Ron Washington is not happy to see me. I wasn’t supposed to come here. Not to New Orleans, the place where he was born, the place he has called home his entire life. Not to his neighborhood in the notorious Ninth Ward, where he and his wife, Gerry, have lived for more than 25 years. And certainly not to his front door, which, after a knock, is opened wide enough for him to peer out, but not so wide that I can see in. The usually jubilant, smiling Texas Rangers manager looks tired, worn down. Behind his wire-framed glasses, his normally bright brown eyes appear sunken, shot with flecks of yellow. His hair—the ring of what’s left of it—is disheveled, his mustache ruffled.
He doesn’t give interviews in New Orleans, I was told. This is his safe zone, his off time, a respite from the game he’s been a part of for all but a few of his 58 years on this planet. But I’m here to learn about Ron Washington. About the man. About what created the force that propelled the Rangers to the greatest season in franchise history. So I had to come to this neighborhood. And I had to knock on his door.
He looks like a grandfather just roused from a postprandial Thanksgiving Day nap. I tell him who I am and ask if he has a few minutes to talk.
“I’m not interested,” he says. His tone is apologetic but firm. He looks around to see if there’s anyone with me, and he squints in the sunlight. He sees I’m alone.
“Can I at least ask about what’s carved into the sidewalk over there?” I ask.
In front of Ron Washington’s house, in capital letters that span three or four squares of the sidewalk, someone has etched into the concrete “NIGGERS.” You can tell it wasn’t written when the concrete was wet, either. No, someone had to take a sharp object and cut into the concrete with so much persistence and pressure that the gashed letters would remain visible for years.
“Oh, that,” he says. “That’s some ugliness. It was done before I got the house.”
Tax records show he bought this house in 1986. He was a back-up infielder for the Minnesota Twins then. That means that a man who’s been coaching or managing—and before that, playing—in the Major Leagues for three decades has seen this racial slur every time he stepped out into his own front yard. And he has never paid the couple hundred dollars it would take to replace the concrete. And he’s never moved out of this modest single-story brick-and-brown-shingle house—valued by the Orleans Parish tax assessor’s office at $110,000—even after it was flooded and gutted and uninhabitable for more than a year.
A lot of people with money have left New Orleans. Anne Rice is gone. So are Brad and Angelina. Harry Anderson, the judge from Night Court, left, too. Even Sean Payton, head coach of the Saints, recently moved his family out of New Orleans and into the Dallas suburb of Westlake.
But Ron Washington has stayed. Though he’s certainly not among the highest-paid managers in the game—the hosts on 1310 The Ticket joke that he lives in a cardboard box by the ballpark—he has still earned millions of dollars over his career. He could live in a six-bedroom mansion in a pleasant suburb somewhere, behind a wall and gate and a guard who calls him “sir.”
But he rebuilt his house here, in an area my hotel concierge and cab driver both told me not to visit at night. I want to ask the man why he came back. Why he stays.
Standing in his doorway, in his wind pants and gray sweatshirt, Ron Washington looks like a regular guy on his day off. He could be a cable repairman maybe, or an airline employee. This man didn’t ask to be famous. He didn’t ask to have his ungrammatical utterances quoted and printed on shirts, or to have children dress like him for Halloween.
“I promise I don’t mean to bother you,” I tell him. “I just came all this way, and I figured I’d try.”
“I’m sorry you made the trip all the way out here,” he says. “I’m just really not interested.”
From the outside, the house that Ron Washington rebuilt seems pleasant enough: a modest 2,000 square feet or so, windows with new white shutters, a brick mailbox out front, a two-car garage in the back. The lawn has been mowed and edged. His is certainly one of the nicer houses on the block.
This neighborhood is full of houses that never got fixed, empty tombstones for families and friends who never came back. Just a few hundred yards from the salty waters of Lake Pontchartrain, these blocks were under 5 feet of murky sludge for more than six weeks. There are reminders of the storm everywhere. The house directly behind Washington’s has been completely gutted. The address is spelled out in scripted iron letters mounted to the front wall, and green floral-print drapes still hang over the glass behind the open front door—small remnants of a life that no longer exists—but the rest of the house has been stripped, barred, and abandoned. The rotted furniture, warped photos, useless appliances, even the copper wiring in the walls—are all gone.
