This is obviously not the kind of story that needed to blow up in the face of this organization within the ever-narrowing three-week window preceding Opening Day, but it did, and so begins vigorous damage control on the public relations front -- referring, of course, to the stunning revelation that Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine in July 2009, an infraction for which he was not terminated.
According to SI.com's Jon Heyman (who broke the story late Wednesday morning), Washington notified the commissioner's office and his immediate superiors -- including general manager Jon Daniels and team president Nolan Ryan -- of his cocaine use shortly after the league-imposed drug test was administered around the All-Star break last year, expressing remorse over his decisions and going so far as to tender his resignation.
The Rangers, so the story goes, refused to accept his resignation and agreed to retain him on the condition that he entered Major League Baseball's substance-abuse program and didn't tally another positive drug test. Washington was reportedly tested three times a week over the last nine months as part of "extensive outpatient counseling," coming up clean each time, and despite being cleared by doctors to have his tests scaled back to those of the standard four-per-year variety (which are administered randomly to all non-playing personnel who work around the clubhouse), he has consented to additional voluntary drug tests as a means of eliminating any further questions about his sobriety.
So what happens now? Nothing, in all likelihood. Or at least that's the safe assumption. Washington's purported one-time indulgence in cocaine has become mainstream knowledge in astonishingly short order, but as far as the Rangers are concerned, there's really nothing to decide upon -- they made their decision nine months ago, and given the unanimous ring of support that has been thrown around Washington by management and players alike, doing a 180-degree reversal on that decision now in order to mollify angry fans isn't a viable option. It's just not. The notion of Washington being fired at any point before Opening Day is a pipe dream, plain and simple.
[And, by the way, let's not forget that the entire reason that this story went public is because somebody -- presumably, though not necessarily, in the commissioner's office -- leaked it to the media, which, by virtue of Washington being a first-time violator of Major League Baseball's drug policy, should not have happened. That leak, in and of itself, is a tad alarming. A lot of us hunger for greater transparency on matters such as these, but Texas was expressly prohibited from divulging the details of Washington's failed drug test; to do so would have violated the confidentiality of baseball's collective bargaining agreement. You can criticize the Rangers for their decision to retain Washington, but you can't criticize them for a lack of disclosure.]
And really, once you start seriously pondering the decision-making process that unfolded behind closed doors last July, perhaps axing Washington then wasn't the most viable option either. Had he been shown the door then, there are those who would have lampooned the organization for its seeming hypocrisy in kicking Washington to the curb after uniting so readily behind Josh Hamilton in the wake of his January 2009 relapse; true, the two situations aren't completely analagous, but the point would have been there to be made in some manner, and it would have had some merit behind it.
Here's the really key point that I think needs to be made, though: According to the timeline of events offered by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Randy Galloway, Washington's positive test was incurred during the Rangers' three-game sojourn in Los Angeles from July 6-8th, at which time the Rangers were effectively locked in a dead heat with the Angels atop the division and Washington, at this point, was less than one month removed from having his 2010 team option exercised.
Given these facts, I think it's fair to ask two very important and pertinent questions: (a) what sort of irreparable damage is done in the clubhouse if Washington -- a manager who does have his flaws, but commands the respect of his players and also seems to extract maximum effort out of his players -- is fired with the team effectively in first place, and (b) what sort of P.R. disaster ensues back home in Texas following Washington's mysterious ouster, particularly since the Rangers couldn't rationalize their decision to the media and to their fan base without violating the collective bargaining agreement?
If you're not perfectly clear on what I'm getting at, let me lay it out in more explicit terms: the Rangers are getting thoroughly blasted for sticking by Washington, and I think that it's fair to consider that the organization might have to deal with some credibility issues as far as its fan base, but I'm not sure that Texas, at the end of the day, really had much of a choice in this matter. It was either (a) fire Washington with almost certainly disastrous consequences in the middle of a pennant race, or (b) keep Washington, hope that the confidentiality clause held up and that no leaks developed, and pray that this story never saw the light of day. Which option would you have chosen?
[Tuesday 6:00 a.m. CST Update: For what it's worth, Randy Galloway is reporting this morning that the source of the leak was a "disgruntled" ex-Rangers employee who attempted to blackmail the organization, leveraging knowledge of Washington's cocaine use to create bargaining power. The team employee, fired after the 2009 regular season, reportedly listed multiple demands, including a "glowing letter of recommendation" which Texas refused to supply. Draw your own conclusions from there.]