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Why Jim Riggleman finally walked away as Nationals manager


Jim Riggleman thought about quitting his job as Nationals manager a few times before, according to people familiar with the situation. He considered it this winter when GM Mike Rizzo got a five-year extension while Riggleman's own status wasn't addressed even for 2012. He thought about it again at the winter meetings, and then once again in spring training. But all those previous times, he heard his agent, Burton Rocks, advise him to remain in his job, to wait it out because something positive will happen, that his bosses will eventually show their appreciation for him. Riggleman must have thought he waited long enough.

Late Thursday night, several hours after Riggleman stunned the Nationals and his own agent by resigning, a crestfallen Rocks said Riggleman made his own decision. "He felt hurt and disrespected,'' Rocks said. "They refused to have a meeting. That spoke volumes to him about what they thought.''

Riggleman's decision to quit Thursday came after Rizzo declined his request to meet with him when the team got to Chicago Friday to discuss the option on his contract for 2012. It seems like a simple request by a manager who had won 10 of 11 games at the time but Rizzo said no, that a decision about Riggleman now didn't fit into the team's timing, just like it didn't work in winter or spring, either.

Rizzo tried to tell Riggleman there were plans that they weren't prepared to discuss now. But without picking up the option, it was hard to convince him. Rocks understood that there was really no discussion between the two men, but Riggleman is said by someone close to the Nationals to have said something to the effect of, "How can I lead these guys if I'm not long-term?'' To which Rizzo supposedly responded, "Because you're paid to do it.''

Rizzo is said to have briefly tried to talk Riggleman out of resigning and into staying. But Riggleman is a decisive man, something that made him a very good manager. He is a man of conviction. So Riggleman, who told Rizzo before the game he would resign Thursday if he couldn't have his meeting, did just that. After the Nationals won for their 11th time in 12 games to move one game over .500, he made good on his word. He had called Rocks and hour before Thursday's game to let him know he would try to clear up the contract situation with Rizzo. Now Riggleman called to tell his agent he submitted his resignation and the Nationals accepted. "I was shocked,'' Rocks said.

"(Riggleman) was in a situation where he felt he was not wanted," Rocks added. "And he had to make a change. They were forcing his hand.''

Looking back, this wasn't the shock it's seen as. In spring training Riggleman seemed to suspect he was a part-timer. I once offhandedly mentioned that while it might be a tough year in Washington this season, he had a lot to look forward to next year, including managing pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg - who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery -- and perhaps even huge power wunderkind Bryce Harper, who is currently working his way through the minors. Riggleman responded that there were no guarantees he'd last until next year. At the time, it seemed to be typical managerial gallows humor. After all, it's a volatile position.

But he knew the dynamic better, and perhaps he sensed that his marriage with Rizzo and the Nationals wasn't long-lasting, a suspicion he spoke about to Nationals reporters after resigning on Thursday.

"It just didn't have a feel that I was the person they were going to move forward with," Riggleman said. "The first opportunity to not have me, it began to feel that that's what was going to happen."

It's easy to see why Riggleman believed his bosses were less than enamored with him in the manager's chair. His option for 2012 was only for $700,000, which still would have put him in the lower echelon among major league managers despite 12 years of managing experience, he was winning with a seemingly undermanned team and he couldn't even get a meeting.

Riggleman had suspected for months that he wasn't wanted and this was his confirmation. "I'm 58. I'm too old to be disrespected,'' Riggleman told reporters after he had resigned.

Rizzo, obviously unhappy about this turn of events, issued a statement of surprise, emphasizing the rarity of someone walking away from his contract. Rizzo explained that he couldn't make the decision about Riggleman's contract during the course of the game and that those decisions needed to be made "thoughtfully and methodically.''

(Obviously, this was a bit too methodical for Riggleman.)

Riggleman looked bad to many management people because while managers are frequently fired during the middle of their contracts, it's unusual for them to make the choice to end the relationship in mid-contract.

Rizzo's statement wasn't intended to lessen those negative feelings. "I am surprised and disappointed personally, and I am more disappointed for our players and fans,'' Rizzo said in his seven-paragraph statement. At one point, the statement became dramatic. Rizzo wrote, "I was always taught that one of the cardinal rules of baseball was that no individual can put his own interests before those of the team.''

It wasn't too much to ask that Riggleman's option be exercised under the circumstances. His team certainly was outperforming expectations. Unlike in the case of player options, managerial options are picked up months or even years before the deadline all the time, in part because they are usually for a lot less money than player contracts, and managers don't carry the same injury risk.

Managerial options also provide another benefit. They send a message to the players that their manager isn't merely a short timer, which sends a message to high-priced players that he is here to stay. Riggleman's authority would be improved in the clubhouse with just the slightest of nods to his work by his bosses.

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Picking up the option was the least Washington could do. Riggleman had earned it by guiding the Nationals - without Strasburg or Harper and with star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman missing 58 games -- to a winning record this late in the season for the first time in six years. The Nationals, for crying out loud, a team that spent all of five days above .500, none after April 4, in the four years from 2006-09.

With things appearing to be going very well in Washington, Riggleman shocked just about everyone in baseball with his decision. Managers who are winning or exceeding expectations (and certainly both) don't resign, especially ones who are seen as easygoing, get-along fellows like Riggleman. It just doesn't happen. Even if their bosses don't love or want them, the manager sticks it out and tries to force the higher-ups' hands by continuing to win.

Riggleman was always seen as the most solid of baseball men, someone who never craved headlines or attention. And in the end, perhaps the Nationals always had a higher-profile man in mind, a celebrity manager that could match up with the manager across the Beltway, the Orioles' Buck Showalter. That's what makes Riggleman's move ironic; the team may have wanted someone more well-known, more bold, and Riggleman finally proved his boldness by quitting.

Rocks said by phone that Riggleman was holding up well, despite folks calling him a quitter or worse. "I'm a mess, but he's OK,'' Rocks said, adding just a touch of levity to a serious situation.

Nationals bench coach and well-respected longtime baseball man John McLaren, who managed a calendar year in Seattle (from 2007 to 2008), will manage Friday's game against the White Sox.

But that's not the end of the story.

Word is, Rizzo does want a veteran and will consider Davey Johnson, who took the Mets to a 1986 World Series championship and has been serving as an advisor to Rizzo. Johnson isn't quite Jack McKeon in terms of being an old-timer - he's 68 -- but he hasn't managed since 2000 with the Dodgers. Associates of Johnson's said he was preparing to take a scouting trip at Rizzo's request on Sunday, and while Johnson has been through a very rough period personally with the recent death of his stepson, he would probably accept the interim managing assignment if called. Johnson is said to love Riggleman, and he doesn't want to say anything insensitive to the situation. McLaren could also be a candidate to remain interim, though he might just manage one or a few games.

The Nationals may not be a mess, but the situation at the moment is far less than desirable. They were exceeding all expectations, and now the attention is on the resignation. As for Riggleman, he's taking a lot of heat for walking away from a signed contract. And while it may not have been the wisest career move to quit, Rocks says of the option, "It wore on him," adding, "Jim's a good baseball man. He will manage again."

I hope that's true. Riggleman is a good baseball man, and what's more, he is a good man.

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