The uninhabited house across the street to the west has newspapers from 2005 taped over the inside of the windows and a brown, smudgy water line that never washed off. The empty shell of a house across the street to the north still has bright orange spray paint on the brick wall: a giant “X” and a “9/6,” disaster-response shorthand for “On September 6, 2005, there were no dead bodies inside this house.”
About half the houses in Washington’s neighborhood have been rebuilt or repaired enough to be repopulated. So this is also a place for survivors, for people who have endured. This is a city that has for centuries buried its dead one on top of the other. The people here continue to endure, plodding through life one day at a time, because it’s the only way they know.
At the last Rangers press conference before spring training, an event in Round Rock, Texas, celebrating the acquisition of the new Triple-A affiliate, a reporter asked Ron Washington if he planned to go back to New Orleans when he was done in Texas.
“I haven’t left New Orleans,” he responded. “I still make New Orleans my home. I still go back there in the wintertime. I was grown there. I was born there. It’s part of my heritage. It’s slow coming back, but I want to be there and be a part of it when it do come back.”
That’s how Ron Washington talks, with a very particular syntax acquired in the Ninth Ward.
The team provides him with a house in Arlington worth a little more than $200,000—still quite modest by the standards of professional sports. But any time he gets off, he comes back here.
One thing is certain: it isn’t because he’s a neighborhood hero—or even close to his neighbors. His only adjacent neighbor, Esha McDougle, a 31-year-old hairstylist, has never exchanged more than a friendly honk and a wave with him or Gerry. McDougle moved in a few months ago. Before I knocked on her door earlier today, she had not only never heard of Ron Washington, she wasn’t sure what sport the Texas Rangers play.
“I had no idea there was someone like that around here,” she tells me. “They seem so down to earth.”
Sonja Rollins, who lives across the street, had never heard of Ron Washington either. She figured maybe the guy in the corner house was a traveling salesman. “They don’t be home too much,” she says.
Adam Owens, a firefighter in his 20s who lives a few doors down, follows baseball and has known who lives in the corner house for a few years now. Owens sees them outside every once in a while when he walks his dogs. The two men usually exchange a smile and a nod and nothing more. “He’s a quiet dude,” Owens says. “Most people around here have no clue who he is.”
So much of baseball is about failure. The best sluggers in the game fail to get a hit in two-thirds of their at-bats. The best pitchers still let in an average of two runs a game. Everyone makes errors. Everyone strikes out. The sport is about dealing with disappointments and pain and moving forward to another day. And Ron Washington has had more than his share of disappointment and pain: from growing up in the projects, one of 10 kids in a family that sometimes didn’t have enough to eat, to losing a brother in Vietnam, to losing his house in a giant hurricane, to slowly losing his mother to Alzheimer’s. He’s had his share of failures, too, with only 10 Major League games played in the first 11 years of his pro career and more than two decades spent pining for a big league manager position. But even in the cynical world of sports, his biggest failure was shocking.
In front of a line of cameras and reporters, last season Ron Washington desperately asked the public to believe that, at 57 years old, the one and only time he’d ever tried cocaine just happened to be a few days before the one time that year he was scheduled to be tested. He said he was sorry, that what he’d done was stupid, that he’d gone to counseling, that he promised he’d help young people.
He summed up the situation like only Ron Washington could: “Challenges are what you make of life that makes it interesting,” he said. “Overcoming those challenges is what makes life meaningful. And I do want to make a difference. And I do want to put something meaningful in everybody’s life.” Then he looked directly into the cameras. “That’s just been the way Ron Washington has been.”
Despite the support of his players, there were immediate calls for his firing. “Now that the story of Washington’s failed drug test is public, the question is how long the Rangers can afford to stand behind their man,” Tim Cowlishaw wrote in the Dallas Morning News. “My guess? Not very long.”
