Rizzo and Riggleman draw lines, Nationals once again make headlines

There was a point, before Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman served their respective interim stints as general manager and manager, that the Nationals curried bad publicity regularly.

If they weren’t in the news for losing on the field, they grabbed headlines for dysfunction off it, culminating with the Dominican Republic bonus skimming investigation of 2009 that led to general manager Jim Bowden’s resignation. They’d become a well-worn punchline in baseball circles, an easy topic of conversation for scouts in the stands or executives around meeting tables.

When the Nationals finally got their house in order, they did it with Rizzo picking the players and Riggleman managing them. At last, they had two well-respected baseball men in charge of their operation - a pair of square-jawed, strong-willed veterans whose polite demeanors in public barely concealed two steely resolves honed from years of doing jobs most of their counterparts wouldn’t care to touch. Rizzo had spent more than 20 years hopping coach flights and staying in low-budget motels to scout players, while Riggleman had worked his way back to a big league managerial post after a decade as everything from a bench coach to a minor league instructor.

And at no point had that partnership delivered results like it had on Thursday morning.

The Nationals were playing their best baseball in six years. They’d reached .500 at their latest point in a season since 2005 the night before, and had a chance to post a winning record at their latest juncture since that season with a win on Thursday afternoon.

But just when it seemed the Nationals had finally become the talk of baseball for something good, their more tabloid-friendly side came out again.

Riggleman’s surprising resignation Thursday afternoon, in protest of a contract he believed hadn’t given him enough security, pitted both ends of the Nationals’ successful tandem against each other. They might have both believed in an old-school approach to winning baseball games with speed and defense, and they might have each had little tolerance for players who didn’t deliver their best at all times, but when both Rizzo and Riggleman dug in their heels, they stirred up enough dust to get people noticing again for the wrong reasons.

Now, Riggleman will have to hope another team sees character in his bold gesture and rewards him with another chance to manage at 58. Now, Rizzo will have to conduct a managerial search for the second time in less than two years, hoping outside candidates see the fault lying more with Riggleman for being impatient than with the Nationals for giving him a reason to be uneasy.

And this might have been avoidable, in the end, if each man had a better sense of the other’s point of view.

When Riggleman became the Nationals’ full-time manager after the 2009 season, there was a school of thought among baseball people that the Nationals had kept him because he’d be a solid caretaker who could keep things in order until the team was ready to contend, at which point they’d be able to go get the manager they really wanted.

The structure of Riggleman’s contract could certainly lead his mind in that direction. He got two guaranteed years, but it would have cost the Nationals just $100,000 (on top of Riggleman’s modest $600,000 salary) to buy out the second of those guaranteed years. Essentially, the manager was working with a safety net only if he was dismissed after 2010, and that safety net was less than veteran utility man Alex Cora’s 2011 salary.

But Riggleman was working from a position of little to no leverage. He knew it when he signed the deal, and worse for him, the Nationals knew it. He has the fourth-worst winning percentage in baseball history among managers who have worked 10 or more seasons, and he hadn’t managed on a full-time basis since the 1999 season. He’d grown up in Rockville, Md., and talked about how managing the Nationals was a dream come true. And when he signed a contract he didn’t agree with, he signed away all of his bargaining chips.

“I made it very clear that, ‘You know I can’t say no to this, but this is a bad contract for a manager. There’s no option for Jim Riggleman - it’s a one-year option that the club decides on. That’s not a good way to do business,’ ” Riggleman said Thursday. “I made it very clear that I didn’t like that, but you know I can’t say no to it. So there I am, and two years later, I’m realizing, ‘You know what? I was right. That’s not a good way to do business.’ “

Riggleman hoped he’d have enough success to persuade the Nationals to make a longer commitment to him. His agent, Burton Rocks, met with Rizzo in spring training to get a sense of how the club felt about Riggleman, and was hoping to negotiate a contract extension once it seemed like Riggleman had turned things around.

And the way the Nationals had played in the last two weeks, after a turbulent first two months to the season, it certainly looked like he had. The Nationals were attracting attention, and they were on the fringes of Wild Card contention.

In one sense, Riggleman’s stock had never been higher. So he bet it all. And Rizzo called his bluff.

It seems clear now that Riggleman believed, rightly or wrongly, the Nationals had already determined his fate, and interpreted Rizzo’s unwillingness to discuss his future as confirmation of that. Several team sources also believed Riggleman was getting more out of the Nationals’ roster than it was intended to give, and the manager was trying to get some sense of his standing before the team cooled off.

But Rizzo believed that if Riggleman was the right man to lead the Nationals into a bright future - when the additions of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper potentially set the manager of the team up with far more weapons than the Nationals have now - he would prove that by overachieving with a roster stocked with scrappy veterans but short on game-changing talent.

Riggleman thought he’d earned Rizzo’s trust; Rizzo wanted the results to prove he could trust Riggleman with bigger things. He believed he’d shown Riggleman support, in comments to the media and conversations in private, and in due time, Riggleman would earn something more tangible.

”The thought process behind that was I wanted to see where the season was going,” Riggleman said. “It hasn’t changed from the spring training speech, the same reasoning and rationale I had back then. I wanted to see where our young players were going, how they were being developed and how we were moving forward. Being four weeks before the All-Star Game, I felt it wasn’t the time to make that decision now.”

If Rizzo had been more willing to talk about the future - or if Riggleman had been less adamant on forcing Rizzo’s hand in a matter of hours Thursday - maybe cooler heads would have prevailed and the partnership would have continued. But this was never about cool heads. It was about strong wills.

That’s what’s helped the Nationals push their way off the back page, and Thursday, it’s what put them right back there.