05/28/12 12:00 AM ET
Memorial Day hits close for Washington
Rangers skipper tips cap to fallen brother during holiday
By Ozzie Garza / Special to MLB.com
The manager of the back-to-back American League champions, the Texas Rangers, admits to shedding tears at a baseball game. The tears he sheds are not because of any play on the field or the outcome of a game. They are shed, especially on Memorial Day, when Major League Baseball observes a moment of silence to honor those who have given their all in service to the United States.
For the Texas skipper, it is a personal and emotional feeling. He painfully remembers what took place halfway around the world decades ago -- the day his 24-year-old brother, Army Sergeant James L. Washington Sr., was killed in Vietnam. That painful memory still tugs at the manager's heartstrings.
Until that fateful day, Ron Washington had been enjoying life as a star athlete at John McDonogh High School in New Orleans, where he was a quarterback on the football team and the baseball team's star catcher. Life was good for the high school junior. He was a big man on campus who had just celebrated his 17th birthday. He had begun to drive and was having fun as he looked forward to the summer months, when he would play baseball every day, all day long. It was a great time in his life.
Then came the afternoon of May 5, 1969, when he was called to the principal's office and told to go home to be with his family.
"This is not a good sign. Why am I being sent home? Something bad must have happen," he thought.
He soon learned the news.
Earlier that day, a government vehicle parked in front of the family's home. There, two Army officers, dressed in crisp military attire, stepped out of their car, approached the front door, rang the doorbell, and informed the family of James' tragic death. Sgt. Washington was killed by hostile fire in the Dinh Tuong Province in South Vietnam.
"It just ripped my heart," Washington said. "I was devastated."
Two months earlier, he had enjoyed James' company, laughing and sharing childhood stories as the soldier spent a few days in New Orleans with his parents and siblings prior to his departure to Vietnam.
A few months later, his brother returned to his native New Orleans in a flag-covered casket to be buried in Chalmette National Cemetery, with full military honors. Because of Sgt. Washington's combat valor and gallantry in action, he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He was one of more than 170 New Orleanians to die in the war.
For Ron Washington, the memories of his brother remain close -- and dear to his heart.
"He meant everything to me," Washington said. "I miss my brother. He really cared about us. I'm from a family of 10. My mom had eight boys and two girls, and James looked out for all of us. He was a truck driver, and many times he would take us with him on trips. It gave us a chance to see other parts of Louisiana."
Although James did not play baseball, he made sure Ron -- who had already begun to show signs of being an exceptional player -- had the proper equipment needed to play the game. The efforts paid off, as his younger brother went on to have a stellar career playing for the McDonogh Trojans. In 1970, at age 18, Ron Washington signed his first baseball contract with the Kansas City Royals.
Still, there was something missing. James, whom Washington idolized and adored, did not live to see his younger brother become a professional ballplayer.
The Rangers manager still thinks of his brother often. He regularly makes the 10-mile drive from New Orleans to Chalmette National Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 15,300 veterans of wars ranging from the battle for U.S. independence to the conflict in Vietnam.
He walks the grounds of the 17 1/2-acre cemetery, which is adjacent to the site that was the staging ground for the Battle of New Orleans. When he reaches section 170, site 14229, where his brother's grave rests, he silently reflects on James' too-brief life. Washington comes to express his gratitude and heartfelt thanks and also to let his brother know he is grateful for what his brother did for him, his family and his country.
On more than one occasion, Washington has made the trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He stands in front of the black granite memorial and stares at the names on the wall. Then he looks at the name on Panel 25W, Line 008, and runs his fingers on the engraved name that reads James L Washington Sr. While he gets teary-eyed, he also feels a sense of pride for his brother's bravery and patriotism. He has a few rubbings of his brother's name that he got off the wall which he keeps in a prominent place in his home and office.
Sgt. Washington, along with his brothers Robert, Alvin, Edward, Raymond, and Michael, all served in the military. The Texas manager served in the National Guard for six years and proudly points out that the Washingtons are a military family.
Ron Washington is grateful to Major League Baseball for their part in honoring the nation's fallen warriors every Memorial Day.
"It is because of them that we are able to play this game and come to the ballpark," Washington said.
As the nation and Major League Baseball honor those soldiers who gave their lives for their country, Ron Washington will be on the steps of the Rangers' dugout, shedding tears for a beloved brother who made the ultimate sacrifice.
"I've said it many times that there is no crying in baseball," Washington said, "but this is different."
Ozzie Garza is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.