It turns out that Jim Riggleman was right.
The former Washington Nationals manager — who had threatened to quit unless his contract option was picked up and then clumsily carried out the threat in the middle of the 2011 season — was right about the Lerner family, the Nationals’ owners.
Riggleman’s confrontation six years ago was with general manager Mike Rizzo, and perhaps was ill-advised, as Rizzo had former World Series manager Davey Johnson in his back pocket. Rizzo called Riggleman’s bluff and let him walk at what was then the team’s high point since their first year in Washington in 2005 — one game over .500 at the halfway point of the season, with a 38-37 record.
But Riggleman had been here long enough to believe he couldn’t trust the organization — in this case, the Lerners — to make a commitment, and sounded the alarm when he told reporters, “I just felt if there’s not going to be some type of commitment, then there obviously never will be.”
Everyone who followed in that seat should have paid attention. The word had already been out on the Lerners. In the wake of the news that broke Friday that the Nationals would not bring Dusty Baker back, that word is carved in stone.
The Lerners, the world of baseball now knows, can’t be trusted.
All year, we heard that the Nationals were going to sign Baker to a contract extension. We heard it wasn’t going to be an issue, that it would happen. Baker, unlike Riggleman, believed that.
That was a mistake, a mistake that anyone following Baker in the Nationals manager’s seat should not repeat. Don’t trust ownership to do the right thing.
Baker handled the lack of commitment and loyalty with class, even though there were several times during the season when it appeared a contract extension was in place, only to have the rug pulled out. Baker should have walked into spring training, coming off a National League Division Series where he extended the favored Los Angeles Dodgers to five games without Stephen Strasburg and Wilson Ramos — and declared loud and long he wanted an extension. He should have forced the Lerners to pay him or fire him. He would have been better off.
Ironically, Riggleman, now the bench coach with the Cincinnati Reds, sounded the alarm about this Baker scenario as well when he spoke to The Washington Times’ Todd Dybas this summer and was asked about the Nationals’ reputation for short-changing managers.
“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 will continue through next year. The day he signs his contract, I think it’s going to be, ‘Okay, we all knew this was going to happen. It’s all good. Let’s go to work.”
Well, it didn’t happen. It still looms. Something totally unexpected happened. Dusty is not here.
You can’t overestimate the damage done to the Nationals’ standingwithin the baseball industry by the Lerners’ handling of Baker, failing to bring back a two-time NL East division-winning manager who a number of people in the business think did a remarkable managing job this year. It will damage the organization moving forward trying to find their seventh manager since they took over ownership of the team in 2006.
And what about Mike Rizzo? The team president and general manager is all that stands between credibility and chaos for this organization. His contract is up at the end of the 2018 season. If the Lerners have any hope of salvaging any part of their reputation, they need to give Rizzo a lengthy contract extension now — a serious three-to-five year deal, and not the short-time commitments they have made to him.
After all, how is anyone going to seriously take this managing job with the possibility that the GM who hires him may be gone by the end of next season? Unless, of course, the new manager has no commitment beyond next season as well.
Here’s what Riggleman said about those deals after he resigned. “I’ve been in this 10 years,” he said. “Maybe I’ll never get another opportunity, but I promise you I’ll never do it on a one-year deal again. … You don’t bring people in on a one-year deal. I’m sure they will never do it here. When they get the guy they want, it won’t be on a one-year deal.”
No, but it’s been close. It’s the way the Lerners do business — and no one will trust them for it.
• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.