Few personalities are as polarizing in recent Nationals history as Jim Riggleman. Depending on your point of view, he’s either the underappreciated baseball lifer who presided over the infancy of the team’s 2011 turnaround, or he’s a self-centered egotist who put his personal goals over the team’s. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, it’s hard to imagine a more surreal day than June 23, when Riggleman’s abrupt and unforeseen resignation sucked the joy out of the Nats’ 11th win in 12 games, a productive stretch that had pushed the upstart team to a 38-37 record, its first time over .500 in June since 2005.
Riggleman’s shocking departure is the subject of this week’s edition of “What If?” Wednesday, where we rejigger baseball’s space/time continuum to see how things might have been different for the Nationals absent some event of historical significance. Given how far the Nationals seem to have come in such a short time, it’s difficult to believe that the Riggleman era’s end was a mere eight months ago. But it’s possible the optimism that abounds in NatsTown heading into the 2012 season might not be the same right now had Riggleman remained at the team’s helm.
When word began to filter out after the Nationals’ 1-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners in a businessman’s special on a Thursday afternoon, there was substantial confusion regarding what was happening. Reporters were awaiting Riggleman’s postgame briefing in the Nationals’ interview room, and the first reports said that “Riggleman has resigned” - given the Nationals’ win binge, there was some initial confusion on the “Nats Xtra” postgame set about whether someone had dropped a dash, turning “re-signed” into “resigned.” Soon enough, the situation became clearer.
General manager Mike Rizzo entered the interview room to announce that Riggleman had resigned, upset that the GM wouldn’t entertain any discussions about picking up the 2012 option on his contract in the midst of the team’s most successful run of the season. The pact Riggleman had signed in November 2009 was purportedly a three-year deal, though some of its details kept Riggleman at one of the lowest salaries in baseball with a minimal buyout after the first year and only a two-year guarantee followed by a team option. Riggleman wanted that option picked up to give him some job security and he took a stand that he wouldn’t get on the team charter bound for Chicago and an interleague series with the White Sox unless Rizzo agreed to set up a date and time to talk about is future. At least that was Riggleman’s side of the story. Rizzo said that Riggleman issued an ultimatum: pick up the 2012 option or find a new manager.
“This is not thinking of the team first,” Rizzo said, clearly still processing what had transpired. “It’s thinking of personal things and personal goals first. And that’s probably what disappoints me most.”
Riggleman wasn’t present when Rizzo announced his departure. But he spoke later in the clubhouse as his former team prepared to go on to Chicago without him, curious players passing by his impromptu press conference as Riggleman explained his version of the events.
“I’m too old to be disrespected,” the 58-year-old Riggleman said matter-of-factly, explaining that the terms of the deal he had agreed to were tilted clearly in the team’s favor, leaving him little or no leverage.
You know what happened after that. Bench coach John McLaren replaced Riggleman on an interim basis for the weekend before Davey Johnson took the helm in Anaheim, leading the Nationals to 40-43 record and eventual 80-81 finish good for third place in the National League East. (Ironically, Johnson was the only manager the Nats employed last season with a sub-.500 record - McLaren was 2-1 and Riggleman was 38-37).
What might have transpired had Riggleman stayed?
At the very least, assuming the Nationals had continued the same growth they experienced under Johnson, Rizzo and team ownership would have been faced with an uncomfortable postseason decision on Riggleman’s 2012 option. It’s doubtful Riggleman had a long-term future as manager or that the club viewed him as the kind of manager who could do more than be a placeholder. For sure, Riggleman wouldn’t be able to convince Rizzo that Harper was ready for prime time in 2012. Riggleman didn’t stay unemployed for long - he took a scouting position with the Giants and agreed in December to manage the Reds’ new Double-A affiliate in Pensacola, Fla.
Had Riggleman not resigned, Johnson might still be in his previous role as a special advisor to Rizzo. Though Johnson had professed that his managing days were over and that he was comfortable in a support role where little travel was required, he couldn’t pass up the chance to be the steward of the Nationals’ turnaround once players like Stephen Strasburg and Harper were the tandem faces of the franchise. Certainly, Johnson might have listened had suitors come calling, but most of baseball figured that he had already managed his last game.
McLaren, the loyal lieutenant thrust into the manager’s seat when his good friend bailed, quickly became a lame duck. He was part of Riggleman’s staff and, though viewed as a solid baseball man, didn’t want to have to coexist with his pal’s successor. McLaren graciously agreed to step aside when Johnson took over, realizing that a manager needs his own confidant as bench coach. He no longer has any role in the organization.
Rizzo, probably the one with the most to lose by the way Riggleman departed, may have ended up gaining the most. He handled an untenable situation diplomatically, quickly and decisively. Rizzo’s actions only strengthened his position within the Nationals’ organization, and his longstanding strong relationship with Johnson created a framework for communication and cooperation Rizzo didn’t enjoy with Riggleman.
End of the line: With spring training on the horizon, this will be the last installment of “What If?” Wednesday. We hope you’ve enjoyed our journeys back into Nationals history, as we’ve examined some of the key points in the franchise’s past. Thanks for your suggestions and for your comments.