After the Chicago Cubs nose-dived from 90 to 67 wins in 1999, they did what any well-meaning, self-respecting major league baseball team would do to fix the situation. They fired their manager.
“We underachieved as a team,” general manager Ed Lynch told reporters at the time. “Sometimes it’s necessary to change the perception or attitude or the direction of the club down in the clubhouse. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The manager who lost his job back then was Jim Riggleman, who is now on the more pleasant side of the firing line as the Washington Nationals’ new interim manager. A homegrown interim manager, at that. The 56-year-old Riggleman grew up in Rockville and rooted for the Washington Senators. He graduated from Richard Montgomery High School and Frostburg State, where he starred in baseball and basketball.
Formerly the Nationals’ bench coach, Riggleman replaced Manny Acta on Monday. And on Monday, two of the principals involved, president Stan Kasten and acting general manager Mike Rizzo, expressed sentiments similar to what Riggleman heard as he was leaving Chicago nearly a decade ago. Some of the words were even identical.
“We feel the team has underachieved,” Rizzo said at a news conference. “We feel we have a better ballclub than we have shown on the field. We feel with a different voice and possibly a different feel in the clubhouse…”
That’s baseball. When it comes to changing perceptions, attitudes, directions or “the feel” (not to mention “the culture”), the manager has to go. Twice it has happened to Riggleman. Hired in San Diego toward the end of the 1992 season, he was fired in 1994 with a 112-179 record. But the Cubs immediately snapped him up. Chicago went 374-419 in five years under Riggleman, with two winning seasons and one wild-card berth.
Last year, he was in the same position as now, taking over as Seattle’s interim manager in June. The Mariners, an inept team with major chemistry problems, went 36-54 under Riggleman. He was not seriously considered for the full-time job after the club brought in a new general manager.
Despite his mediocre career record, “Riggs” commands respect in the baseball world, mainly for how he deals with players.
“Of all the guys I played for, he’s the best,” said former first baseman Mark Grace, who played 16 years in the majors, 13 with the Cubs. “It’s not that he was any ‘better’ than anybody, but it was our trust in each other. His trust in me kind of set him apart.
“I won a championship with Bob Brenly [in Arizona],” said Grace, now a broadcaster with the Diamondbacks and Fox. “I won with Jim Riggleman and Don Zimmer. But Riggs, he trusted me to be his leader, his confidant, and I loved that. I loved playing for him. He was tough but he was fair. He could handle the star players, but he also handled the 25th guy very well. I think he’s a players’ guy until you give him a reason not to be a players’ guy. He’s gonna trust you to play the game the right way, to handle yourself professionally.”
If not, Riggleman has been known to take action. The Seattle Times reported last year that he had Richie Sexson released from the Mariners because he didn’t like his “body language.” And after reliever Sean Green reacted poorly when he was lifted from a game, Riggleman ripped into him in the dugout in full public view.
Even though the Nationals believe Riggleman to be more animated than Acta, such displays apparently are rare.
“First and foremost, he’s a gentleman. And not everybody’s a gentleman,” ex-Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston said. “He treats people like people. Some managers say their door’s always open, but it’s not. His was.”
Said another ex-Cubs player, pitcher Steve Trachsel: “I think he’s a very good manager. He works the pitching staff really well and he was always positive, which is something I always enjoyed. Actually, I was kind of surprised when they did fire him.
“He does a good job with young guys and gives a lot of respect to veterans. He definitely maintained an even keel. We battled a lot of injuries [in 1999]. He’s not overly emotional, but he’s not afraid to bring guys in to let them know he’s happy or not happy with them.”
Outfielder Phil Plantier had the best season, by far, of his eight-year career while playing for Riggleman with the Padres in 1993. After a slow start, Plantier finished with 34 home runs and 100 runs batted in. But Riggleman was soon gone, and Plantier never came close to those numbers again.
“He’s an excellent developer of talent, and he communicated well with the young players,” said Plantier, the first-year manager of the Class AA West Tenn Diamond Jaxx.
“We had a young ballclub, and we were going through a rebuilding process, a fire sale. It was a place of opportunity for young guys. He was very patient. I remember him as a patient manager, someone who was a teacher of the game. When someone would make a mistake, he was involved in the learning process.”
Then-Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine hired Riggleman to replace Greg Riddoch with 12 games left in the 1992 season. It was a talent-deficient roster, stripped by cost-cutting, that eventually cost McIlvaine his job, as well. Randy Smith became the Padres’ GM in 1994 and Riggleman was fired, too.
“It was just a difficult environment to show what he was capable of doing,” said McIlvaine, now a consultant and scout with the Minnesota Twins. “As soon as somebody got good we had to get rid of them. But Jim was very, very good at taking ‘piece’ players, part-time guys, lifetime Triple-A guys and maximizing their abilities. He was able to put them in situations where they had a chance to succeed.”
An NAIA All-American third baseman at Frostburg, where he was known as “Kid,” Riggleman was drafted in the fourth round in 1974 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, traded to St. Louis two years later and never got past Class AAA during an eight-year minor league career. In addition to managing three major league teams, he has worked as a minor league coach and manager, big league director of player development and minor league field coordinator, and bench coach with the Dodgers and Nationals.
“He’s a baseball guy, 24/7,” McIlvaine said. “He’ll talk to you about baseball all day and all night. He’s really a dedicated professional. I think his best is still ahead of him. A team like Washington could be a good thing for him because I think he can rearrange the parts a little bit and get more of out them.”