Jun 24, 2011, 12:56 AM EDT
This was Jim Riggleman’s dream job, and he knew it.
Unfortunately for Riggleman, the Washington Nationals also knew it. Which is why they were able to treat him like the lowliest manager in the big leagues. They held all the cards in the relationship. He held none, a fact he knew the moment he agreed to his initial contract in November 2009 and a fact he even spelled out to the front office at the time.
“I made it very clear that, you know, I can’t say no to this, but this is a bad contract for a manager,” he said. “There’s no option for Jim Riggleman. It’s a one-year option that the club decides on. That’s not a good way to do business. I made it very clear that I didn’t like that. But you know I can’t say no to it. So there I am. And two years later, I’m realizing: You know what? I was right. It’s not a good way to do business.”
So Riggleman did what he felt was the only thing he could do, even if there wasn’t another soul in the universe who would agree. He walked away from his dream job, quitting on a club that had won 11 of 12 games and had suddenly become the darlings of Washington and the rest of the baseball world.
One moment, Nationals Park was awash with positive vibes after a 1-0, walk-off win over the Seattle Mariners that gave this team a winning record for the first time in ages. The next, Mike Rizzo was sitting in front of a room full of reporters announcing his manager had resigned, producing an audible gasp from the group of fans watching from the adjacent Presidents Club.
“As you can see, it’s taken us a little bit by surprise,” Rizzo said in the understatement of the day.
Truth be told, Riggleman’s dissatisfaction with his job standing was not a surprise to those who know him. He long believed he deserved more of a show of commitment from the organization than had been given, both publicly and privately. He knew what people said about him since taking the job, that he was merely a placeholder, managing a rebuilding club until the team was ready to win, at which point another skipper would be brought in and he’d be kicked to the curb.
And he was right to be dissatisfied with that. No manager wants to feel like a lame duck, least of all for parts of three seasons. He deserved to know if he was legitimately under consideration for a contract extension or if he had no future with the organization.
“I thought after 10 years [managing in the majors], I’d earned the right to have a little longer leash,” he said.
Trouble is, Riggleman could not have picked a worse time or manner in which to issue his last-ditch ultimatum to Rizzo.
In the middle of the Nationals’ hottest stretch in six years? With his team oozing confidence and the rest of the baseball world taking notice of the major strides this previously woebegone franchise had made in recent weeks and months?
Riggleman’s intentions may have been good, and his point may have been valid. But there was no way for him to try to pull this stunt off right now and come away looking like the victor.
For one thing, Rizzo is the last GM on earth who’s going to be bullied into making a contract decision in late June. Two weeks ago, the Nationals were nine games under .500 and spinning their wheels in the mud. Two weeks of great baseball wasn’t going to suddenly convince Rizzo — who does have the security of a five-year contract, by the way — that Riggleman deserved to be retained in 2012.
“Today’s conversation, put to me the way it was put to me, you certainly can’t make that decision in a knee-jerk reaction,” Rizzo said. “It’s too big of a decision to be put in that position.”
Perhaps Riggleman could have tried to force this issue during the All-Star break. At least that would have given Rizzo reason to consider a larger body of work beyond this hot streak, not to mention a natural break during season in which major decisions are often made.
Instead, he wrote his own obituary on Thursday. Make no mistake, the Nationals didn’t determine Riggleman’s fate. Riggleman determined his own fate.
What did he want more than anything else? To be a major-league manager, preferably in his hometown. Well, he’s no longer managing in D.C. And there’s no reason to believe he’ll ever get another chance to manage anywhere else in the big leagues, maybe the minor leagues.
Riggleman may have friends and supporters in the sport, but none who can sell the idea of hiring a manager with a career .445 winning percentage who also walked away in the middle of a winning streak.
“Maybe I’ll never get another opportunity,” he said. “But I promise you, I’ll never do it on a one-year deal again.”
The Nationals, meanwhile, will try to move beyond this stunning development. Rizzo will name bench coach John McLaren as his “short-term” manager, a tenure that may not last more than a day or two until another interim skipper is hired for the remainder of the season.
That certainly suggests the choice will be someone not on the current coaching staff. Perhaps someone still within the organization like Davey Johnson. Perhaps someone outside the organization like Bobby Valentine.
Regardless of who’s making out the lineups and signaling for pitching changes, Nationals players insist they’ll approach Friday’s game and every one that follows just as they would if Riggleman were still in the manager’s office.
“It’s not going to change anything in here,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “We’re the ones that have been making pitches and hitting balls and winning ballgames. We’re going to keep going. I feel good about these guys in here, the direction of this franchise. I think there’s a lot of positives and a lot of good things to come from this team. We’re moving forward.”
The Nationals will take the field Friday night as one of 14 major-league clubs with a winning record. Whether they finish the season over .500 or not, few will disagree they’ll have made major strides in 2011. And with Stephen Strasburg and perhaps Bryce Harper on the way, they’ll enter 2012 with legitimate buzz and reason to believe they can contend.
Dozens of candidates would jump at the opportunity to manage that club.
Except for Jim Riggleman. He had his dream job. And that still wasn’t good enough for him.
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