DENVER—Mike Rizzo assumed the scouting director’s job with the Diamondbacks in 2000.
In just his second and third seasons on the job, the D-backs won back-to-back National League West titles and a World Series championship in 2001—the franchise’s fourth year of existence.
Arizona had a manager with no previous experience in Bob Brenly, who came down from the broadcast booth to the dugout in 2001, and a veteran third baseman in Matt Williams, who was at the tail end of a career in which he was a five-time all-star, four-time Gold Glove Award winner and the NL’s home run champion in 1994.
Rizzo never forgot.
And so as the president of baseball operations and general manager of the Washington Nationals, when it came time for Rizzo to mark arguably the biggest decision of his front-office career, he never wavered in hiring Williams to replace veteran Davey Johnson as manager.
The players wanted bench coach Randy Knorr. Cal Ripken Jr. threw his name out as a candidate for the job.
Yet the message is clear: Rizzo’s running the show, not the players.
There is a list of managers with impressive resumes on the open market, including Dusty Baker, Jim Leyland, Tony La Russa and Charlie Manuel.
Trying to lure one of them, or someone else with a resume that includes championships, would have been a safer route considering that these Nationals are a team primed to make a run at the NL East, the NL pennant and a shot in the World Series.
For Rizzo, however, there was only one guy for the job.
Those who know Rizzo feel he had his mind pretty well set on Williams since midseason—if not earlier.
As Rizzo was quoted in the official announcement of the hiring:
“In some ways, my interview with Matt began during our days together in Arizona, where his undeniable toughness, attention to detail and intensity established a foundation for a Diamondbacks expansion franchise that reached the postseason in its second season and won a World Series two years later. All these years later, Matt’s preparedness for this position, knowledge of our roster, system and league set him apart.
“He is a fierce competitor with a progressive view of the game.”
While Williams’ only experience filling out lineup cards and making pitching changes came a year ago in the Arizona Fall League, he has been the third-base coach in Arizona under manager Kirk Gibson the past three seasons.
Besides, there is a growing trend in baseball to ignore tradition and take a shot on a manager with no managerial experience.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Red Sox skipper John Farrell are both in their second big league jobs. Both were originally hired—Girardi by the Marlins and Farrell by the Blue Jays—even though they had never managed in the minor or major leagues.
That list also includes Mike Matheny, who in two years in St. Louis has guided the Cardinals to the NL Championship Series in 2012 and the World Series this season; Gibson, who managed the Diamondbacks to an NL West title in 2011, and Don Mattingly, who took the Dodgers to the NLCS this past October. The others are Walt Weiss (Rockies), Bud Black (Padres), Robin Ventura (White Sox) and Williams.
Now, Rizzo is confident that Williams can add to the list of inexperienced big league managers who make an impact on the game. It’s the move Rizzo wanted to make. And he wasn’t about to be taken in a different direction.