Rizzo Stays True To Scouting Roots

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Mike Rizzo’s view hasn’t changed. He does not watch the Nationals from a suite high above the field. He sits next to the dugout or a few rows behind it, where he gauges the players’ reactions and hears what they say. He can see the movement of the pitches and how a fielder’s feet flutter. His players can see he is there with them, behind them, for them.

He watches the game up close. The scout seats are still best.

During his lifelong immersion in baseball, Rizzo held two dreams. The first ended at a kitchen table in a Chicago bungalow, where his baseball scout father gave it to him straight, the way Rizzos do: He would not be a big league ballplayer. The second began during the years he traversed the vast expanses of the Upper Midwest alone, looking at prospects.

“Twelve years of driving the highways as an area scout,” Rizzo said in September. “Not many GMs have done that. I know that for a fact.”

The man who built the Nationals wasn’t born with an innate gift for judging baseball talent; he has no secret formula. Everything Rizzo knows—everything that helped him build the Nationals from hapless doormat to pennant contender—he learned on those highway odysseys, staring at the spot where the road met the dull, gray horizon.

In the spring of 2009, Rizzo took over as interim GM of a team that went on to win 59 games that season, fewest in the major leagues. The Nationals won a major league-best 98 in 2012 and came within one win of the National League Championship Series. Rizzo built Washington’s first playoff team in 79 years with the methods ingrained over all 51 years of his life: hard work, acquired wisdom, fierce loyalty.

“You’re either a baseball man or not,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “To me, Pat Gillick is a Hall of Fame GM. I think Rizzo can be that good, if not better. He has all the same attributes.”

The Nationals employ a staff devoted to statistical analysis, but Rizzo prefers information from the scouts he handpicked—men he trusts, men who work like he does. He embraces analytics, but he feels they have become so widespread that they can offer only a marginal edge. The advantage, he believes, lies in people.

“We go with the eye,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know if you weigh it 65-35 or 70-30, but we’ll lean toward the human element.”

Rizzo grew up on sports in a lower-middle class Chicago neighborhood, where he and his three siblings scrapped with kids from other neighborhoods and protected each other.

“It was a neighborhood where you either stood up for yourself or you got run over,” Rizzo said.

To make ends meet after his minor league career ended, his father, Phil, drove a truck for the city while he scouted baseball on the side. He worked his way up to foreman, but the players he picked kept making the majors so the Angels kept giving him more work. He turned into a full-time scout.

Phil sensed Mike, the second-youngest of three sons and a daughter, loved baseball most. He would sprint 90 feet down an alley, Phil timing him with a stopwatch. Every Saturday, Rizzo fielded 250 groundballs, and his little brother, Bernie, caught his throws at first base until his hand was red and bleeding.

“He’s not very complex,” says Greg Mayor, Rizzo’s best friend from Chicago. “He’s driven and he’s focused. This one-dimension he’s on, he’s going to outwork everybody.”

In 1982, the Angles drafted him in the 22nd round. “He was a baseball rat,” said Bill Bavasi, then the Angels’ farm director. “He knew how to play the game.”

The Angels sent him to their short-season affiliate in Salem, Ore., where Rizzo met a tall infielder named Kris Kline. They shared an apartment and they stayed up late, talking baseball, evaluating their teammates and drinking cold beer. They woke up in time to watch Harry Caray’s pregame show and the Chicago Cubs.

“Greatest years of my life,” Rizzo says.

In 1983, a center fielder named Devon White joined Rizzo and Kline’s low Class A Peoria team. They saw him as athletic but raw. One night late in the season, White chased down a flyball in the gap, and Rizzo, whose baseball knowledge grew with every play he witnessed, experienced an epiphany: “He’s better than the rest of us.”

Out Of The Game, But Staying In

In the winter of 1984, Bavasi called to inform Rizzo the Angels were releasing him. Rizzo screamed into the phone. He planned to keep playing and make the major leagues, until the night his father called him into the kitchen in the bungalow where he grew up. As a scout, Phil gave himself one rule: Never lie to a kid.

