Riggleman was pushed one too many times

Jim Riggleman lived out the fantasy of every overtaxed, underpaid, mistreated worker Thursday: He told his boss to go screw himself.

In doing so, he found himself unemployed, no longer manager of the Washington Nationals after he quit Thursday afternoon in a contract snit. Riggleman told general manager Mike Rizzo he wanted the 2012 option on his deal picked up or he would not board the team bus following the Nationals’ game against the Seattle Mariners.

The charter toward the airport had one less passenger than scheduled after a 1-0 victory pushed the surprising Nationals to their 11th victory in 12 games and over .500 for the first time this deep into the season since 2005, their inaugural year in Washington.

Jim Riggleman, pictured here in his final game as manager, won his last three games, all by one run.
(Getty Images)

“I’m 58,” Riggleman told reporters in Washington. “I’m too old to be disrespected.”

However you feel about someone up and quitting midseason, Riggleman’s rationale makes sense. In sports, coaches who lose get fired. Conversely, those who win should get compensated accordingly. Riggleman was among the lowest-paid, perhaps the lowest, managers in the major leagues. He wasn’t asking for a raise. He wanted security. Some sort of appreciation for a job, lucky or not, well done. The Nationals refused.

Riggleman’s resignation ends a festering contract situation borne of his belief – one rooted more in reality than paranoia – that to the Nationals he was nothing more than a placeholder manager. Next year, as Stephen Strasburg(notes) returns and Bryce Harper(notes) arrives to fortify a solid core, the Nationals’ glitz factor will grow significantly. Riggleman, always businesslike, rarely charismatic, more square-jawed baseball lifer than personality, never fit the high-profile visage the Nationals want in that position.

From the start, when he spent nearly half a season with “interim” preceding his managerial title, Riggleman’s status with the Nationals was tenuous at best. He was Manny Acta’s bench coach and, at his initial news conference following Acta’s firing, said: “Manny did all the right things.” For the dearth of talent Washington gave him, Riggleman did a lot of right things, too.

He handled the Strasburg hype machine with aplomb. He helped turn a middling team this year into one with playoff aspirations, Pollyannaish though they may be. True, Riggleman’s record in his nearly two full seasons with the Nationals is 140-172, his career record 662-824. “I know I’m not Casey Stengel,” Riggleman said.

Knowing, however, that Riggleman would leave behind his managerial career in such a huff, someone had to have given him the idea entering the season that the Nationals might pick up his option. Which, if the case, is an entirely disingenuous move for an organization that has at times mistreated scouts and employees alike.

When they moved from Montreal, the Nationals were supposed to evolve into a model organization, filling a market with a decades-old baseball vacuum. Instead, gone are their original team president (Stan Kasten, quit) and GM (Jim Bowden, resigned), plus a host of others brought down by the Esmailyn Gonzalez scandal, in which a player named Carlos Lugo falsified his name and age before signing for $1.4 million.

Their new ballpark is meh, their teams a combined 146 games under .500 since arriving seven years ago and their support in D.C. best described by the rows of empty seats behind the plate that end up on television nightly. The Nationals’ divorce from Riggleman was inevitable. It just makes them look bush league that management so disgusted the manager that he quit amid one of the best runs in franchise history.

The action itself reflects poorly on Riggleman. Every day he asked 25 men to play through injuries and personal problems and slumps, with racing minds and wounded confidence and brains turned mush from grueling travel. What he demanded from them they had every right to demand from him.

“It’s a 162-game schedule, it’s a nine-inning ball game,” Riggleman said in September 2010. “That’s what you signed up for, that’s what you give.”

Pushed one too many times, Riggleman decided he could give no longer. He wasn’t going to play the patsy. He wasn’t there to keep someone else’s seat warm. He grew up in Rockville, Md., a little more than 20 miles from Nationals Park, and wanted to be the hometown boy who turned the hometown team into a winner.

So he waited until the Nationals were playing their best baseball to see if that was realistic. If ever Washington was going to pick up his option, it would be now. So he made a threat. Rizzo called his bluff. And gone was Jim Riggleman, almost assuredly never to be a manager again, not with the napalm trail he left on his way out.

Unemployment never felt so good.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jun 23, 2011