When the Oakland A’s were trying to turn Scott Hatteberg from a catcher into a first baseman in the spring of 2002, Hatteberg’s lack of confidence in himself was balanced by the team’s confidence in Ron Washington.
Washington, the Angels’ new manager, was the A’s infield coach when they embarked upon the Hatteberg project.
“All he did was work and work and build me,” Hatteberg recalled last week. “Not only with the physical part, but he made me feel like I was really good.”
Washington’s work with Hatteberg was famously depicted in the film “Moneyball”. Unable to find an affordable first baseman who could get on base as effectively as the departed Jason Giambi, the A’s asked Washington to turn a catcher into a first baseman, and he did so in part with his attitude.
“If I just approached a backhand right or moved my feet right, he’d come out of his shorts, pumped up with that million-dollar smile,” Hatteberg said. “He was just so energized. I was excited that I didn’t tackle another one, and he seemed even more excited. He builds you up that way.”
Hatteberg turned into a first baseman good enough to start 622 games at the position after that career-changing spring training.
“It was because of him,” said Hatteberg, who added that Washington is so good as an instructor that he hoped that part of his skillset would not be lost when he is managing.
Washington, speaking at his introduction last week, assured that it won’t. Although Washington said he wouldn’t interfere with infield coach Ryan Goins, he nonetheless said that he’s “the best in the business” when it comes to defense.
“That’s my expertise,” he said. “Just because I become a manager, I would do my team an injustice if I don’t give them the value of what I have to offer.”
The Angels could certainly benefit from defensive upgrades as they do all they can to try to improve their run-prevention from the disappointment of 2023.
On the heels of an eighth consecutive losing season, the Angels hired Washington to give the organization a jolt. The 71-year-old baseball lifer brings a reputation throughout the game as a brilliant instructor and inspirational leader.
After coaching with the A’s, Washington spent eight seasons managing the Texas Rangers, then two more years back as a coach with the A’s, followed by seven as the Atlanta Braves’ third base coach.
“He was revered in Oakland,” former Rangers infielder Michael Young said. “He was revered here. Same in Atlanta. After a while, it’s not just reputation or hearsay. It’s now objective fact. The guy makes people better.”
How, exactly, does he do that?
To Young, who is now a special assistant with the Rangers, it starts with what he calls the “give-a-(bleep) factor.”
“The guy really does care about his players improving,” Young said. “You know he’s in it with you.”
That’s not just because Washington would often end up drenched in just as much sweat as his players following an infield workout. It goes back to the way Washington interacts with people. Everyone.
Angels general manager Perry Minasian was working in baseball operations for the Rangers when Washington took over as manager in 2007. During that first spring training, Minasian was out running sprints on the field long after the players were done working.
“Hey,” Washington interjected. “Your form is terrible.”
Washington then proceeded to give Minasian some pointers about how to improve his technique.
“He definitely did not need to do that,” Minasian recalled last week. “I was not playing. I was not running the 100 in the Olympics. But that just goes to show you what type of human being he is. He’ll help anyone he can at any point. He’s somebody I think is going to have a huge impact on this organization.”
Minasian worked with Washington again with the Braves, which made him a natural choice when the Angels began looking for a new manager. Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos granted the Angels permission to interview Washington even though he knew what it might cost his team.
“He deserves the opportunity,” Anthopoulos said. “Obviously, I’m excited for him. It’s a huge loss for us. And I emphasize that in caps, bold, italics. All of it. It’s a huge, huge void.”
Washington’s two previous bosses – A’s president David Forst and former Rangers general manager Jon Daniels – echoed Anthopoulos’ praise.
“I haven’t been around a coach in the big leagues who loves teaching as much as Wash,” Forst said. “He really just thrives on the energy he gets from young players and seeing their progress.”
In Washington’s first tenure with the A’s, he not only helped turn Hatteberg into a first baseman, but he worked wonders with third baseman Eric Chavez. Chavez had been error-prone as a minor leaguer and as a young big leaguer, but he went on to win six straight Gold Gloves. He gave one of them to Washington.
The A’s rehired Washington after his stint in Texas, largely because they had another young infielder who needed his help: Marcus Semien.
Semien made 35 errors in his first year with the A’s, in 2015. He’s since won three Gold Gloves at second base.
“I think he made Marcus believe he was good enough to be there,” Forst said. “He also gave us the confidence to give Marcus time. If Wash thought Marcus was going to be a major league shortstop, then what right did we have to doubt it?”
In between the stints with the A’s, Washington got his first shot to manage, taking over a rebuilding Rangers team.
“In 2007, we weren’t a very good team,” Daniels said. “He still communicated in such a way that he passed on this belief to the players that we can compete with anybody. … As the talent level grew and the organization built up, and we actually had a team, it had this multiplier effect. We had this unbelievably confident group of talented guys. They prepared their (tails) off and cared about each other. You saw how quickly it took off.”
Ian Kinsler, who was one of those players who came into his prime under Washington’s tutelage, said the Rangers took on their manager’s personality.
“He comes to work on baseball and getting better everyday, with a competitive, energetic attitude,” Kinsler said via text. “It never changes. He expects his players to show up the same way. There isn’t a lazy bone in his body. His attitude is infectious.”
The relationship that Washington developed with his players was demonstrated one spring day in 2010.
Washington had tested positive for cocaine during the 2009 season, and it became public the following spring. Washington held a meeting and admitted to what he said was an isolated mistake.
“We weren’t 100% sure how they were going to receive it,” Daniels said. “There was a lot of emotion in the room. The players were unanimous. ‘Hey, we’ve got your back.’ There were tears shed and guys hugged. … I’m not one to pass judgment. I believe in second chances. He owned up to it and we moved on.”
That year the Rangers went to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, losing to the San Francisco Giants. The Rangers went back again in 2011, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Young, a fixture on both of those teams, said Washington deserves credit for the way those teams played.
“The hardest-working teams are typically the most successful,” Young said. “Washington is neck-deep in it with you. It’s refreshing. It really is, man. He’s an old schooler. It’s a blue-collar work ethic. Pack your lunch. Get to work. Outwork the other guy and good things are going to happen.”