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Riggleman: A Beggar Who Thought He Was a Chooser

When Jim Riggleman fired himself last week after winning 11 of his last 12 games with the Nationals, it was weird at first and only got weirder the more you thought about it. Jim Riggleman isn’t a great manager. His career record is 662-824. As Tom Boswell has written, he has “the worst record in baseball history of any 12-year manager.” Some analysts suggested that Riggleman didn’t want to resign, he just wanted to bluff Mike Rizzo into picking up his option year. But Jim Riggleman is a mediocre manager of bad baseball teams. He is not a man with a great deal of leverage: he is a beggar who thought he was a chooser. And unless another team boss makes a decision as foolish as Riggleman’s, he will never manage in the major leagues again.

According to GM Mike Rizzo, Riggleman gave an ultimatum: if he wasn’t given an extension before the team left for Chicago, he wasn’t getting on the bus. When Riggleman didn’t get his extension, he explained to reporters that the reason he quit was that his one-year contract was intolerable, and “I’m too old to be disrespected.” Riggleman’s hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, spent the next several days trying to come up with an explanation for why he did what he did. They couldn’t. Dave Sheinin and Adam Kilgore quoted an unnamed acquaintance of Riggleman’s as saying, “I can’t think of a single way in which Jim’s life is going to be better because of this… And I can think of a hundred ways it will be worse.”

Riggleman apparently had been chafing under his one-year contract for quite some time; he believed that the fact that he had no job security past 2011 was a sign of disrespect. And there is no doubt that it was: Rizzo clearly did not believe that Riggleman was the Nationals’ manager of the future, as no general manager in his right mind would ever think of Riggleman as anything other than a placeholder. The man is 162 games under .500 in his career. He has never finished first. He has only finished second once. He has only finished third twice — but the first time came during his first managerial stint, when he took over the Padres with 12 games to go in the 1992 season, and the team went 4-8 as they limped to third place.

The Padres experience is instructive for the present situation. The Padres went 82-80 in 1992, but they lost 101 games the next year, Riggleman’s first full season as manager. Of course, that was the year of the famous fire sale, when they traded away Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield for prospects. (Most of the players they got back for McGriff and Sheffield never panned out, but in those and other trades, they acquired Trevor Hoffman, Andy Ashby, Brad Ausmus, and Derek Bell.) Riggleman’s team was being dismantled around him, and San Diego management may not have intended to keep him around to reap the benefits of the youth movement.

At the time of the 1994 strike, Riggleman’s Padres were 47-70. Baseball wouldn’t return until April 25, 1995, and Riggleman wouldn’t return to the Padres. He wanted more than a one-year contract, which the Padres wouldn’t give him but the Cubs would, and so he accepted a two-year deal to manage in Chicago. (The Padres offered him a one-year contract with an option year, similar to the contract that Riggleman found disrespectful in Washington.)

Contemporary news accounts indicate that most people within baseball believed he had made the best of a bad situation — but the Padres’ unwillingness to give him a long-term commitment indicates that they didn’t believe he was their manager of the future. When he went to the Cubs, the Padres turned to 39-year old third base coach Bruce Bochy, giving him his first managing job, and Bochy managed the team for the next twelve years. Riggleman spent five years with the Cubs, managing the team to the wild card in 1998 — they beat the San Francisco Giants in a one-game playoff, then got swept by the Braves in the Division Series. It was the only playoff appearance of Riggleman’s career. The following year, the team went in the opposite direction, losing 95 games, and Riggleman was fired at the end of the season. At the time, he said he understood why:

I’ve got nobody to blame. I think everybody has to be accountable. I’m accountable and this is the result of wins and losses… I guarantee you there were a lot of people around baseball who probably said, ‘How in the hell has that guy kept his job as many games as he’s lost?’

Riggleman wouldn’t manage again for nearly a decade, until the Mariners made him a fill-in in 2008, after they fired John McLaren, but they declined to retain Riggleman’s services. So he went to coach for the Nationals, who made him their manager after they fired Manny Acta. Ironically, when Riggleman quit a week ago, John McLaren followed Riggleman as interim manager of the Nationals, before the team finally hired Davey Johnson.

Davey Johnson hasn’t won a league championship since the 1986 Mets, and he hasn’t managed since the 2000 season, but he is widely considered a terrific manager but one who had trouble getting along with management. As of now, that is going to be Riggleman’s reputation too — except that, even though he received credit for making the most of a difficult situation in San Diego (and DMZ at USS Mariner gave him the same credit for his work in 2008), he doesn’t have Johnson’s reputation as a skipper. Johnson’s teams have generally had more money and been better run, while Riggleman’s Padres and Nationals were both young, rebuilding teams with no hopes of sniffing the playoffs, but still — Johnson is 257 games over .500 in his 15-year managerial career, and Riggleman is 162 games under .500 in his 12-year career. That’s a hell of a difference.

Riggleman doesn’t have the track record to back up his self-image, and now he’s given himself the reputation of a troublemaker as well. Managers like Riggleman are always the guys who get one-year contracts. He isn’t a managerial prospect, he’s a managerial stopgap. And because he has a habit of bolting every time he’s on a young team whose prospects may be turning around — San Diego in 1995, Washington in 2011 — no one will ever feel comfortable giving him the chance to take a team to the promised land.

After all, every team is going to have to ask themselves, how in the hell did that guy expect to get another job, as many games as he’s lost?