Cal Ripken Jr. keeps saying he has an itch to return to baseball. The presumption is that he's really itching to manage, the closest Ripken could get to being on the field as a player.
But should the Washington Nationals be the team to scratch that itch for him?
The legendary Orioles shortstop is an icon in the Beltway region. Before the Expos moved to D.C. and became the Nationals, the O's were the team of most Washington baseball fans. They were the closest club, approximately 50 miles away. Generations of fans in the area grew up watching Ripken win MVP awards and All-Star bids. They watched Ripken play 2,632 consecutive games, shattering Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 games in a row.
It's natural to try and connect the dots between Ripken and the Nationals. Surely, he's more of a hero and idol to the majority of D.C. baseball fans than any current Nats player. So if Ripken has a growing desire to manage a MLB club, maybe he could get a shot with the local team that now has a job opening with Davey Johnson's return to retirement.
Though hiring Ripken as their next manager would surely be a popular move with Nationals fans — and baseball fans in general — it would also be a tremendous risk for general manager Mike Rizzo.
This season's disappointing results aside, the Nats look like a team that could contend for division titles, league pennants and World Series championships for years to come. With a club seemingly on the verge of sustained success, would it really be a smart decision to put those players in the hands of someone who has not only never managed at the major or minor league levels of baseball, but also lacks coaching experience as well?
Maybe this would be the right decision. Ripken would certainly command respect in the Nats' clubhouse as one of baseball's all-time great players. Jayson Werth has already expressed his support for the move, calling Ripken his "No. 1 choice" for the job. Werth was drafted by the Orioles and began his career in their minor league system. He witnessed Ripken's preparation and work ethic firsthand during his four years in the Baltimore organization.
For those who might suggest an experienced, veteran manager would be best for the Nationals, the team just tried that for the past two seasons with Davey Johnson. While it seemed to work wonderfully in 2012 with the Nats accelerating from upstart to contender and winning 98 games, Johnson didn't have any answers during a hugely disappointing 2013 season. Expectations were sky-high for the Nationals, with many picking them to win the World Series, but the team was crushed under the weight of those ambitions. Maybe that applies to Johnson as well. Coming off that setback, a new voice with a fresh take on the game could provide a nice contrast.
The biggest knock against Ripken, of course, is his lack of coaching or managerial experience. As a rebuttal, some could point to Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who had no coaching or managing experience (other than minor league instruction) when he was hired before the 2012 season. But Matheny took over a World Series championship team, one that arguably could lead itself and already knew what was necessary to win. Matheny just had to take over the wheel and not steer the bus off the road. That's an oversimplification, of course.
Robin Ventura is another example, hired as Chicago White Sox manager despite no previous work as a coach or manager. However, Ventura was a special advisor to the team's director of player development, Buddy Bell. In that case, perhaps it was more important for the White Sox to bring someone in who was the complete opposite of previous manager Ozzie Guillen. Ventura wasn't going to cause controversy and distraction with any remarks. He also had a strong veteran presence in the clubhouse with Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski.
However, with Cal Ripken Sr. as his father — with 14 years experience managing in the minors, 15 years coaching with Baltimore and a stint as the Orioles' manager — it would be naive to think that Ripken hasn't learned plenty about how to run a game, handle a pitching staff and so forth.
The Hall of Famer also has 21 years of experience as a major league ballplayer to draw upon, giving him plenty of opportunity to watch what his managers have done right and done wrong, and which of those methods he might adopt if he ever led his own club. As MLB.com's Richard Justice pointed out, Ripken would often sit in on pregame meetings with pitchers to help with his defensive positioning. At times, he would even call pitches from shortstop.
Ripken has also presumably followed the game closely in his roles as studio analyst and game commentator for TBS for the past four seasons. He would hardly be the first to make the jump from the broadcast booth or studio into the dugout as a major league manager. His reputation and connections within the game could also help him assemble a staff of coaches that could compensate for his lack of experience in game strategizing.
Perhaps it would be similar to Larry Bird's tenure as Indiana Pacers head coach, during which he had assistant coach Dick Harter take charge of the defense, while another assistant, Rick Carlisle, ran the offense. A strong bench coach, pitching coach and third-base coach would seem to be necessities for Ripken. Or maybe baseball is a different enough game from a coaching and leadership standpoint that such contingencies wouldn't be necessary.
One interesting point on this matter was brought up by the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell. Just how interested is Ripken in managing? How badly might he want such a job, especially if he has his eyes on the Nationals' opening? If he is interested and actually really wants the gig, why be so sly and coy about it in interviews? Why isn't Ripken fighting for it and pestering Rizzo about it constantly? Why isn't he lobbying for an interview in the press, even through friends and back channels?
Maybe Ripken thinks such tactics are beneath him. Maybe he wants to be recruited, to feel wanted by any team intrigued by the possibility of him being its manager. But considering Ripken hasn't paid dues like Ryne Sandberg did with years of managing in the minor leagues or Don Mattingly toiling as a coach for eight years under Joe Torre, this would seem to be how he'd prove his suitability for such a job. Does Ripken feel his name, playing career and reputation are enough of a résumé? Perhaps he's right about that.
But if Ripken really does want the job, he might have to sell himself to Rizzo.
According to reports, the Nationals GM has been interested in Arizona Diamondbacks third-base coach Matt Williams for quite some time. The two are already familiar with each other, going back to Rizzo's days in the D-Backs organization as scouting director. The Nats also have an in-house candidate in bench coach Randy Knorr. Players such as Ian Desmond, Tyler Clippard and Ryan Zimmermann have endorsed Knorr for the job. Werth says he'd like Knorr as much as Ripken, acknowledging that hiring him makes the most sense.
Oh, and if Rizzo wants someone with loads of managerial experience, recently fired Dusty Baker told the Post's Adam Kilgore that he's interested in the job. But if Baker couldn't help lead the Reds toward fulfilling their heavy expectations, could he really be expected to accomplish much more with the Nationals?
The Nats are at a tenuous point in their development toward being a championship contender. There are young egos that need to be dealt with in that clubhouse, such as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Some veterans, like Adam LaRoche and Denard Span, need to shake off disappointing seasons. Former prospects with promise, such as Drew Storen and Danny Espinosa, need to be salvaged. If Clippard is right and the Nats were knocked off balance by the team signing Rafael Soriano to replace Storen, the clubhouse may really need strong leadership from its manager. Is that too much for a rookie — and total novice — skipper to take on?
Too much is at stake for the Nationals to take a chance on a newbie manager, even if it's one with the name recognition and legendary profile of Ripken. Rizzo might be smart to placate him and the fanbase by calling Ripken in for an interview. He certainly has nothing to lose by talking. Maybe Ripken will even dazzle Rizzo enough to warrant being hired.
But if hiring Ripken is a mistake, it could set back this franchise for years to come, waste the careers of some excellent cornerstone-type players and alienate a city still unsure whether or not to embrace its team. The risk is simply too high.