Cincinnati rolled into town Friday, six years to the day since Jim Riggleman’s fateful decision. Some players agreed with it, others did not. It was a choice that made Riggleman wonder if he would work again in baseball.
He quit that day, June 23, 2011, as Washington Nationals manager after a rousing win and in the midst of a rising tide around the organization. The Nationals had refused to pick up his contract option before they had to, so Riggleman decided their future for them. He left.
He was 58 years old, at a point where conviction and cash can alter reasoning. Riggleman was fed up with the Nationals slow-playing their decision to pick up his contract option. He spent the winter before his final season under contract expecting Washington’s ownership to give him an answer. They didn’t. He went into spring expecting them to decide. They didn’t. Then, he put general manager Mike Rizzo in a complicated spot: Assure the option and possibly an extension now, or I am leaving.
The path of managers asking for more has become worn around the Nationals. Riggleman wanted solidarity to help him assuage a divide in the clubhouse, which he admits now was his responsibility, and to give him clarity. Davey Johnson wanted more from the organization when he managed. Dusty Baker is in a similar spot on the anniversary of Riggleman’s departure.
Baker is working through his final season of a two-year contract wondering why he is yet to have his deal extended by the Lerner family. Baker had spent the winter hoping something would be done. Then, the spring. Now, he is in the middle of the season with a winning team and contractual limbo. Sound familiar?
Sitting in the visitor’s dugout Saturday, Riggleman, now the Reds’ bench coach, was embraced by a Nationals staffer. He told her about his pending grandfatherhood. She relayed that her second grandchild was going to emerge soon. They promised to compare photos. Minutes prior, Riggleman retrieved a couple baseballs to give to fans who had shouted to him. In the midst of an interview, a “RIGGLEMAN!” cracked the fading sounds of batting practice.
Dreams are often built on local and exclusive notions, both of which Riggleman achieved with the Nationals’ job. He’s from Rockville, Maryland, was drafted out of Frostburg State University and began managing in 1983. He still salivates when thinking about being a manager. There are, as is so often pointed out, just 30 of these jobs.
“I would challenge anybody in the world to say they enjoy managing more than I do,” Riggleman said. “We can’t have a contest. I can’t prove it. But, I love to manage. And that’s why I went down to the minor leagues and managed. I loved managing in Pensacola and Louisville. I knew I may never manage again when I made the decision I made. But, you know, it’s just a decision you make at 58 that you don’t make at 28.”
Riggleman contends it wasn’t just that particular day when asked how he felt in June six years ago. Instead, what had been percolating surfaced. Once he concluded what he was going to do, he called his son, John, to explain this is not the best way to make a decision. John was 28 at the time. Riggleman told him that he had to stick it out at work, always choose “smart” over “right.” Jim was at a different point.
“I want to preface it by saying I have the utmost respect for the Nationals, Mike Rizzo, his staff, the Lerners, everybody,” Riggleman said. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity I had here. But, it wasn’t that day. It was a process of time that I came to the conclusion of making the decision that I made. Not any particular thoughts about that one day. It’s just about my time in general here. I’m fortunate to have been here. It’s my hometown. I loved it here. I think more in terms of my time here as opposed to a particular day that I left.”
No one has better perspective on the Nationals’ recent handling of managerial contracts than Riggleman. First, he has a life in Major League Baseball to draw from. Second, he worked for Rizzo and the Lerner family. Third, he’s good friends with Bud Black. Black was reportedly set to be the Nationals’ next manager two offseasons ago. He chose not to. Baker was hired instead.
“Davey, Bud Black, Dusty, everybody’s going to make their decision on their own,” Riggleman said. “When Bud decided not to be here, he watched the Nationals win a whole bunch of ball games. Maybe there were times he felt — and I shouldn’t speak for Bud, he’s a good friend and so forth — I think there were probably times where he thought, ‘Man, I could have been there with that team, look how good they are.’ But, he came to a decision based on the information he had in front of him. Now, Dusty is going to have to do that.
“Dusty’s in a no-lose situation. He’s revered by his peers, his players, throughout the baseball world. People think a lot of Dusty. And, there is no option on his contract, I believe. They got a great team. He’s in a great position. He’s going to be managing here or he’s going to be managing somewhere else.”
How the Lerners have handled the contracts of Johnson, Riggleman and Baker has not just been a public spectacle. It has become a behind-the-scenes topic among those entrenched in baseball. Rizzo, who declined to comment for this story, recently defended the process by noting the organization has a way it does business — Rizzo went through the same slow-play of his contract last year — and the results speak for themselves. Washington has won at least 95 games three times in the last five seasons, doing so under three different managers. Riggleman thinks the organization is one signature away from the raised-eyebrow view of the Nationals being removed, at least temporarily.
“I think that’s there right now,” Riggleman said. “The day Dusty signs his next contract, that all goes away. That’s looming. If something totally unexpected happened and [Dusty] wasn’t here, then that talk would continue through next year. The day that he signs his contract, I think it’s going be, ‘OK, we all knew this was going to happen. It’s all good. Let’s go to work.’”
Despite the divergence in preferences, things are working out for all parties. After climbing back through the minor leagues, Riggleman has ascended to bench coach for the Reds. Baker is on a path to back-to-back playoff appearances and making his brief hiatus from baseball all the more head-scratching. Black was hired by Colorado last offseason. The Rockies came into Sunday 17 games over .500 and on pace for their first playoff appearance since 2009. Washington keeps winning under the Lerner’s watch.
Six years ago, Riggleman took a stand for what he thought was right. Not much has changed since.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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