Mike Rizzo’s view hasn’t changed. He does not watch the Washington 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 earlier this month. “Not many GMs have done that. I know that for a fact.”
The man who built the Nationals wasn’t born with some 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 World Series 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 general manager of a team that went on to win 59 games that season, fewest in the major leagues. After Saturday night’s victory, the Nationals have won 96, the most in the big leagues. Of the 25 players on the Nationals’ projected playoff roster, Rizzo signed, drafted or traded for 20 of them since arriving as assistant general manager in 2006.
“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.”
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. In the modern game, the rise of advanced metrics and MBA-laden front offices came to dominate how teams constructed their rosters. Rizzo will not watch the movie “Moneyball” because he believes it disrespects scouts.
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.”
Driven and focused
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,” Mike said.
They played baseball on the corner of Waveland and Mobile, sewer covers as bases. When the ball got stuck in a gutter, Rizzo shimmied up to retrieve it, his left foot on one bungalow and his right foot on another.
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 California 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.
One Saturday, Rizzo fired a ball high, over Bernie’s head. The ball bounced off a pole, smacked Bernie in the forehead, knocking him out. Rizzo and his father splashed cold water on Bernie to revive him. “Come on,” Mike told him. “We got 150 more balls to go.”
“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 Class A 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.