In mistaking a tree for the forest, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman will now only be remembered for the way he chose to leave.
After managing the Nationals' to a 1-0 walk-off win over the Mariners Thursday afternoon -- the club's 11th win in the last 12 games -- Riggleman abruptly quit his post because of dissatisfaction with his contract status, as his team option for next year had not yet been exercised and the Nationals reportedly were not interested in having a conversation about extending his employment right now.
General Mike Rizzo told reporters that Riggleman had said to him in the morning, "If you don't extend me, I'm not getting on the bus after the game." When Rizzo visited his manager's office after the game without the promise of an extension, Riggleman resigned.
In exiting at this juncture of the season, with the Nationals having inched one game over .500, Riggleman is calling attention to his own situation and distracting from the team by essentially saying, "Look at how well I've done to manage this team of average talent to a winning record in one of baseball's tougher divisions."
That's a reasonable statement to make, although it could have been done at a better time and in a better way. Washington was nine games under .500 before its recent winning spurt, and apparently managing a streaky team was too much for him without longer-term job security. Weathering this storm with an impressive finish would have brought long-term security -- if not with the Nationals, then with a more appreciative club looking to tap into Riggleman's managerial acumen next year.
Though there can be little doubt that generating a winning record in Washington is a notable achievement -- the franchise hasn't finished above .500 since moving from Montreal to D.C. before the 2005 season -- Riggleman is being too nearsighted. The Nationals are still at least one and more likely two or three years away from playoff contention, which is obviously the ultimate goal of any franchise. The bigger picture of developing younger players outweighs the short-term goal of record improvement.
Instead, Riggleman focused on himself by quitting when there are three months left in the season, when the team is hot and improving and when he was still under contract for the rest of 2011. Keep winning and keep nurturing the club's less experienced players (Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernardina, Jordan Zimmermann, et al.) and the contract situation would have resolved itself.
"I'm 58," Riggleman told reporters after his resignation. "I'm too old to be disrespected."
That probably won't be a problem, as disrespect implies someone else's active consideration. Riggleman risks being banished to baseball exile.
Riggleman, who has been a major-league manager for 12 years and for four clubs, leaves the Nationals post with little chance of ever managing in the big leagues again. He deserted his team, and it'd be hard to imagine this seeming publicity stunt will be received well in front offices.
"I know I'm not Casey Stengel," Riggleman told reporters, "but I do feel like I know what I'm doing. I feel like I shouldn't continue on with such a short leash, that every hill and valley is life and death."
So while he wanted to call attention to the tree (his accomplishments this season), the move will instead backfire and only accentuate the forest (that his career record is 662-824, exactly a 162-0 season away from .500) and the leaving (his untimely departure that will likely brand him for the rest of his professional career).
Admittedly, Riggleman was reportedly only receiving $600,000 in compensation -- believed to be the majors' smallest managerial contract now that the Marlins' Edwin Rodriguez had already resigned -- could have been perceived as a small slight. The Nationals' reluctance to extend Riggleman or negotiate a longer-term deal despite the club's short-term on-field improvement also suggests that they had designs on someone else to take the team to the next level. If true, that shows a lack of loyalty, especially after Rizzo complimented the team's play under Riggleman last week.
It's hard to imagine either side will emerge better for this resignation. It seems that stubbornness prevailed -- on both sides -- in not handling this matter in a way that this outcome could have been avoided. The franchise could suffer if there were a faction of Riggleman loyalists populating the clubhouse, or if there are players who are easily spooked by the hard-line management style. No interim skipper was announced yet, but it'll be an unenviable gig for now.
And, of course, the team was playing exceptionally well with Riggleman as manager, who was important in instilling a sense of professionalism and hard play into the clubhouse. No one will ever know if he was the right fit long-term, but it was hard to argue with the hot play of the past fortnight and the overall trajectory of the team this season. Much of the losing, after all, came with franchise players Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list.
While neither side can be labeled a winner, the Nationals' future is brighter with the return of Strasburg and the promotion of Bryce Harper both expected within a year's time, not to mention the continued development of a host of other promising, though less heralded, prospects. Finding a manager willing to stomach a situation that now appears combustible could be a small challenge, but the players' talent is what will always prevail.
Riggleman, however, won't be so lucky. He had so long appeared to be the dutiful company man, taking a bench coach job on Manny Acta's staff and then accepting the interim managerial position after Acta was dismissed in 2009. He won the full-term gig after that season and generally stayed in the background, even when heaping helpings of attention were poured on D.C. because of Strasburg and Harper. Riggleman didn't mug the cameras and, frankly, wasn't the most quotable manager anyway -- until he resigned, that is.
It's a shame, really. He was by all accounts a respected baseball man, but his unseemly departure will tarnish that reputation.
"I'm not sure if I'll get another opportunity," Riggleman said, "but I promise you I'll never do a one-year deal again."
That's not likely to be a problem.