The next day, Jean-Jacques Taylor wrote, “The Rangers should’ve fired Ron Washington the day he admitted using cocaine during last year’s All-Star break. No questions asked.”
But Jon Daniels, the Wunderkind who’d gone from intern to general manager in under five years, was less inclined to give up on the man he hired. “My emotions were all over the place,” Daniels told reporters at the time. “I was shocked. I was disappointed. I was angry. I felt all those things that probably our fans are going to feel. We decided to work through it. You hope at some point some good will come out of this.”
No honest Rangers fan could have imagined what good could come of this. Even Nolan Ryan, the greatest Ranger of all time and a model of austerity and sobriety (he swears he’s never taken an illegal drug in his life), admits he had backup plans if Washington didn’t work out.
“We went into last year with a lot of questions,” Ryan says now. Looking back, he’s obviously pleased with his decision to stick with his manager, though he says so with the modesty of a lifelong Texan who, no matter where he went, always came home to Texas. “With Ron, I think that he has probably been the right person in the right place for the way that this organization has come together.”
That’s Ryan’s way of saying the Rangers needed someone like Ron Washington. They needed a survivor, someone who could rebuild. In so many ways, Washington’s entire life had been preparing him for this moment.
The first time he moved away from New Orleans was 1970, when he was 18. It was also his first time to fly in a plane. He had just signed his first baseball contract, for $1,000 with the Kansas City Royals, and he was heading for the team’s new baseball academy in Sarasota, Florida, where he knew no one. He would later say that when he looked out the window of the plane, he couldn’t help but tear up.
He grew up in the Desire Housing Project, one of the city’s most crime-ridden developments, working hard to stretch a three-dollar-a-week allowance into five days of lunch money and bus fare. A wiry kid with glasses, he couldn’t always outrun the bullies who wanted his money. But he found refuge in baseball. He played catcher, and, as a boy, he slept with the mitt his father—a truck driver—gave him. After high school, he learned about a series of tryouts the Royals were holding all over the country, the franchise’s attempt to cultivate talented minority kids from places other teams wouldn’t even send scouts. Of the 156 players at the tryouts in New Orleans, Washington was the only one invited to the academy.
That’s where he met a quiet, thoughtful middle infielder from Mississippi named Frank White. “He was one of the most rambunctious guys I’d ever met,” remembers White, who recently resigned from the Royals front office to pursue broadcasting. “He’d sit there behind home plate and just talk nonstop. He never let things get boring.”
The two of them—the chatter-mouth catcher and the pensive second baseman—became fast friends. They were also the star pupils. The academy drilled the importance of fundamentals and technique, and the young ballplayers took direction well. When coaches told the confident catcher there was no chance he would ever make it to the big leagues squatting behind the plate at 140 pounds, he agreed to switch to the infield. He loved playing catcher because he felt he could control the whole game, but he was dedicated to playing in the majors and he did what he was told.
“He had this great ability to adapt to any situation,” White tells me. “And he could always take the lemons and make lemonade.”
Both men worked their way up into the Royals farm system. White went on to play 18 seasons in the majors, all with Kansas City. He made five All-Star games, won eight Gold Gloves, and, in 1985, he was a key part of the team that won the World Series.
That’s not what happened to Washington, though. After six years, he still couldn’t break into the big leagues—at least partially because White was so consistent at second base—and he was traded to the Dodgers for a guy who never played in the majors. After nearly two full years in the Dodgers organization, he finally got called up at the end of the 1977 season. In the 10 games he played, he batted .368 and stole one base, but the Dodgers in the late ’70s had one of the all-time great infields. The promising 25-year-old started the next season back in Triple-A.
He was trying to beat out a grounder in a freezing ballpark in Utah early that next year—“He was never one to slack off,” White says—when he tore up his knee. And because this was before the days of laparoscopic surgery, it would take four more years and another team before he’d make it back to the show.