“Mike, let me tell you something,” Phil Rizzo told his son, while Mike’s mother stood at the stove cooking. “You can play in the minor leagues until you become a baseball bum. Mike, you’re a smart kid. Your mother wanted you to go to school and finish.”

Mike believed in his father’s judgment. Through a family friend, he landed a graduate assistant coaching job at the University of Illinois. He instructed kids barely as old as him, and he received an education.

By the time Rizzo finished his year at Illinois, Larry Himes, the scouting director who drafted him with the Angels, had become the White Sox general manager. Himes remembered Rizzo’s feel for the sport and his work ethic, and he hired him as an area scout in the Upper Midwest.

“When I was a beginning scout, I was with the all the old-time scouts,” Rizzo said. “Your ears are open, your mouth is shut. You make sure you beat them to the ballpark, and you make sure you stay later at the ballpark.”

He started his scouting trips by packing the car for a month. Cellphones did not exist in 1986, so he brought enough quarters to make a thousand phone calls from a thousand pay phones off a thousand desolate highway exits. He called coaches to make sure the weather would hold. He drove 500 miles to scout a baseball game, and then drove 200 more miles, freezing cold and alone, so he could hunt down more prospects the next day. He made carbon copies of his reports: one for the office, one for the scouting director, one for himself.

His transition from scout to executive began in 1998, when the Diamondbacks hired him as their scouting director. He wore a tie to work, gave input on free agent signings and trades and negotiated major draft contracts.

“This is not going to a 40th-round pick’s house and giving him $1,000 and a plane ticket,” said Joe Garagiola, then the Arizona general manager. “This is going to Newport Beach and sitting in Scott Boras’s conference room and all that entails.”

Rizzo would find himself in Boras’ conference room as often as any scouting director or GM, signing Boras clients Stephen Drew and Max Scherzer in Arizona. As the Diamondbacks assembled one of the league’s best farm systems, Rizzo started to believe himself ready to become a GM. When the Diamondbacks chose Josh Byrnes to replace Garagiola, Rizzo searched for a new team. He saw an opportunity with the Nationals, joining the organization as Jim Bowden’s top assistant in 2006. As GM, he’s built the Nats with more Boras clients, from Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to $120 million man Jayson Werth.

Hire Good People

Success has done little to smooth Rizzo’s Chicago edge. “I don’t care how many tuxedos Mike wears to work,” former Nationals president Stan Kasten said. “You’re never going to confuse him with an upper-crust guy.”

Rizzo surrounds himself with men whose judgment he trusts—Kline, Bill Singer, Kasey McKeon, Roy Clark, so many more—and then defends everyone within his circle.

That defense was on full display late last season, as Rizzo stuck with his decision to limit Strasburg’s innings and cut short his ace’s first season back on the mound following Tommy John surgery in late 2010. Rizzo never wavered, not as fan and media criticism grew during the stretch run, and not even after the Cardinals rallied to score four runs in the top of the ninth in Game Five of the NL Division Series.

“I’m not going to think about it, no,” Rizzo said in the Nationals clubhouse following the 9-7 loss to St. Louis. “We had a plan in mind. It was something we had from the beginning. I stand by my decision. We’ll take the criticism as it comes. We have to do what’s best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did.”

Shortly after Rizzo became the Nationals’ general manager, he and Kasten put together contracts for their employees. Rizzo found one of the salaries insulting; Kasten insisted he would accept. They argued. Rizzo leaned close, his nose inches from Kasten’s.

“You better take care of your people,” Rizzo screamed. “Or you won’t have any people.”

When Rizzo became Arizona’s scouting director, he hired Kline, his old minor league teammate. When he moved to the Nationals, Rizzo was allowed to bring two people with him, and one of them was Kline, who is now the Nationals’ scouting director.

“He would do anything for you,” Kline said. “Everything that he said that he would do as far as my baseball career has gone, he’s done it.”

When Rizzo thinks about his staff, he never forgets his days in the car, the time he spent alone. He thinks about the men on his staff doing what he once did, skipping anniversaries and their son’s first games.

“I’ve been lucky in this game, very, very fortunate,” Rizzo said. “But nothing was handed to me. I say it straight out: There was nothing handed to me.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post, where a previous version of this story originally appeared.

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