Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 26, 2011

Jim Riggleman Exits, Burning Bridges As He Goes

Just over a week ago I was at Nationals Park for the first time. Located just blocks from the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. and now in its fourth season, the stadium offers panoramic views of the city from some of its upper deck seats. On the field level fans are kept close to the action thanks to limited foul ground. I was reminded a bit of Citi Field in Queens; though that may have been because of the recent opening of a Shake Shack in the huge Scoreboard Walk concession area behind the right field seats. Gotham’s renowned hamburger joint with its famously long lunchtime lines has an outlet at the Mets’ home as well.

Between almost every inning there are various entertainments for the fans, culminating with the nightly race of three oversized “Presidents” mascots. The decision to provide the fans with more than just nine innings of play makes the experience reminiscent of a night at a minor league park. Of course, since the local franchise has given its fans far more heartache than hope since moving from Montreal in 2005, the need to distract the paying customers is perhaps understandable. Still, Washington fans waited more than three decades for the return of the Great Game to their city; they seem prepared to wait another year or two for their heroes to become credible.

On this particular Friday night the Nationals were opening a weekend inter-league series against Baltimore. With the opponent’s home stadium less than an hour’s drive north, the Park was close to capacity; although a goodly number of those in attendance were sporting the orange and black of the Orioles.

But after a one-hour rain delay before the first pitch, and three hours of play, it was the fans in red who went home happy. Six Nationals pitchers frustrated the Baltimore hitters. Starter Jason Marquis pitched into the sixth inning, and while he failed to record a single clean frame, he kept his club in the game. He induced ground ball outs to end four separate innings, and was helped mightily by a pair of infield double plays. Baltimore starter Zach Britton was dominant through four innings, but the third time through Washington’s batting order he suddenly couldn’t get a man out.

Finally, in the bottom of the sixth with the score tied at four and both starters gone, veteran Jerry Hairston, Jr. doubled home Wilson Ramos to put the Nationals ahead for good. By the time center fielder Roger Bernadina snared a line drive off the bat of Mark Reynolds for the game’s final out, Washington had plated three more runners to make the final 8-4.

For Baltimore, bringing up the rear in the AL East as usual, a night on which they pounded out 18 hits ended with one more frustrating loss. But for the Nationals and their fans, the victory was but the latest in a sudden winning streak that had them daring to dream of a time when Washington might actually be a contender.

Unfortunately if there is one constant for the Washington franchise, it is that nothing ever comes easy. The winning streak that I witnessed part of would extend to eight games before the Nats finally dropped the last of the three games against the O’s. They promptly started another streak by sweeping a series against the Mariners, and prepared to start a brief inter-league road trip having won 11 of 12 and sitting at a game over .500 for the season. But when the team boarded buses for the trip to the airport after Thursday night’s game, they did so without manager Jim Riggleman. In an extraordinary fit of pique at the club’s refusal to pick up his 2012 contract option before the end of the season, Riggleman resigned, saying that he couldn’t manage well without a long-term commitment from the club.

The statement is odd on its face since given the Nats’ recent success it would appear that Riggleman was managing rather well. Perhaps Riggleman was acknowledging the limited role that he was playing in the team’s sudden hot streak. His two most significant recent moves had been to move the struggling Jayson Werth into the leadoff spot and to bat the pitcher eighth. Neither move had contributed to the Nationals run of victories.

Every year there are players, managers, and even general managers who find themselves in precisely Riggleman’s position. While occasionally an option is picked up or a new contract extension is announced, the far more common event is for both the team and the individual to agree that negotiating contracts in the middle of a season can only be a distraction. Instead Riggleman created the biggest distraction of all, first by reportedly issuing an ultimatum to general manager Mike Rizzo, and then by walking out on his team when Rizzo refused to accede to his demands.

It may well be that Rizzo had no long-term plans to retain Riggleman as manager. With pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg lost for likely the entire 2011 season after Tommy John surgery, and future star Bryce Harper needing time in the minors to mature as both a player and a person, Rizzo likely knew from the start that Washington’s prospects for the current year were limited. Not that he would ever say that out loud; season ticket holders generally don’t look kindly on management announcing up front that a team isn’t expected to do much. Still, with that reality in place, there was little risk for Rizzo to keep Riggleman on the bench for this year and make decisions about the future at a later time.

But all that was as true back in Spring Training as it is today or as it will be in September; and the 58-year old Riggleman has been around the game long enough to know it. He also has to be aware that “job security” and “major league manager” are terms rarely found in the same paragraph, much less the same sentence.

If he’s honest with himself, he also knows that he’s no Joe McCarthy or Bobby Cox. In stints with the Padres, Cubs, Mariners, and now the Nationals, he’s led a team to the post-season exactly once. A manager for almost 1,500 major league games, Riggleman’s record is 662-824, meaning his charges have lost an entire season of games, exactly 162, more than they’ve won.

But apparently no amount of cold hard reality was going to dissuade Jim Riggleman from thinking about himself first and his team second, if at all. In abandoning his post all he proved was that the between innings skits and T-shirt giveaways aren’t the only things at Nationals Park that smack of being minor league. Odds are 29 other major league franchises will think about that before considering Riggleman for their next managerial vacancy. Meanwhile distractions aside, the surprising Nationals flew on to Chicago and won their next game, apparently leaving their former manager behind as quickly as he had left them.

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