Tuesday, September 8, 2020


Hall of Famer Cal Ripken and Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo shared the spotlight recently — Rizzo with the announcement that the man who built last year’s World Series champs had finally been given a contract extension and Ripken on the 25th anniversary of one of baseball’s great records, the former Oriole’s 2,131st consecutive game.

It was a coincidental confluence of the day’s news. But there was a time when it looked like the two men might share something more, a moment when Ripken nearly became the manager of the Nationals.

After Davey Johnson was dumped by the owners of the Nationals following the 2013 season, Rizzo and Ripken had discussions about him coming to Washington.

How serious were those discussions? If the Lerners had given the green light, Ripken, not Matt Williams, might have been in the Nationals dugout for the 2014 season.

Ripken and Rizzo had met at a game before that and developed a mutual admiration relationship. Both baseball men recognized and respected the other’s views of how the game should be played and how teams should be constructed.

Then the talk turned to managing.

“Certainly there was an exploration and some conversation about it very early,” Ripken told me and Kevin Sheehan on “The Sports Fix” on ESPN 980 in 2014. “I came down to a couple Nationals games for different reasons, and the conversation between me and Mike Rizzo, he jokingly said he’s got to replace a manager. So I said, who’s your candidates? And he said, well how about you? And so we kind of explored it on a surface level, but it never got to a serious consideration.”

It depends on what you mean by serious discussions. Reality is if the Lerners had said OK, it likely would have happened. But they didn’t.

Of course they balked at the numbers it would have taken to hire such a high-profile figure. They wouldn’t pay Johnson one year removed from winning the National League East title in 2012, which began the Nationals era of excellence.

Whatever the numbers were, they weren’t going to pay Ripken either — not when Williams was available for less than $1 million a year.

But the Lerners also gave Ripken another reason why they wouldn’t hire him — their fear of the ability to fire such an iconic figure if things went south.

Of course, they had no such fear letting popular franchise stalwarts Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon walk out the door in back-to-back years. It’s hard to imagine the Lerners fearful of any move when it comes to money.

Would it have worked? Who knows? Williams led the Nationals to the 2014 NL East division title and was named the NL Manager of the Year. But they lost to San Francisco in the division series in four games and Williams lost control of the team the following season and was fired.

I always thought that if you were to take a chance on a star player with no managing experience, Cal Ripken would be it. He grew up in a baseball family where the minor leagues and player development were dinner-table talk.

His father is credited with helping develop the “Oriole Way” of preparing young players for the major leagues that proved so successful for decades.

Ripken became one of the game’s great shortstops because of his intelligence on the field, as well as his skills. But how would he have handled players? Williams had no managing experience either when Washington hired him, and his ability to manage the clubhouse helped contribute to his downfall.

A lot of things have changed for Ripken since 2013.

Ripken, 60, who built a youth baseball development empire with camps and playing fields, recently revealed he underwent prostate cancer surgery in March. He has told reporters he is fully recovered.

Ripken has remarried since those managerial talks to Anne Arundel County Judge Laura Kiessling, and seems to be enjoying his life away from the game these days.

Still, the opportunity he has sought for years — running a baseball franchise, specifically the Orioles, where he spent his entire 21-year career — could still open up. Owner Peter Angelos, 91, is reportedly in ill health, and sources have said if he passes away, the franchise will likely be put up for sale in some way, shape or form.

Given the celebration over the 25th anniversary of his record-setting 2131st consecutive game — its importance to baseball and the city — it would have been interesting to see the reaction in Baltimore to Ripken managing the hated Washington franchise.

“It would have been a lot of stuff going on there, quite frankly,” Ripken told me and Sheehan about the talk surfacing of him being a candidate for the job. “First managing job, being in a different uniform, being right down the street from where I used to do business all those years. So it kind of provoked a big response within the media and from within the fanbase.”

Things have changed for the Washington Nationals, too.

After more postseason failures, they finally found their manager to “get them over the hump” in Dave Martinez, who led last year’s team from a 19-31 record to a World Series championship.

Of course, Martinez is managing this aberration of a season without any guarantee he will keep the job. The Lerners have so far been reluctant to pick up Martinez’s club option for 2021, let alone sign him to an extension.

Any scenario where Martinez is not rewarded with a multi-year extension seems ridiculous. After all, how could the Lerners let go of such an iconic figure?

Hear Thom Loverro Tuesdays and Thursdays on The Kevin Sheehan Podcast and Wednesday afternoons on Chad Dukes Vs. The World on 106.7 The Fan.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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