WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Two things stirred Mike Rizzo on Friday when sitting on the patio adjacent to the Nationals’ side of their shared spring training facility.
The first came when asked for a highlight of winning the World Series. Was there a moment among all the rallies and unlikeliness which stood out? Something singular?
“The one moment -- there were a lot of moments -- but the one moment if I had to choose one, after we won, calling my dad and, you know, talking to him,” Rizzo said.
His answer was curtailed by a catch in his voice and blink of his eyes behind black sunglasses. His father, Phil, died Feb. 1 at age 90. He taught Mike how to scout, how to act, how to judge and treat others. He lived long enough to see him build a championship team, rising from stalled minor-league player to scout to team president, with several stops in between.
A pause followed before yet another question about the Astros popped. Most of Rizzo’s 28-minute discussion with local and national reporters centered on the team still trying to save face on the other side of the facility. When first asked about Houston, Rizzo stepped in lightly.
“I’m not the morality police, so they apologize the way they do,” Rizzo said.
His first option to stop came at that moment. A day earlier, Max Scherzer successfully moved around the issue, deferring much of what was asked about the Astros to the Astros themselves. Scherzer told reporters they could just walk down the hall to seek answers. His personal feelings, stirring at whatever level these months later, were largely kept within. Scherzer said it’s clear the Astros “crossed the line” and essentially left it at that. Rizzo did not.
“My takeaway from it is, we’re the 2019 World Series champions,” Rizzo said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group. We did it with character, dignity and did it the right way. So, we feel good about that. The thing that pains me the most is it puts a black cloud over the sport that I love and that’s not right. The commissioner did an investigation and found that they cheated in 2017 and 2018.”
Here’s another chance. Rizzo could stop. He lauded his group, noted the league found the other team guilty of cheating. It’s a chance to let the air out of the balloon and allow it to fizzle to the ground, whistling and spent. Nope.
"Somebody has got to say the word over there, cheated, that’s important to me,” Rizzo said. “And for the sport to move on which is what I’m most concerned about is we have to make sure that all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed on this investigation before we end it.”
Asked if he had proof the Astros were cheating in 2019, Rizzo said he had no proof, but assumed they were. He deferred to the league’s effort to curb sign-stealing when asked for fixes. Then went back to the Astros without saying the team name.
“It’s contingent on leadership to guide franchises, and I know for a fact that could not and would not happen with the Washington Nationals because I would not allow it to happen with the Washington Nationals,” Rizzo said. “We certainly take pride in that, the way we conduct our business and our process, we try to do things the right way for the good of the game and its entirety.”
What hasn’t been, arguably, good for the game is the boost in headlines it so desperately wanted was spawned by scandal. The no-such-thing-as-bad-press argument is being tested by half-apologies and handed-out talking points. A chunk of media understandably posted on the Houston side of the complex Day 1 made its way to the Nationals side on Day 2. The visual was not lost on Rizzo.
“One of the problems I have with it, it’s [the first spring training day] 2020, and there are 50 media outlets here and 47 of them are for the Astros who cheated to win the World Series and there’s three here with the current reigning World Series champions,” Rizzo said. “And that’s not right.”
So, does that make the title all the sweeter? Beating a team that cheated and is viewed through the lens of doubt for what they did in 2019?
“I don’t know so much about that,” Rizzo said. “I’ve got a lot of congratulations. I had literally thousands of text messages and emails of congratulations from all sorts of people. But I think it was telling that when we won the National League championship and we knew we were playing the Houston Astros, we got a lot of volunteer phone calls on how to beat them and how to play them.”
For a final time, Rizzo couldn’t help himself. And it’s not surprising. He’s motivated by competition the way Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg is. Much of his job entails uncomfortable conversations, so saying stern words is not foreign. The cheaters reside just on the other side of the complex in front of a large, orange ‘H’ with “2017 World Series champions” under it. The reigning champions are trying to move to 2020, but it’s hard, even for Rizzo, to just cut the past free, and he chose not to Friday.
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