Richard Justice

Ripken perfect manager candidate for Nats

Ripken perfect manager candidate for Nats

Cal Ripken Jr. might just be the kind of franchise-shaking move the Washington Nationals need at this point in their history. And one other thing. He has a chance to be a great manager. He checks off most of the important boxes: knowledge of the game, tremendous communication skills and a face-of-the-franchise presence.

There's always an unknown quantity when a guy hasn't done it before. No candidate is perfect, but Ripken is close. He'd almost certainly bring his brother Billy along as bench coach, which makes his candidacy even more appealing.

One knock on Ripken -- and it's a fair one -- is that he hasn't managed or coached in professional baseball since he played his last game in 2001. In the oddest of twists, Ripken's life experiences may have prepared him more for the job than a coaching gig or Minor League managing job would have.

In his work with Ripken Baseball, he has dealt with hundreds of kids, all of whom have different levels of focus and talent. He understood all of them had something to offer. Ripken has also watched his son, Ryan, learn to play the game, and he watched him fight through success and failure like every other young player.

Also -- and this is important -- Ripken has a curious mind. He may not understand what makes every player tick, but he will attempt to learn. During his playing days, interviews could be challenging. Many times he would listen to a couple of questions and stop the interview.

"What's your angle?" Ripken would ask.


"What is it you want me to say?"

Talk about cutting to the chase. You'd explain the article you hoped to write, and he would say, "Let me go take batting practice and think about it."

Ripken would come back 90 minutes later, wave a reporter over and say, "OK, here's what I think."

In conversations with him through the years, and in listening to his work for TBS and MLB Network Radio, it's clear that Ripken's mind is still curious. He quizzes players on why they do certain things, their motivation, etc. He loves discussing things that work and things that don't.

Ripken wouldn't be perfect from day one, and at 55, he's old for a rookie manager. But he has a chance to be special.

For a franchise looking to change its narrative, a franchise that wants a new direction, the Nationals could hardly do better. Whatever happened in 2015 would be moved to a back page. Ripken would cast an overwhelming presence in terms of recasting the franchise's image.

Ripken remains enormously popular in Washington from 21 seasons up I-95 with the Orioles. He came to stand for every good thing about baseball during his pursuit of Lou Gehrig's ironman record in 1995.

That single night was one of the sweetest moments baseball has ever had, and countless Washingtonians have the warm, fuzzy memory of Ripken circling that field and waving to his parents etched onto their hearts.

You're going to point out that stuff is style, not substance. In the end, though, it's about getting the Nationals to play better baseball.

Image also matters. As for substance, Ripken was among the most prepared and detail-oriented players ever. He would sit in on meetings when pitchers came up with a game plan for the day because he believed it helped him better position himself at shortstop.

Leadership has different forms. One night in Kansas City, Cal and Billy became so exasperated with an Orioles reliever that they took him out after a game and spent an hour talking to him about pitch sequencing, setting up hitters, thinking big picture.

Ripken also understood the importance of being a good ambassador, and of setting the proper tone for an entire franchise. Does that sound like someone who would be a great hire?

If there's a question about him, it would be this: How will he deal with players who don't care as much as he cared, who don't work as hard as he worked? This will be a challenge just as it's a challenge for pretty much every manager, especially the Hall of Famers like Ripken. You can't get the best out of each player without understanding what drives each person.

During Ripken's career, he gravitated to guys who were, like him, completely focused on winning and doing things a certain way: Eddie Murray, B.J. Surhoff, Mike Flanagan. Baseball has been their lives. Cal Ripken Sr. taught generations of Orioles much of what they know about the game, and from the moment Cal and Billy were old enough to hold a bat they lived, breathed, ate and slept baseball.

Like Paul Molitor, who took a long time to convince himself he wanted to manage, Ripken seems to be at a place in his life where he's ready to return. Ripken apparently feels he has more to give. If he's as ready to return as he sounds, the Nationals ought to think long and hard about him. Franchises don't get opportunities like this very often.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.