NOTE — This is part of a series of stories profiling the 12-person Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2023, who will be inducted to culminate three days of festivities in Natchitoches July 27-29. For tickets and more information, visit LaSportsHall.com or call 318-238-4255.
By GIL LeBRETON, Written for the LSWA
The summer of 1970 was a trying and turbulent time to be young and growing up in America.
The military draft was sending high school and college graduates off to war. Vietnam had become a four-letter word.
The air was yet rife with National Guard tear gas and the memory of students gunned down at Kent State.
The Beatles had broken up. Jimi Hendrix died of an overdose. Ford introduced the Pinto.
And in New Orleans, 5-foot-11, 140-pound Ron Washington was about to go off and become a baseball player.
His measurables are pertinent because Washington, at age 18, reported to the inaugural class of the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy expecting to be a catcher.
The Royals organization had scoured the nation and held tryouts in 41 states for 7,682 kids between the ages of 16 and 21. Washington was one of the 42 selected for the academy’s first class.
“I was well-rounded,” Washington recalled. “I could hit. I could field, I could throw. I could run. And I was cocky. I talked a lot of trash.”
Coming from a family of 10 kids, Washington had learned the power of speaking up.
Now 71 and third base coach of the Atlanta Braves, Wash smiled and shook his head at the memory of the skinny kid from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans who left home to play baseball 53 years ago.
He was one of three (Frank White and U.L. Washington being the others) from the original Royals Academy who made it to the big leagues.
“I caught. I threw people out. I led off. I stole bases – that’s what I did,” Washington said on a recent visit with the Braves to play a series against Texas.
“I was a bad ass behind the plate. If I could have put on some weight . . .”
In 1973 the Royals decided he was too small to make the big leagues as a catcher.
He became an infielder. And Ron Washington’s life was changed forever.
He is not being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame because he had a championship or all-star playing career. But rather, he has coached and managed championship teams and helped to make all-stars of so many of his players.
With Washington coaching infielders, Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejada won the American League MVP award in 2002. A’s third baseman Eric Chavez won six Gold Gloves. He gave one of them to Washington with a note attached — “Wash, not without you.”
He helped turn Michael Young and Ian Kinsler into all-star infielders when he managed Texas to American League championships in 2010 and 2011. His Rangers suffered a gut-wrecking seven-game loss to St. Louis in 2011 – one pitch away from winning Game 6, and the Series crown.
Two seasons ago in Atlanta, Washington finally got his ring as the Braves won the World Series. He’s still in the third base coaching box as Atlanta is rolling toward another run at the Fall Classic later this year, but first, there’s a couple of days away from the club that he and family members will spend next Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Natchitoches.
He remains a beloved figure in north Texas. His Rangers teams had four consecutive 90-win seasons and six times finished either first or second in the American League West.
On a recent trip back to Texas, Wash reflected on his time as Rangers manager.
“It fits high on everything I’ve ever done in this game,” he said. “It started with a lot of talk. But you’ve got to believe. If you are a leader and you believe, the next thing is your followers have to believe. Those players believed because I believed.”
Washington still calls New Orleans home.
His wife Gerry, whom he met in 10th grade at John McDonogh High, comes from a family of 14 kids. Wash himself is one of 10. Their families are in New Orleans, and so home is New Orleans, Washington said.
His house in New Orleans East, at the corner of Dorcester and Perth, was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. But Washington rebuilt, patiently overseeing the work himself in the off-seasons.
Washington said he is humbled by his selection to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
“It was certainly a surprise to me,” he said. “I was just a young kid in New Orleans, running behind a baseball because I loved it. I love baseball. I just love baseball.
“I never dreamed or even thought of being in anybody’s Hall of Fame. I think I was just blessed to be someone who informs, who teaches, who believes that he can help.”
Belief. Such a powerful word.