I’m trying very hard to see Jim Riggleman’s side of the story. I really am. I want to sympathize with him. I want to root for him. I want to side against management. I am a sucker for stories about unreasonable bosses. I am a fan of the “take this job and shove it,” brand of entertainment. Sometimes, in airports, just for fun, I will listen to two people rip their bosses and enjoy the conversation even though I have no idea what they’re talking about.
Here, though, is how I understand the Riggleman story.
1. A manager who had a .444 winning percentage with three teams was hired as an interim manager for the sad sack Washington Nationals. His team played .440 baseball the rest of the way, which was moderately less putrid than they had played before he was hired. And so he was given the job full time.
2. In his first full year, the Nationals lost 93 games. That’s .426 baseball. That was moderately less stinky than they had played the year before. He was kept on as manager.
3. The Nationals got off to a 27-36 start, which is .429 baseball. Riggleman reportedly had already begun griping that he was hamstrung because he did not have a contract for 2012.
4. The Nationals won 11 of 12 games to push their record above .500 for the first time. Reading between the lines of the column from the great Tom Boswell, it seems clear that Riggleman never stopped complaining about his contract situation.
5. On the day of the 12th game, Riggleman made it clear he wanted to have a conversation with GM Mike Rizzo about his contract and his future. Rizzo, with his silence, made it clear had no interest in having that conversation. This led Riggleman to say that if they did not talk, he was not going with the team to Chicago. This led Rizzo to not have a conversation.
6. Riggleman quit with the now famous words: “I’m too old to be disrespected.”
Now, I don’t know what it is like to work for Mike Rizzo. Maybe he’s an impossible guy to deal with. And I suspect the Nationals do not exactly go out of their way to make their employees feel special. Riggleman was reportedly the lowest-paid manager in baseball (though $600 grand a year isn’t exactly testing minimum wage laws), and I’d be willing to bet he was not treated like one of the great geniuses of modern civilization. I’m sure he heard whispers that the Nationals were not bringing him back in 2012. And I can understand the frustration this might have caused.
Here’s the thing, and I mean this with deep respect: He is JIM RIGGLEMAN. It seems difficult for me to believe that he was unaware of this. His teams have never won a World Series. His teams have never won a pennant. His teams have only once made the playoffs, and that was a not-especially great 89-win Cubs team that won a one-game playoff. Ten of his 12 teams had losing records in his span as skipper. He lost 100 with a Padres team that was in the playoffs two years after he got canned. He lost 95 with a Cubs team that made the playoffs the very next year. For managers with 1,400 or more games, no one from 1900 on has a lower winning percentage than Jim Riggleman, and that INCLUDES this lovely little winning stretch. That amazing thing to me, I am forced to admit, is not that Riggleman did not get a contract extension. It is that he had a contract in the first place.
With that in mind, Riggleman threatening to quit if he didn’t get a contract extension is so bizarre that it kind of reminds me of Kramer getting fired on Seinfeld.
Kramer: “But I don’t even work here.”
Boss: “That’s what makes this so difficult.”
Riggleman: If you don’t discuss a contract extension I’m not getting on the bus.
Riggleman: I quit. I’m too old to be disrespected.
Now, my hope is this: Jim Riggleman doesn’t want to ever manage another baseball team. This this might make some sense. Maybe he just broke. Maybe he had enough of the game and the losing and the agony of it all — maybe he’s like Crash Davis storming out of the manager’s office by saying: “Bleep this bleeping game.” Maybe after dealing with all the incompetence, the bitterness, the annoyances, the player complaints, the errors, the small-ball that didn’t work, the intentional walks that blew up, the unrealistic expectations of management, all of it, he just decided that he’d had enough. Of course, if that was the case I think it would have played better if he just said that instead of playing it the way he did it.
But maybe that’s what happened here. I hope so because if Riggleman somehow believes that he has a career in baseball management after this well, um, no, I don’t see it. I mean, when you take out all the noise, it comes down to this: HE QUIT ON HIS TEAM IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SEASON. Why? Because he wanted his contract extended. This is a sport where Hanley Ramirez was excoriated because he kind of jogged after a ball in the outfield. How much worse is this? Jim Riggleman quit on his team and his players over his contract. I want, so much, to sympathize with him, but it’s hard to get much less admirable than that. The only thing missing from his career suicide was a note.
If Jim Riggleman’s team had kept winning, he almost certainly would have been the Nationals manager next year. And the Nationals — with Stephen Strasburg getting healthy and Bryce Harper on the way and so on — seem to have a pretty exciting future. Those possibilities were there to be grabbed — even if Washington let him go, another team might have hired him. He walked away instead. It seems clear from the way everything has played out that Jim Riggleman felt like what he did was right, that he was standing up for some grand principle here. What principle? That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. The “I deserve a contract extension” principle makes no sense to me. The “I cannot function without guarantees” principle makes even less sense. The “Nationals are a bad organization,” principle seems true, but they’re the ones who hired Riggleman in the first place.
I suppose the one principle I get is respect: Rigglman deserved to have the ear of his general manager when something was really bothering him. But even here: How far does that respect have to go? If I’m a GM, why do I have to talk about Jim Riggleman’s contract extension now — just because they won a few games in a row? Win some games. Do your job. We’ll talk money later. I think of the scene from The Paper when Glenn Close chases the publisher of the paper into the men’s room to try and get a raise. I mean, give it a rest.
In any case, I can’t see that being a principal worth quitting over. Of course, it’s not my life. In the end, it was Jim Riggleman’s decision to quit, and he has every right to do that. I want to respect him for it. But I can’t. And I sure as heck wouldn’t hire him.