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Once again, Rangers' Washington must overcome major setback

"That's the way baseball go," Ron Washington likes to say. He'll say this with a kind of shrug. He'll be sitting in the manager's office after a game, an opened pack of Winstons on his desk, and someone with a tape recorder and notebook will ask him to explain why one of his pitchers can't find his fastball, or why his lineup has suddenly gone cold, or how a team one strike away from the World Series title can let it all slip away. "That's the way baseball go," he'll say. And what more is there to say? The Rangers manager had some bad breaks in his career -- he tore up his knee early in his playing days ("Was never the same after that," he says) and he was released from the Twins in 1987, just before they won the World Series -- so he knows just how strange and cruel this game can be.

The cruelest twist, of course, came that night in St. Louis last October, when Washington was standing on the dugout steps at Busch Stadium, his team one out away from the franchise's first ever World Series title. Then David Freese stepped up to the plate, and you know the rest.

Yes, there should have been a parade down Nolan Ryan Expressway. Yes, Derek Holland and his moustache should have been on Letterman. And yes, the Texas Rangers should be opening the 2012 season as the defending world champs. But they aren't. And you know what Ron Washington says to that? "That's the way baseball go."

* * *

Here's the thing about baseball in 2012: There are still some mysteries left in the game. We don't know everything -- and we're especially clueless when it comes to managers. We don't know if the Robin Ventura and Mike Matheny experiments will be successes or spectacular failures. We have no idea how many World Series titles the Yankees would have won without Joe Torre. We don't know how much an impact a manager really has on his team. We know when a manager makes a good lineup decision or a bad bullpen call, but at the end of the day, strategy and tactics are only part of the manager's job -- a small part, some would say. Lineup construction, for example, doesn't matter nearly as much as we think it does. "Managers are like icebergs," says Chris Jaffe, author of the book Evaluating Baseball's Managers. "Most of what matters is below the surface and out of view."

It's easy to see why the Rangers are two-time defending American League champs and a World Series threat again this year. The offense is a juggernaut -- a lineup of "Five [Evan] Longorias," as Rays pitcher David Price puts it. The pitching staff under Mike Maddux has figured out how to pitch in Arlington. The front office is one of the smartest in the game.

But the real story of how the Texas Rangers became the best and most complete team in the American League begins with their 59-year-old manager, one of the best under-the-surface managers in the game. The story begins in a classroom. It is a classroom at a baseball training facility in Sarasota, Florida, at the legendary Royals Baseball Academy. It is 1971, and one of the teenagers sitting at a desk facing a chalkboard is an impossibly skinny 17-year-old spitfire from New Orleans' Ninth Ward.

"We did stuff on the chalkboard, and then took it to the field," Washington recalls. "We did this every day. It didn't take long before I knew, when a ball was put in play, where every [person] on that field was supposed to be. They was doing things way beyond what normal baseball was supposedly about."

This is where the education of Ron Washington began, under instructors like Buzzy Keller, who ruled over the academy like a dictator. Thirty-five years later, in 2006, after the Rangers named Washington as Buck Showalter's successor, Keller showed up in Washington's office. "He was wanting to apologize for being so hard on me," Washington said. "I said, 'Don't you apologize. You made me who I am today.'"

There were many other teachers along the way, of course. There was Tom Kelly, another minor league instructor in the Royals organization, another great baseball man who taught him about fundamentals and the little things. "I believe in the game being complete," says Washington. "Tom Kelly was about the game being complete. The Kansas City Royals were about the game being complete. And I always told myself if I ever got the chance to be a big league manager, that I want to play the game completely. I want to pitch. I want to hit. I want to be able to steal bags. I want to be able to bunt, I want to be able to have my players move the runner, I want to be able to squeeze, I want to be able to hit and run, I want to be able to go first to third, I want to look for balls in the dirt. I want to be able to take advantage of every opportunity that's given to you in the game of baseball. I want to be ... complete."

And so the Rangers became the best and most complete team in baseball -- a team that could beat you in every way imaginable --- exactly how their manager always envisioned. "We went from the bottom to the top, on the style of baseball that I've learned to play since I've been in the game," says Washington.

* * *

The easy thing would be to say that the story of the 2012 Texas Rangers is a story of redemption -- the redemption of a franchise that still has never won a World Series and came just one strike away last October. You could say it's about the redemption of players like Neftali Feliz, who gave up the game-tying Game 6 triple to Freese, and Nelson Cruz, who let the ball sail over his head. You could say it's about the redemption of the front office headed by GM Jon Daniels, who was nearly run out of town after he traded Mark Teixiera to the Braves in 2007. That deal wound up laying the foundation for the team's championship run.

You could say it's about the redemption of Ron Washington, who three years ago nearly threw everything away. One July morning three years ago Washington arrived at the ballpark and asked a clubhouse attendant to bring empty boxes to his office. Washington cleared his desk and put away his belongings. Everything was packed. "Everything," he says. "I was ready to go home." Three days earlier he'd been randomly chosen for a drug test, a test he knew he'd failed (he'd done cocaine with friends in a Los Angeles hotel room a few days earlier), and now he was about to face Daniels -- the G.M. that hired him -- in his office.

"Telling Jon Daniels everything was the hardest part," Washington says. "Because Jon Daniels gave me this opportunity, and he believed in me. And I expected him to tell me to pack my stuff and go get the hell out of here."

But Daniels and the Rangers did the unexpected: They told him that he was staying. They told Wash that he was family, and you don't turn your back on family. Wash stuck around and led the Rangers to an 87-win season and second place in the AL West. It wasn't until the following March, during spring training 2010, that the failed drug test got out. On that day Washington convened a team meeting in the clubhouse and stood up in front of his players and said, "Don't feel sorry for me."

Michael Young stood up and said, "We've got your back." Then, one by one, more players stood up and spoke. Josh Hamilton talked about his struggles with addiction and the need for forgiveness. C.J. Wilson said, "I believe in you, Wash."

Says Young, "When we came together for Wash, that was the moment the team came together."

Six months later, Washington led the Rangers to their first ever World Series. He would lead them there again in 2011, and he would become something of a national sensation, with his dugout dancing, his colorful mound visits, and his unconventional -- some would say insane -- game tactics. He would go toe-to-toe with the great professor, Tony La Russa, and he would lead the Rangers one out away from their first World Series win.

And then it would all slip away. Now it is five months later, and the Rangers are gearing up for another run. Spend a morning in Surprise, Az., the spring home of the Rangers, and you'll see that they have clearly moved on. Ron Washington isn't on a mission. And the 2012 season isn't about redemption. This is a new team, with a new ace from Japan in Yu Darvish and a new closer in Joe Nathan, and this is a new year. What happened last October happened, and there isn't anything Ron Washington or the Rangers can do about it. "Things won't always go the way you want," he says. "This game can tear you down. It's not easy. But you just got to keep going. And good things will happen."

Yes, of course the Rangers should have won the World Series last October. So what? You win some, you lose some. And you move on.

That's the way baseball go.

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