Series titles since 2012 as Epstein’s Chicago Cubs and Luhnow’s Houston Astros.


“The labels didn’t bother me because I don’t pay attention to them. But it was frustrating that we didn’t go farther than we did because I thought all those teams were World Series-caliber teams,” Rizzo said. “I don’t worry about the labels on it, but I was frustrated that we never got past that round because we were oh-so-close and oh-so-talented.”


His fellow front office executives leading other teams always respected Rizzo. Many say privately that he has one of the tougher jobs in baseball, in large part because the Lerner family is so deeply involved in the day-to-day decisions made around the team. Some places, owners plug in their executives and let them go. In Washington, decisions go through “the family,” which means Rizzo must navigate far more voices and opinions than many of his colleagues. Importantly, the Lerners have also invested more money in their roster than most ownership groups. Rizzo has always praised them for that.


“I’ve worked for three Hall of Fame general managers: Walt Jocketty, Brian Sabean and Theo Epstein,” said Johnny DiPuglia, a longtime baseball man who runs the Nationals’ international operations. “To me, [Rizzo] is the top of the list. The sole reason is, he lets you do your job. He’s not a micromanager. He trusts you. And to me, that allows me to work at the best of my abilities.”


Others who have worked for Rizzo with the Nationals for years say the same. Rizzo surrounds himself with people he trusts, and then he lets them do their jobs. He is not one to nitpick or chastise — unless, of course, someone doesn’t pick up the phone when he calls. He isn’t one to praise either. His front office staffers know Rizzo approves when he re-ups their contracts or tells them he is promoting them.


That approach is far less corporate than many of his fellow general managers, who honed their management styles in business school or board rooms, instead of on the long, winding roads of middle America. Rizzo lets his people do their jobs because when he was a scout, he just wanted his higher-ups to let him do his.


DiPuglia, like assistant general managers Mark Scialabba, Doug Harris and Kris Kline, has stayed with Rizzo as he built his franchise in Washington. He hasn’t yet cultivated a large tree of proteges in front offices around the game, in large part because a lot of his co-workers have stuck around.


But they don’t always agree. Rizzo isn’t one to shy away from a shouting match when he feels it’s warranted, particularly in the draft room. He had to fire his longtime friend, former assistant general manager Bob Miller, after the 2018 season when ownership decided to cut the baseball operations budget. He can be blunt and combative. But longtime baseball people respect him as a straightforward negotiator and decision-maker. In this game, filled with players worried front office executives are increasingly unaware of what it takes to wear their cleats, those qualities foster loyalty.


“He’s someone that hires people because he trusts them to do their job,” Scialabba said. “He welcomes opinions and wants feedback, but you also have to go out there and do your job. We have a special thing going right now, not just on the field but with his staff, where we’re all pulling on the same rope. And that’s something Mike has talked about since day one.”


Lately, because of the juxtaposition with the analytics-centric Astros in the World Series, some have cast Rizzo as the man leading scouting’s last stand in a data-driven baseball world. But while Scialabba and others say Rizzo has widened his lens to include more data in his decision-making, he has not gone so far as to make his players feel like numbers in a spreadsheet.


“He’s huge on chemistry and clubhouse stuff, not bringing in bad teammates, not bringing in bad guys,” said Ryan Zimmerman, one of the few people that predates Rizzo with the Nationals. “Before he makes really any sort of moves, he’ll reach out to us and ask if we’ve heard anything about this player or that player. So he’s big on that kind of stuff.”


The chemistry, those close to Rizzo say, is what made this iteration of his Nationals so much different from the others. The origins of chemistry aren’t easy to trace — hard to credit to a general manager over a manager, or to one player acquisition over another. But whatever it was that did it, a team that Rizzo built is now a World Series champion. His legacy will be forever altered. Rizzo, the fourth-longest-tenured GM in baseball, doesn’t think he has changed much at all.


“Maybe I listen a little better,” he speculated, watching his team take batting practice on the field at Minute Maid Park last week. What has changed is that legacy, which no longer includes the can’t-win label. What is changed is his place in the D.C. community. Rizzo memorably bought a house a few blocks from Nationals Park just before the 2018 season, when he did not yet have a contract for beyond that season.


“Bad idea,” the veteran negotiator still jokes.


The stories he can tell have changed, too.


Now, he can tell the story about how the World Series ended two weeks before he is due to marry, about how they planned it after a would-be parade, just in case. Now, he can tell the story of sitting next to his son in the stands at Dodger Stadium as Howie Kendrick hit the grand slam that finally pushed his Nationals out of the division series, trying to keep a straight face for the cameras as his son and his friends went berserk. Now, Rizzo can tell the story of winning a World Series for his father, of sharing one with his family and of standing on the stage and hoisting the trophy. And in a day or two, Rizzo will almost certainly be able to tell the story of the day he walked into his office, took a look at a World Series trophy and started scratching out his plans to win another.

Nash Sanderson