Ok, it’s true the Nats made something of a hash of the hiring process. A week before the club announced that Dusty had the job, news leaked that they were going to name Bud Black, a former big league pitcher who managed the San Diego Padres for eight years until he was fired midway through the 2015 campaign. Reportedly, the sticking point was that Black felt Nationals’ owner Ted Lerner low-balled him, with an initial offer of $1.6 million for one year. Eventually, Lerner offered Black three years at a much higher salary—according to one report, “well above the average major league managing salary, perhaps in the top 10.” But Black, say insiders, was so “deeply offended” by the initial tender that negotiations never got back on track.
The news Black was going to get the job shouldn’t have been leaked until everything was in order. But it’s pretty clear that the Nats dodged a bullet here. Bud Black was “deeply offended”? Excuse, but is that a former big-league pitcher whining?—because it sounded an awful lot like the Iranian foreign minister. Is Black “deeply offended” when ballplayers spit sunflower seeds in the dugout? What about when a hitter doesn’t get a runner over, pitchers leave an 0-2 pitch out over the plate, or infielders bungle a double play? How does a guy with a .477 winning percentage as manager get to be “deeply offended” when a club that has proven it is serious about winning a World Series opens the bidding with more than a million and a half dollars for a year’s worth of work. ...
Why are baseball writers effectively defending the professional etiquette of a guy who clearly needs to find out how the rest of the world works, outside of Major League Baseball? Or maybe the Post works like that, too—in which case Jeff Bezos has probably already offended his employees, deeply. A number of Post staffers, along with other Washington baseball reporters, seem intent on drawing a picture of a dysfunctional baseball franchise that keeps embarrassing itself. The fact is that all professional sports franchises are by definition dysfunctional because their billionaire owners keep them as luxurious pets, to be coddled, humored, and scolded when they make a mess of the furniture. What owners know, and the talent and the media don’t understand, is that the so-called big business of sports isn’t big business at all. If you want to make money, you go into something like finance, or real estate, like the Lerners, whose wealth is estimated around $4 billion. You don’t go into an industry that depends on the whims of spring and summer weather and an even more capricious customer base, fans. In real business, you are surrounded by real business people, like executives who know their worth and seek to leverage their advantage when it comes time to negotiate compensation. In baseball, [mid-level] management is former athletes, who don’t know any better but to pout to the press when things don’t go their way.
Boswell says he likes the Nats’ owners. “The Lerners are good people,” he writes. “Their hearts are in the right place: dreaming of a title for their home town. The problem is with their ears. They don’t listen.” Ok, I’ll bite—who is it the Lerners should listen to?
Boswell is perhaps the gold standard of baseball writing, but it’s hard not to read him sometimes as just another Washington beat reporter willing to cash in common sense for the sake of a story. And luckily for Boswell, the Nats’ front office leaks against its internal rivals as much as the State Department. So what if the substance of the story is patently silly? It advances my relationship with a highly placed source, and besides, it’s a scoop—with my byline. Who is Boswell’s source in this article critical of the Lerners? I don’t know, but the Nats GM sure comes out of this looking good.
“As for Mike Rizzo,” writes Boswell, “a general manager who has built a team that has averaged 91 wins the past four seasons, [the Bud Black] episode doesn’t seem like how he does business.” Ok, maybe Rizzo didn’t leak the details of the Black story to Boswell, and frame it to make himself look like an innocent bystander watching a train wreck. And maybe Rizzo screamed at the Post reporter on the phone for jeopardizing his job by daring to suggest in print that there is any difference between how he and the people who sign his paycheck operate. But I doubt it.
We don’t know what really happened here, but given that Nats’ officials are leaking against ownership in typical bureaucratic Washington fashion through the Washington press corps, it’s not hard to surmise the intent of this CYA campaign. How about this: let’s say there were two final candidates for the manager’s job. The GM wanted Black but saw it was close so he needed to tip the scales. By leaking that Black had the job, he’d back Lerner into a corner so that if Black wasn’t picked the boss would look like an incompetent, if well-intentioned, baseball outsider who doesn’t understand how the business of the game works. Lerner called Rizzo’s bluff and picked Baker. He preferred Dusty, and perhaps wanted to remind Rizzo how he got to call the shots—you don’t become rich in the real business world without a pretty good sense of character. To save face in front of the professional community where he will someday have to go looking for a new job, Rizzo concocted an absurd story about a baseball lifer with nerves as fragile as a geisha’s.
In short, the Black episode really does highlight a problem in NatsWorld, but the clown show isn’t the Lerners.