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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ron Washington and Cocaine: Can He Survive the Scandal?

The surprisng and unfortunate news for the day is that Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine use during the 2009 season.  I was a big fan of Wash during his stint as the A's thrid base coach and was mildly disappointed that the A's didn't seriously consider him for their managerial opening.  Personally, I'm pretty indifferent to the personal lives of sports figures, but hard drug use in the middle of the season seems like a behavior that could negatively impact his performance as a manager.  And, as Rob Neyer noted, it's hard to believe that this was a one time incident.

It appears that Wash will keep his job as manager of the Rangers.  Should Washington's cocaine use affect his job security?  Will this incident be too much of a distraction and hurt his ability to manage?  To answer these questions I've run the incidnet through Nate Silver's Electric Minor Political Scandal Acid Test (EMPSCAT).  While the system was designed to evaluate a politician's ability to survive a scandal, I think there are enough similarities between a Major League manager and a political figure that this battery of questions can shed some light on the situation.  Unlike a player, a large part of a manager's duty is dealing with the media.  Also, unlike a player, his usefulness can't be easily measured; Barry Bonds had plenty of potentially damaging scandals throughout the final years of his career, but his obvious skill and value to the Giants on the field made the scandals less damaging.  Lastly public opinion can be a factor in whether or not a manager keeps his job.

EMPSCAT is a series of five questions, and the greater number of questions that can be answered in the affirmative, the greater potential harm the scandal has.  As I said, this was created for politicians, and I will try to adjust the question or answer in a way that is more appropriate for a sports figure.

1.  Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence soundbyte (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence soundbyte)?  Yes, definitely.  Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine in the middle of the 2009 baseball season.  That's about as straightforward as it gets.  Washington's defense is that he strayed from the law this one time, which is both hard to believe and an admission of guilt anyways.  The clarity of the issue is a big strike against Washington.

2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate's brand?  Most baseball managers don't really have individual "brands," but we all do have an idea of what a manager should be.  We expect them to be strong leaders, smart tacticians, and have the ability to handle whatever personalities his team has.  Drug use cuts against the first two of these to some extent.  We don't expect leaders to use illicit drugs and we think that drug use is a lapse in judgment.  That being said, we also don't expect any sports figure to be a perfect citizen and Washington didn't have any special reputation as an upright citizen.  His cocaine use is not what we expect of managers, but this is mitigated strongly by the fact that we have such low expectations of sports figures.

3. Does the scandal reify/reinforce/"prove" a core negative perception about the [sports figure], particularly one that had henceforth been difficult to articulate (but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done)?  No.  I am unaware of any rumors or speculation about anything negative regarding Washington's personal life at all.  That this is so unexpected works in his favor.

4. Can the scandal readily be employed by the opposition, without their looking hypocritical/petty/politically incorrect, risking retribution, or giving life to a damaging narrative?  This question doesn't neatly translate from policiticans to sports figures.  I guess a corallary would be if some sportswriter had an ax to grind with Washington or someone influential in the sports community was crusading against immoral behavior in sports.  But the lack of either of these things will help him survive the scandal.

5. Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?  There are plenty of sports news stories that will quickly push this scandal out of people's minds, not least of which is the beginning of March Madness.  Perhaps if additional details come out in the future this thing may drag on a bit, but I'd bet that in a week no one will really be talking about this.

Judging from the answers to these questions it seems likely that this revelation will have little effect on Washington's tenure with the Rangers.  Comments from Jon Daniels, Michael Young, and other Rangers players seem to confirm this.  What will matter more is the Rangers on field perfomance this season.  This is not to say that this will in no way effect Washington's job security.  If Texas starts very slowly I could see this incident giving him a shorter leash.  Or if they finish with a middling record, instead of reaching the playoffs I could see this impacting whether or not the Rangers bring him back for 2011.  From what anyone who's played with or under him has ever said about him I gather that Ron Washington is a good guy.  I wish him (personally) all the best going forward.

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