When The Affair Is Over – Jim Riggleman and The Washington Nationals

24 06 2011

I know that title sounds a bit flip, but in all honestly, this relationship was an affair, not a marriage.

It all started a few years back when the Nationals fired the best manager they could hope to get at the time.  On the rebound from Manny Acta, Mike Rizzo hired Jim Riggleman. From all appearances, the relationship was working; the Nationals as of this writing are arguably the hottest team in all of baseball. This franchise is playing .500 baseball for the first time in Washington.

However, it seems there was a problem that we all didn’t become aware of until yesterday afternoon. Don’t think for a minute this wasn’t brewing for a while; 50-something year old guys don’t just have blow-ups and walk out on six-figure salaries and contractual obligations.

I have to admit, I don’t like that Riggleman has been getting piled on for quitting; in fact I understand the position he’s in. Don’t get me wrong, I think he handled it badly, but let’s not forget it takes two to tango.

Let’s go back to the marriage/affair analogy. Rizzo and Riggleman are in a relationship where they are responsible for the development of a team of young players. A “marriage” would have given Riggleman a long-term deal, rather than the series of one-year deals he had been working under, which makes Riggleman feel he was a permanent “interim manager.”  Let’s be honest, that’s exactly what he was.

This is the part where you ask yourself why is Rizzo willing to get into bed, but not willing to walk down the aisle with Riggleman? I’d be willing to bet you Rizzo’s cause for pause is Riggleman’s managerial record.

  • Overall record of 662-824 (.445) in 12 seasons as manager
  • He’s only ever finished a season over .500 twice (one was the strike-shortened 1995 season)
  • Has only won more than 80 games once
  • Never managed a division-winner

That’s not exactly a sparkling record, but it also ignores a couple of key facts.

Riggleman has been lucky enough to manage some bad franchises; ones that really didn’t have a commitment to winning when he was there; San Diego, Chicago Cubs, Seattle, and now Washington. If that weren’t enough, look at the managers he’s replaced.

  • Greg Riddoch – 200-194 (.508) in three seasons with San Diego; never managed in the major leagues again
  • Tom Trebelhorn – 49-64 (.434) in 1994 with the Cubs; never managed in the major leagues again
  • John McLaren – 68-88 (.436) in 156 games with Seattle; never managed in the major leagues again
  • Manny Acta – 158-252 (.385) in three seasons with Washington; now managing the Cleveland Indians

Boil it all down, and it tells you Riggleman is a “clean-up” guy; he’s the type of manager that digs teams out of holes created by another manager, and leaves those teams in a position to be better than when he came. Look at the records of teams in the season after he left, and compare it to what Riggleman inherited.

  • San Diego – 1994: 47-70  1995: 70-74
  • Chicago Cubs – 1999: 67-95  2000: 65-97
  • Seattle – 2008: 36-54  2009: 85-77

Here’s the problem; the clean-up guy is like the rebound girlfriend, the one you date after a bad break-up; the one who convinces you that you don’t hate all women, just the one you caught screwing your best friend. The sad reality is that nobody marries the rebound girl, her job is to pave the way for the one who is going to get the ring.

In other words, Riggleman is not the manager who is going to get a ring. There’s three kinds of major league managers: there’s the “dig you into a hole” guy, there’s the “clean-up” guy, and there’s the “ring” guy.  Nobody ever hires the “hole” guy on purpose, because they don’t come with warning signs. But general manager certainly know the “clean-up” and “ring” guys; and they hire according to their needs. Mike Rizzo is no exception.

So, Rizzo knows something Riggleman doesn’t. Riggleman’s not knowing his role meant he overplayed his hand when he confronted Rizzo with the “marry me or I’m outta here” ultimatum.

What Riggleman needs to realize is that “ring” guys can’t exist without “clean-up” guys; for every Joe Torre, there’s a Buck Showalter. It is also the “clean-up” guys who get the jobs. The trick to success in any line of management, be it baseball or in business is to know your strengths and weakness and own them.  Be who you are, not who you think you are.

However, having said that, Rizzo plays a role in getting us all to this point as well. Rizzo had to know this was an issue, and Rizzo chose to not deal with it. Riggleman asked to meet with him behind closed doors and settle this matter, but he chose to decline the meeting. That means there is no way Rizzo can claim he didn’t know there was a problem, and there’s no way he can say he did all he could to avoid this catastrophe.

It begs the question why he turned down the meeting in the first place. Anybody in management can tell you that people who want to meet with their boss does so because they are frustrated about something. In my real job, I’ve had people who worked for me come to me with various complaints, and in 99% of those cases, as a manager you don’t even have to do anything, just hear them out.  That’s a pretty low level of effort, but saying “no” to that meeting is the best way to tell an employee you couldn’t give a rat’s ass less about them or their problem. Funny how that tends to result in people telling you to take your job and shove it.

Riggleman felt he deserved better, and that caused him to make a bad decision. It bodes badly for a man in a leadership role to walk away from a commitment to his team over over what is essentially a disagreement with his boss.  Not to mention, giving your boss an ultimatum is never a good idea.  Riggleman deserves criticism for that, but for every word aimed at him, one should be aimed at Rizzo.  After all, an ultimatum tends to be an act of last resort and Rizzo didn’t even have the stones to tell him “you’re not our guy” to his face.  Sending a message to your people that you don’t care about them is far worse than anything Riggleman did.

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5 responses

25 06 2011
JW

Trust me, the irony that John McLaren managed the Nationals last night in Chicago is not lost on me. That won’t last; the rumor is Davey Johnson will be named manager. We’ll just see…

25 06 2011
sportsattitudes

I can identify with Riggs because I did the same thing earlier this year in my “career.” Left while “everything was fine.” No one could understand why I was leaving. Details for another day, but you talk about the ultimate at-will employment industry of professional sports…we’re going to dump on an MLB manager because he felt disrespected by management and hide under this whole “good for the team” nonsense? Please. You bet you can make a proactive decision about your future…anytime you want.

25 06 2011
JW

Like I said, I too have been in Riggleman’s position, and I understand exactly where he’s coming from, but he played this badly. When you request a meeting with your boss and he essentially tells you he doesn’t give a shit about you or your issue, you know the relationship between you and your boss is over.

Riggleman’s decision creates two problems he owns. First, ultimatums with your boss never work, especially when your boss just made it clear he doesn’t give a shit. More importantly the relationship and commitment to the boss isn’t the only one Riggleman needed to worry about. Riggleman also had a comittment to the team which he totally booted.

The smart move would have been to play out the contract, and just not sign another deal with the Nats. Based on his performance in Washington, he would have gotten another offer, but now that may not be the case.

27 06 2011
tophatal

JW

Who didn’t see this nightmare scenario playing itself out ? The Nationals’ front office is one complete joke ! Principal owner & managing partner Ted Lerner on his best day trouble finding the one remaining good testicle in his nut-sack. Never mind the fact that GM Mike Rizzo and the $126 million committed to Jayson Werth has been about as well spent on purchasing a 1992 Hyundai !

I hear that Stephen Strasburg will now be blowing kisses to the LGBT community at future ball games .

27 06 2011
ChrisHumpherys

I agree with you here, Dub.

I just got back from Miami and happened to catch a great interview with Rigs on local sports radio.

He was straightforward in the interview, just as I imagine he was in his negotiations with the Nats.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a guy wanting to know the company he works for has his back.

They didn’t want to talk. He walked.

We’ll see who has the last laugh.

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