SURPRISE, Ariz. — Ron Washington waited so long for the opportunity to manage, he didn't want to wait until spring training for his players to meet him. He went cross country to meet them.

It's customary for a new manager to make phone contacts, but Wash literally went the extra mile. When the Texas Rangers hired him in early November, he immediately started boarding airplanes for more up-close-and-personal visits with many of his core players.

Washington started in California and worked his way to the East Coast and met 13 players in all in December and January.

"About five days after his first phone call to me, he was at my house having breakfast," said All-Star shortstop Michael Young, who in the offseason lives in Southern California. "He met my family, we talked forabout an hour and a half, then he was on his way. It made quite an impression. No manager has ever done that with me before."

At Hank Blalock's house in San Diego, Washington not only got the attention of his starting third baseman, but also Blalock's wife, Misty. When they sat down to dine, Wash pulled the chair out and helped seat her. A little deal, but a big deal when you're trying to frame an opinion about the new boss.

"I just wanted to personally meet them in a relaxed situation," Washington said Tuesday. "I wanted to tell them what I want, find out what they need and let them know that I'm going to

do everything within my power to make sure that whatever they need to help them become what they want to become, I'm going to do it.

"I got to meet their families, too. I think it's important to know the wives, the kids. Not only do I know the player, but I feel like I can step into his house. It was something I always thought that I wanted to do when I became a manager."

The 54-year-old Washington has been percolating managerial ideas for so many years — 11 in Oakland as the A's infield and third-base coach — they burst forth when the Rangers' young GM, Jon Daniels, so wisely offered him their vacant job.

Goodness, Wash is so ready for this. He looks perfectly natural in the big chair Tuesday, clear-minded and decidedly authoritative, even though he looks strange behind a desk and admits that it feels strange as well.

"I just told Art (Howe, Texas' new bench coach at Washington's request) the other day how jealous I am of him," Washington said. "Now he's having all the fun. I just want to get out on that field, but there's other things to think about now."

Mused Howe knowingly, "I told him, 'Just remember, when you're in there talking to the press after the game, I'll be taking a shower and drinking a nice, cold beer.'"

Washington is showered with challenges in his long-overdue first big chance — turning the talented but pitching-thin Rangers into a serious contender, something they couldn't do during four years under Buck Showalter. Maybe Washington's approach will make all the difference, because the Rangers already seem to have fallen in love with the guy.

Just the other day, Wash wasn't happy with the way a baserunning drill was being executed. So he ran out on the field and demonstrated himself. He showed a sliding technique, then demonstrated how to dive back into the bag. Few managers do that kind of stuff. The players ate it up.

"I've never seen a camp where guys come to work the first day and they love the manager right out of the chute," Young said. "Wash keeps things loose, but he wants things done well, he wants things done right. He really walks that line of working hard and having fun. Everything we do now, it looks like we're doing both."

Following Showalter, a notorious rules-and-decorum sort, Washington's fundamental approach has lifted an oppressive cloud. Young, for one, has always been intrigued by Wash ever since he made the conversion from second to shortstop a few years ago, and Washington, still with Oakland, yelled some corrective pointers to him from the third-base coaching box during spring training.

"That's just the way I am," Washington said, confirming the exchange. "I'm a baseball man, and if I see a good player doing something wrong, I'm going to let him know that he's doing something wrong and what he could have done."

It's going to be very interesting to see how the Rangers respond to Washington when the games start, especially playing in the same division against the team for which he was such an instrumental part for more than a decade.

Many believe he should be sitting in Oakland's managerial chair right now, so the 19 head-to-head meetings will be ripe for serious drama.

Washington claimed Tuesday he won't subscribe to any one particular mode of thinking in trying to win ballgames, and that he'll be his own man to a fault.

"When my gut is telling something, I'm going to follow it," he said. "When my eyes tell me what I see, I'm going to follow it. Sometimes when numbers tell me something might be likely to happen I'm going to follow it. I'm going to take in all the information I can and use it to our benefit. But to be one way with it ... no, I'm not. When I feel I want to bunt, I'm going to bunt. When I want to hit-and-run, I'm going to hit-and-run."

A subtle jab at his former employers? Judge for yourself.

More than anything, Washington is intent on being there for his players, as he was for the A's players who came to adore him. He can't wait to get to the ballpark every day to make some new impact on his new team.

"I always couldn't wait when I woke up to get to the ballpark," he said. "The only difference now is I'm responsible for what happens or what doesn't happen. I'm still a players' guy. I'm still a relationship-type guy. I want to know how guys are feeling, I want to know what they're thinking. If I know how they're feeling and what they're thinking, I can help them."

Young was succinct about his new manager, summing up simply, "He's found what he was meant for."

Carl Steward can be reached at (510) 293-2451 or by e-mail at csteward@angnewspapers.com.