Let’s face it, Jim Riggleman and the Washington Nationals were using each other. Riggleman needed a job - one last job, perhaps - to establish his credentials as a major league manager; and the Nats needed somebody to skipper them during this construction phase in which general manager Mike Rizzo is trying to build a credible team and organization.
It was, from Day 1, a mutually-agreed-upon arrangement - hardly what either side would have preferred, but the best they could do at the time. Riggleman, after all, isn’t exactly a hot commodity, not with a career record 162 games below .500, and the gaffe-prone Nationals aren’t exactly a magnet for quality managing candidates. It was almost like one of those platonic marriages between senior citizens looking to save on expenses. There couldn’t have been any fewer strings attached than there were between Riggleman and the Nats.
What was his salary, $600,000? That’s about twice what the best-paid umpire gets (and about 1/35th of what Jayson Werth does). Think about that: A guy running a major league club was making $300,000 more than a guy who calls balls and strikes (one day out of every four).
But again, there are no victims here. Everybody knew what they were getting into. Riggleman knew the job might be a dead end, and that - with Stephen Strasburg on the mend and Bryce Harper still in A ball - he might never be able to make a strong enough argument for a long-term contract. Rizzo, meanwhile, knew that by giving his manager only the barest commitment, a one-year deal for minimal money, he might be undermining his authority.
In the end, it wasn’t a good bet for either side. And finally, last Thursday, everything went ka-boom. Riggleman, the resentment welling up, walked away when - with the team on an 11-1 tear - Rizzo refused to discuss picking up his option for next year. The surprise, of course, wasn’t that it ended badly; things have traditionally ended badly between the Nationals and their managers. The surprise was the ka-boom part. In baseball, things rarely go ka-boom like this.
That’s why Riggleman has come in for the brunt of the criticism. In the minds of many, he didn’t live up to the terms of his agreement, didn’t say, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” when Rizzo rebuffed him. (The ingrate.)
Besides, it’s always easier to bash the guy who left than to take a long, hard look at the one who remains. But it takes two, as they say, to make an accident. Yes, Riggleman acted rashly, but he acted rashly toward a GM who also has been known to act rashly - as Rizzo did earlier in the season when, with the club batting in the .220s, he refused to let the media talk to hitting coach Rick Eckstein.
So that’s who you had sitting on opposite sides of a desk the other day: a manager at his wit’s end and a my-way-or-the-highway GM in the first year of a five-year contract extension. Not a good combination.
And please, can we stop the silly comparisons between Riggleman’s situation this season and Rizzo’s last year, before the Lerners fully committed to him? If an employee had pitched a fit at Rizzo back then, he could have fired him on the spot - no muss, no fuss. It wouldn’t have mattered whether he was on a short-term deal or not. He was the boss.
But if a player pitched a fit at Riggleman (e.g., Jason Marquis in Baltimore last month), well, what’s a manager supposed to do other than put up with it? We’re talking apples and oranges, folks.
We’ll never know what really went on behind the scenes between the manager and GM. Plenty of people like to pretend they know, but it’s just that - pretending. Riggleman has told his side of the story; Rizzo has told his. The truth, as is usually the case, can be found somewhere in between.
(I personally like to think Riggleman stormed out of the office after not getting his way - like Albert Brooks’ character did in “Lost in America” - and shouted: “I’ve seen the future! And it’s a bald-headed man from Chicago [Rizzo’s hometown]!”)
And now Davey Johnson is being brought out of the cedar closet to manage the club for the rest of the season - and perhaps beyond. Under the circumstances, you couldn’t ask for a better blowout patch. Johnson’s reputation for success (with the New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers) precedes him, so he won’t battle the credibility issues Riggleman did. Granted, he’s 68, but as long as he stands near Jack McKeon, the Marlins’ 80-year-old emergency skipper, he’ll be fine.
Johnson also has worked under some interesting owners - Marge Schott in Cincinnati, Peter Angelos in Baltimore, Rupert Murdoch in Los Angeles - so there shouldn’t be much about the Nationals that throws him. And if he stays long enough to manage Strasburg and Harper, he figures to enjoy his Nats experience more than his predecessor did. By the end, it seems, Riggleman, had begun to view himself as the managerial equivalent of Teddy Roosevelt in the Presidents Race: He just couldn’t win.
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Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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