We live in a time in sports when public apologies are judged more or less the same way we judge figure skating performances. Did he sound sincere? How was the choreography? The artistic interpretation? Did he complete all the technical elements?
Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington was the latest to take to the ice, when he admitted last week, in the wake of a report by SI.com's Jon Heyman, that he had tested positive for cocaine in a 2009 drug test. Washington was clearly emotional—there were tears in his eyes—as he apologized. He talked about how there are consequences when you make mistakes. He did not hide, did not deny and did not make excuses. He said that he had entered Major League Baseball's drug-treatment program and completed it. He voluntarily submitted to future testing. He offered his resignation to Rangers president Nolan Ryan, who, after dealing with some of his own emotions ("I was in total shock, then I was mad," Ryan said), decided instead to keep him as manager, then bring him back for the 2010 season.
It was almost the perfect apology. Almost. The one stumble was Washington's insistence that this was the first time he had ever used cocaine, which, true or not, sounded off-key. Washington is 57 years old. He played baseball in the 1980s, when cocaine was the baseball player's drug of choice. A day later he would admit to using marijuana and amphetamines as a player. This was really the first time?
When it comes to public apologies, the public will latch on to whatever sounds dubious. So when Ron Washington said that he had never used cocaine before, sure, that was the part of the apology that people pawed at again and again. Even if it is true ... it did not sound true. And in the apology game, that's of paramount importance.
Of course, it better be true because lying is one of the two unforgivable sins in sports management. Everything else, it seems, can be forgiven. The Rangers' decision to stick with Washington is pretty much in line with history. The St. Louis Cardinals stuck with manager Tony La Russa in 2007 even after he was briefly a YouTube sensation for his arrest on a DUI in Florida during spring training. The Atlanta Braves stuck with manager Bobby Cox in 1995 after he was charged with domestic violence against his wife. (The charges were dismissed, but Cox was directed to complete counseling.) Billy Martin was hired again and again even after an ongoing series of bizarre transgressions.
But lying: not so much. In 1998 the Toronto Blue Jays were willing, at first, to stick with their manager, Tim Johnson, even after he admitted lying to players about having seen combat during the Vietnam War. (He had served in the Marine Corps Reserves.) But after three months of tense questions, they fired him. The Blue Jays' management talked about how the lying made the situation untenable—you can't lead when you can't be trusted.
So the question now is, Can Ron Washington be trusted? Washington is, by virtually all accounts, a great guy, respected throughout the game. He was signed by Kansas City out of a tryout camp in New Orleans—the only player signed out of the camp—and he took part in the Royals' famed Baseball Academy. He stuck it out in the minor leagues for the better part of 15 seasons before becoming a utility player in the big leagues. He then coached in the Mets' organization and for the A's. He was so respected by players that Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez gave Washington one of his Gold Gloves, and former A's first baseman Jason Giambi gave Washington a $25,000 check to help repair his New Orleans home following Hurricane Katrina.
After Washington made his public admission, the Rangers players rallied around him. Outfielder Josh Hamilton, who famously has dealt with his own drug demons, marveled at his manager's candor. Third baseman Michael Young reportedly told teammates, "I've got his back." Players insist that, if anything, they feel even more connected to their manager because of the straightforward way he has come clean.
We will see. The Rangers' management was placed in an uncomfortable and ambiguous situation. Nobody could have blamed Texas executives if they had decided to fire Washington for using cocaine during what he called "a weak moment." Nobody could have blamed them if they had found it hard to buy into his "first time" line of defense.
On the other hand, there is something honorable about sticking with a good man who admits a mistake and goes through all the apparent steps to make up for it. The Rangers believe in Ron Washington. Now Nolan Ryan is talking about how there's no reason this Rangers team—which won 87 games last year and has some promising young pitching—can't win 92 games and contend for the American League West title. Yes, now things become clearer. Because you know what the second unpardonable sin is, right?