- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nationals Park turned from celebration to chaos Thursday afternoon, leaving the Washington Nationals without a manager and acid-tongued comments flying through the thick air.

Minutes after the Nationals beat the Seattle Mariners 1-0, Jim Riggleman resigned following a meeting with general manager Mike Rizzo. The win completed a three-game sweep, as the team picked up its 11th win in 12 games and moved above .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2005.

Behind the success, the question of whether the team would pick up next year’s option on Riggleman’s contract festered. Before Thursday’s game, Riggleman asked Rizzo to meet in Chicago this weekend and discuss the option. If there wasn’t a meeting, Riggleman said, he wouldn’t travel with the team.

MCLAREN NAMED INTERIM COACH

After the game, Rizzo declined the meeting and Riggleman resigned, effective immediately.

“This is not thinking of the team first,” a stunned Rizzo said. “It’s thinking of personal goals, personal things first.”

Bench coach John McLaren was named interim manager beginning with Friday night’s game at the Chicago White Sox.

In a bizarre scene, Riggleman never showed up for his usual postgame news conference. Instead, the locker room was closed for about 20 minutes before Rizzo emerged, then sat in the chair normally occupied by Riggleman to announce he didn’t have a manager.

Minutes later, Riggleman blasted the organization in a 15-minute session remarkable for its candor. Standing in the middle of a dead-silent locker room, Riggleman’s voice was calm, even and precisely aimed.

“I know what the right thing to do is. I know you don’t keep a manager on a one-year deal in Major League Baseball,” Riggleman said. “I’ve pretty much been on a short leash everywhere I’ve been, and after 10 years that’s enough of that.”

Rizzo and Riggleman gave differing accounts of what transpired. In Rizzo’s version, Riggleman threatened to quit if something wasn’t done about the option. Riggleman said he only wanted a conversation about it.

Riggleman’s agent, Burton Rocks, told The Washington Times his client was “hurt” by the refusal not to meet with him personally and that it wasn’t the first time he’d requested a meeting and been turned down. Ultimately he felt that the “refusal to meet with him about the extension was their decision and that meant that he wasn’t part of that decision.”

Appointed interim manager after Manny Acata was fired in July 2009, Riggleman was hired permanently that November and compiled a 140-172 record. Riggleman also managed the San Diego Padres, Mariners and Chicago Cubs. He hoped to have the option situation resolved by Father’s Day.

A local, Riggleman grew up in Rockville, graduated from Richard Montgomery High School and received his physical education degree from Frostburg State. His mother still lives in Frederick.

In a twist, Rocks said he thought the relationship could be salvaged, but no one had reached out. Any hope of reconciliation was difficult to believe, given the comments that zinged through Nationals Park after the breakup.

“I’ve supported him through the media, personally and in the clubhouse every step of the way,” Rizzo said. “He obviously didn’t take to it and was not persuaded by it.”

Rizzo addressed the team following the 1-0 victory over the Mariners, where Laynce Nix’s sacrifice fly brought home the lone run in the bottom of the ninth inning and ignited an on-field celebration. All that seemed far away.

Reaction to the move was muted. Surprise hung on the faces of most players as they quietly dressed or sat in fat leather recliners and watched television. The celebration evaporated.

“Whether I agree or disagree with it, I respect Jim’s decision. He’s moving on and I’m moving on,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, who noted he spent much of his career on one-year contracts. “I’m disappointed, for sure. … But this really has nothing to do with me. It’s a personal decision.”

The clubhouse factored into the decision, Riggleman said. Though he didn’t feel undermined by any players, he felt the extension was needed to reinforce his authority as manager.

Looking back, Riggleman felt he signed a bad contract in 2009 with the option being in the team’s hands. But he didn’t feel as if he could say no to the job. He described the Nationals’ decision to retain a manager on a one-year contract as “not a good way to do business.” In the latter part of the interview, Riggleman implied he could lose the clubhouse if the option wasn’t exercised.

“Something’s missing. There’s some aspect of Jim Riggleman where they said ‘I’m not sure,’ ” Riggleman said. “I’m sure and if they’re not sure, then it’s not a good marriage.

“It’s a relatively small commitment by today’s standards to make a statement to the players, ‘Hey, Jim’s going to be here.’ I think that’s a message that needed to be delivered. You’ve got to send a message to professional ballplayers that this manager is their manager.”

Watched by three Nationals public relations staffers who edged closer as time ticked on, Riggleman continued unabated.

“I know I’m not Casey Stengel, but I do feel like I know what I’m doing,” Riggleman said. “It’s not a situation where I felt like I should continue on with such a short leash, where every little hill and valley is life and death in the game. The game is not fun that way.”

And for the Nationals, en route to Chicago with a 38-37 record and no manager, Thursday wasn’t fun, either.

- Amanda Comak, Paulina Berkovich and Rich Campbell contributed.