- The Washington Times - Friday, November 13, 2009

Jim Riggleman officially became the Washington Nationals’ full-time manager Thursday when the 57-year-old Rockville native was reintroduced during a news conference at Nationals Park.

The path that led to this quiet, veteran baseball man getting the “interim” label stripped from his title, though, began July 15, the day he conducted his first workout following the firing of Manny Acta.

During a lengthy meeting with his players and coaches, Riggleman outlined his expectations for the underachieving club. They would play better defense. They would be more fundamentally sound. They would give their full effort. They would be held accountable for their performance.

Nationals players and executives realized right then that Riggleman might be more than just a short-term fill-in. He could be the long-term answer.

“He was ready,” left-hander John Lannan recalled Thursday. “You could just tell. He was the same way as a bench coach, but he was more vocal. It was great. … I got on board. That was a change in attitude I think I needed.”

Everything Riggleman did in the ensuing four months, on the field and in the clubhouse, convinced Washington’s front office he was the right choice from a pool of candidates that included bigger names and bigger personalities.

“You can know about people and hear what you hear about people,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “But watching him work on a day-to-day basis, I knew we had something here that could be a long-term answer for where we’re trying to be.”

Rizzo, under the guidance of team president Stan Kasten, proceeded with a managerial search once the season ended last month. He said he considered 18 candidates, including recognizable names like Bobby Valentine and Don Mattingly, then whittled down the list to a handful of finalists. All along, though, Riggleman had the upper hand, based on his familiarity with the organization, the respect he earned from his players and his strong desire to manage his hometown club.

On Wednesday, Rizzo informed Riggleman of the decision and offered him a contract believed to include two guaranteed years with an option for a third. And Thursday, Riggleman was back in the same interview room in the bowels of Nationals Park where he conducted 75 pre- and postgame news conferences during the season’s second half. This time, he could rest easy knowing he wasn’t auditioning for the job.

“This has been a dream of mine, to land right here,” the childhood Senators fan said. “It’s Washington baseball. It’s the dream of a lifetime to grow up watching a ballclub and then to end up playing or managing for that ballclub. It just couldn’t end up better for me.”

Players wholeheartedly applauded the move, having long ago been won over by Riggleman’s no-nonsense but positive attitude. They liked the fact their manager would hold brief team meetings after every game, win or lose. And they liked the fact he knew when and how to approach players to get a particular point across.

“I think guys appreciated that,” reliever Jason Bergmann said. “For him to have our backs like that when times were tough, it said a lot about him. We really respected that. All the extra work we did, it paid off in some regard. And I think it won some guys over.”

Despite an unimpressive resume - a 555-694 record in parts of 10 seasons with four different clubs and only one playoff berth - Riggleman always has been considered a good baseball man who knows how to manage a game and how to manage people. Hardly a flashy, me-first character like Valentine, he nevertheless commands respect when he enters a room.

“He’s a very simple baseball guy,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He wants you to play the game the right way. He wants you to play hard. He wants you to work hard.”

The Nationals, though, felt the need for due diligence, so Rizzo went out and spoke with as many as 10 candidates in person or over the phone. That included a four-hour interview with Valentine in Westchester, N.Y., two weeks ago.

The former Texas and New York Mets manager, who recently returned to the United States after a six-year stint in Japan, was intrigued by the job. Upon learning Wednesday he didn’t get the job, Valentine expressed surprise.

“This whole thing is pretty amazing, as far as I’m concerned,” he told MLB.com. “I don’t even know if it’s amazing. I can’t figure it out. Maybe he just wanted to talk. … I loved [Rizzo]. I think Mike has done a very fine job. I know his family. I wanted to see if there’s a fit there and if I could help him out.

“But the deeper you get into it, maybe it wasn’t the right place for me after all. It’s more than a rebuilding job there. They’re going to need a lot of help.”

Rizzo had positive things to say about Valentine on Thursday.

“He was a very attractive candidate,” Rizzo said. “It’s just I felt Jim was the right guy for the job.”

Plenty with the Nationals had felt that way since the day Riggleman took over the club, even if it was on an interim basis.

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