Last summer, when Jim Riggleman's tenure as interim manager of the Washington Nationals began with seven losses in nine games, John McLaren would call.
He would call because the two veteran baseball men, disciples of some of the game's greatest minds and veterans of too many small towns and cramped hotel rooms, shared a past and a passion. He would call because he believed in Riggleman, beyond the early results. But mostly, he would call because a year before, Riggleman had supported him when he needed it most.
McLaren was manager of the Seattle Mariners for two half-seasons, the latter of which saw him get fired and replaced by Riggleman in 2008. So many times that year, McLaren and Riggleman - then his roommate and bench coach - would sit in McLaren's office after every game, pouring over strategy, discussing ways to turn baseball's worst team around and reaching the conclusion, time and again, they were doing everything they could.
"He knew I wanted to talk about things, and I did," McLaren said. "It was good to run things by him - "Is there anything else we could have done? What else can we do?" It was good to have somebody like Jim there. He was always there after the game."
The Mariners cleaned house that June, Riggleman wasn't brought back as manager after the season and the two went their separate ways - McLaren becoming a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, Riggleman taking a job as the Nationals' bench coach - unsure if they'd ever get another chance to turn a team around.
But those phone calls - McLaren's chance to return Riggleman's favor - kept them in touch.
"I'd leave messages sometimes," McLaren said. "I knew he's busy, and I knew he didn't have time. But I did call him every now and then, and he'd call me back. I just offered encouragement. I said, 'It's what you do, man. You've got another opportunity. Don't think it's like Seattle or anything else. Just believe in your convictions and go with it. You've got an opportunity. Just run with it, and he did."
After the 0-6 start, Riggleman led the Nationals to a 33-36 mark. He got another shot, and so did McLaren.
By the time Riggleman became the Nationals' permanent manager last November, he'd already reached out to McLaren, who was itching to get back on the field, about taking the same role Riggleman had in Seattle. McLaren accepted, and the two friends now form the backbone of a Washington coaching staff that's trying to use a batch of time-honored tricks to get the Nationals competitive for the first time.
Riggleman hired Jim Lett, with whom he'd worked on the Dodgers' staff in the first half of the decade, to be the Nationals' bullpen coach. He brought in Dan Radison, a member of Riggleman's coaching staffs in San Diego and Chicago, to coach first base. And he added McLaren, who'd formed a lasting bond with Riggleman over strategy and support.
Those three coaches, all with more than 25 years of experience, join three holdovers from Washington's 2009 staff - hitting coach Rick Eckstein, third-base coach Pat Listach and pitching coach Steve McCatty. The group, on balance, is decidedly veteran and definitely traditional, but then, baseball isn't about chasing after new strategies so much as it is about doing the things that have been in everyone's canon of success for decades.
Riggleman, who learned under Whitey Herzog, and McLaren, who spent a dozen years by Lou Piniella's side, are trying to bring that canon to Washington.
"There's nothing like being around some place the first time to do something," McLaren said. "I was fortunate to be in Seattle and make the playoffs the first time. There's just something about that."
The basic structure of responsibilities breaks down like this: McLaren is the bench coach, Riggleman's right-hand man during games, and will work with Radison to position the Nationals' outfielders. He's also there to be something of a confidant to players, who might find him easier to talk to than the manager. Radison is the utilityman of the staff, responsible for all aspects of defensive play and an assistant hitting coach for Eckstein. Lett, a former catcher, will man the bullpen during games. Listach is chiefly responsible for infielders, Eckstein for hitters and McCatty for pitchers.
But a level above all that, Riggleman wants, to borrow a term from the Obama administration, a team of rivals on his staff. He'll preach time and again about the value of "good baseball talk" as an incubator for ideas and approaches, and believes in surrounding himself with as many respectful dissenters as possible - hence the idea behind bringing in coaches who have debated baseball over coffee with him for years.
"You need somebody who's not afraid to challenge the manager a little bit, like, 'Why the hell did you do that?' knowing I'm not going to fire him because he questioned something I did," Riggleman said. "I don't think I'm that thin-skinned that I'm going to be unapproachable about it. We're all learning."
The idea is an extension of how general manager Mike Rizzo constructed his front office, bringing in a quorum of veteran baseball executives to act as his lieutenants. It's an important part of the manager's ability to work in lockstep with his boss - "If I did something and Mike didn't have my back, I can't do my job," Riggleman said - and it's the method by which the Nationals feel they're going to eventually pull themselves out of last place.
Before they do that, they must make a slew of corrections from last year, starting with a defense that committed a major league worst 143 errors last year. Riggleman's coaches have been running a series of fundamental drills each day, with coaches taking turns praising or admonishing players for technique. On Monday, it was an exercise on first-and-third defense, with instructor Tim Foli reminding players the proper way to conduct a rundown is with the ball in the throwing hand, not in the glove.
Nothing fancy or revelatory. Not much about Riggleman's coaching staff is.
It's built, though, on principles Riggleman and McLaren have pursued throughout careers that intertwined a few years ago.
You listen to people who have done it the right way, you harp on the things that work and you welcome disagreement, so long as it makes you better.
Both the Nationals' manager and his bench coach believe in those things. They've become friends because of them, in spite of failure, and now, they plan to use them to create success.
"(Jim's) a baseball lifer, man. He just loves talking baseball," McLaren said. "That's what I like about it around here, having Davey Johnson, Pat Corrales, Tim Foli. That's what we did in the old days - sit around and talk baseball, compare people, make suggestions how to improve people. We're in this as teachers, trying to make these players the best possible players they can be."