ARLINGTON -- Rangers manager Ron Washington is truly living the dream. His team is in the American League Championship Series and people are asking him baseball questions.
He sits in front of a microphone in an interview room at the Ballpark in Arlington, answering questions about Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson, his lineup, what he is going to do with his bullpen and his catchers. He is a baseball "lifer" -- finishing his 40th year in the game -- and the Rangers manager can talk baseball for hours.
Seven months ago, there was a day in Spring Training where the questions weren't about baseball. That time, Washington had to stand in front of a microphone in Surprise, Ariz., and answer much harder questions. He was being asked about testing positive for cocaine in summer 2009.
On that dismal day, the idea of leading a team through postseason seemed almost a distant, fading and possibly disappearing dream.
"There was one thing that bothered me the most about that bad day," Washington said Thursday. "I had to walk onto that practice field that day knowing that here was a leader who has done something that a lot of other people wouldn't have forgiven me for. But this organization had forgiven me for making a terrible mistake.
"I wanted to make sure I did everything I could for this organization. I wanted to make sure I had respect for this organization. I wanted to make sure I was prepared every day and ready to do everything I could for this organization. It really made me focus."
Since that dark day, he has stayed true to his word and emerged stronger both as a person and as a manager. He has given everything he has to the organization, he has been given the respect he deserves in return and now the Rangers are in the ALCS.
The Rangers, who entered this season with high expectations, could have easily buckled under the gravity of the sordid situation. The Blue Jays, back in 1999, never could come to grips with the revelation that manager Tim Johnson lied about his military service and it tore into the fabric of the organization. Jim Fregosi had to replace Johnson as manager in Spring Training to defuse the situation.
The Rangers refused to let that happen. Their players pulled together behind their manager and he has proven worthy of that support.
"He carries a lot of respect on this team," reliever Darren Oliver said. "He is the manager, but he also carries a lot of respect as a person. Wash is just a down-to-earth good person, on and off the field. When he says it, he means it. He has tremendous integrity."
"He has been huge for us," third baseman Michael Young said. "The one thing about the Rangers this year is it has been as blue collar of a team as I've ever been on. It's all baseball and we know what kind of effort it takes. Wash is the same way. He's a leader who grinds it out every day. Ron is a grind-it-out type of manager, and you don't see that often."
The simple fact is the Rangers have a strong affinity for their manager. He commands respect for who he is, what he stands for and what he believes in. One incident was not going to change that. Why?
"It's just fun playing for him," outfielder David Murphy said. "You love coming to the ballpark and playing for a manager who has so much passion for the game, who loves the game and loves to teach. You can tell he can't wait to get to the park every day."
"He's one of the guys," outfielder Nelson Cruz said. "He brings energy. You see him hit fungos and throw batting practice. Whatever you need him to do to help you become a better player, he's willing to help you. You don't see many other managers like that. He gives you the confidence to play and be yourself."
Rangers president Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels know all that. They also knew about the positive test long before Spring Training. They were confronted with the situation the previous summer, and it was especially hard on Daniels. He had hired Washington, given him his big break as a manager, and had been one to stand behind him during the rough early years of his regime.
Ron Washington ranks third among Rangers skippers who have managed a minimum of 100 games.
The shocking news hit hard. Washington had used the drug one night just before the All-Star break. He had a night out with friends in Anaheim and things went too far. Due for a random drug test after the All-Star break, Washington knew he had to be upfront about it. He told Ryan and Daniels what happened.
Washington, knowing his career and reputation teetered on the brink of ruin, offered to resign. Ryan and Daniels talked about the situation but decided they still Washington wanted to remain as manager. Instead of firing him, they stood behind him.
"It was the right thing to do," Daniels said. "It wasn't whether it was hard or easy, it was the right thing to do. Nolan and I talked. Do we believe in our manager? Do we believe he can lead this team? Do we want to give a good person a second chance?
"The answer was yes across the board."
They tried to keep the incident quiet and within the organization. That rarely happens in baseball. The news of the positive test -- uncovered by Sports Illustrated -- came out in Spring Training and that's when Washington found himself standing in the middle of the Rangers clubhouse explaining the situation to his players and profusely apologizing.
Young was the first to respond, standing up and saying, "I've got your back; we're behind you, Wash."
The day had the potential to devastate the Rangers. It did not. Instead it had the opposite effect. It pulled them together. When Washington made the long walk from the clubhouse to a conference room in center field to meet with the media, every player made the walk with him. They sat in the room as one while Washington faced the media and answered the inevitable questions.
"I just think the whole team came together after the way he came out with it, put himself out front and admitted he made a mistake," second baseman Ian Kinsler said.
"It didn't make us see him any differently," Cruz said. "We just ended having more respect for him after the way he came in front of us and was honest about it."
Daniels said that was the moment he knew that the Rangers had done the right thing by standing behind Washington and keeping him as their manager.
"That was all the validation we needed," Daniels said. "The players could have gone through the whole spectrum of reactions. But they wrapped their arms around him and, internally, it hasn't been a story since then.
"You have to take that type of situation seriously. When it first happened, we talked about it and slept on it, but we never wavered. Some people questioned in Spring Training: now that it's public, will you fire him. But that would have been a huge mistake. You make a decision on whether something is right or wrong, not how it looks in the newspaper."
The big story now is how Washington, 57 years old and in his 40th season of professional baseball as a player, coach and manager, has led his team to the ALCS for the first time in franchise history and now stands four wins from living the ultimate dream of being in the World Series. The bad day in Spring Training is a distant memory.
But Washington will never forget how a front office, a group of players and an entire organization supported him at a time in which they could have simply asked him to leave.
"This changed me forever," Washington said. "It made me put things in perspective and realize how much you could lose everything you worked for. But I'll never forget how this franchise could have turned their back on me and didn't."