By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Jim Riggleman, introduced as the third manager in Washington Nationals history, spent much of yesterday's news conference paying homage to the franchise's second manager. He called Manny Acta a future managerial star and said, "Manny did all the right things."
Speaking on behalf of everybody from the players to the parking attendants, Riggleman thanked Acta for everything he did. Riggleman's own tenure, the new manager explained, would simply try to build on the messages of the old manager, because "there's not a lot of change to make," even down to the lineup, because how "Manny had them aligned was pretty much the best way."
The Jim Riggleman era -- team President Stan Kasten's words -- began in a strange middle ground, still in cozy proximity to the era that preceded it, and likely stunted by whatever bolder era awaits with the introduction, perhaps months from now, of manager No. 4.
The timeline goes like this: Acta was managing for 2 1/2 years -- most recently with Riggleman as his bench coach. Things went badly. Acta lost 61 of 87 games. He got fired. About an hour after the move, acting general manager Mike Rizzo called Riggleman: Did he want the interim manager's job? "Absolutely," Riggleman said.
So yesterday, Riggleman, one day before the Nationals begin the second half of the season, appeared at Nationals Park, spoke to his players, conducted a workout and began the humble task of leading a floundering team toward respectability. Though Washington's first-half maladies cost Acta his job, an even-handed managing approach was not among the casualties. Riggleman plays by a similar philosophy -- though he'll kick when needed. A self-described softy now beginning his fourth managing job, and second on an interim basis, Riggleman said, "I have no problem if you miss a ball, but if you don't chase it after you miss it there's a problem."
Now 22 1/2 games out of first place, 16 games back of fourth, the Nationals have 75 games remaining. But for a fresh start, this is Riggleman's dream job. He grew up in Rockville. His stepfather, Bill Hardister, took young Jim to Griffith Stadium, where they rooted for the Senators. Riggleman still remembers the names. Fred Valentine. Danny O'Connell. Even when the Senators lost, and they usually did, they stuck around to watch Frank Howard's final at-bat.
Eventually, Riggleman's own baseball career took off -- he got drafted, stalled in the minors, took a 10-year tour as a minor league manager -- but all the while, he kept his eye on Washington. He always lamented that America's capital lacked a team. When it got one, he thought that "it would be nice some day to work for the Washington ballclub."
Riggleman's mother, who turns 80 next month, has a saying. "Timing is everything -- that's what she always says," Riggleman's older brother, Mick, said yesterday.
For Riggleman, timing has often worked in strange ways. His first managing job, with the Padres, coincided with a mass fire sale. Goodbye, Fred McGriff. Goodbye, Gary Sheffield. Riggleman's 1993 team, stripped of all marquee players but Tony Gwynn, lost 101 games. A year later, Riggleman was gone, too. But timing works both ways: Riggleman got another chance with the Cubs, where he saw some great things. Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game. Sammy Sosa's 66-homer season. Scorecards commemorating both hang in Riggleman's offseason home in Madeira Beach, Fla. When the Cubs fired Riggleman in 1999, his career record was 486-598. But the manager kept getting more chances.
Last year, with Seattle, he started as the bench coach. Then, the Mariners fired their manager. Riggleman took over -- as an interim -- but he boosted Seattle's record, requested the release of an underperforming veteran and pulled players from games for mental lapses.
"As the bench coach, he was very, very quiet," said José Vidro, who was cut about 1 1/2 months into Riggleman's managerial tenure. "But as manager, I remember him going around to every locker, every player, trying to motivate everybody. Just to say, 'Keep your head up,' and that's something you appreciate."
Riggleman is a man of ritual and routine. He runs between five and six miles every morning. He likes his coffee and newspaper. Though he has spent his career among book-worthy characters -- Sosa, Sheffield -- he lets others assume the foreground.
"Jim, he carries his cards a little closer to the vest," Mick said.
Weeks ago, Riggleman first heard rumors that Washington would fire Acta and promote him to interim manager. When those reports first hit, Riggleman -- in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area as the Nationals played Tampa Bay -- was with his son, Jon, 26. "He had no clue what was going on," Jon said. "He couldn't even comment on it. He hadn't heard anything And I know he respects Manny a lot."
A month later, Acta was fired. Riggleman received a temporary job with a team close to the town where he grew up -- a perfect job, so long as he can avoid the endpoint.
"Managing at the major league level is the ultimate," Riggleman said. "It's what I love to do. Would I like to get something more long-term? All managers would like to have the club from spring training and get it started from spring training and run with it. I would have done that in 2000 if I didn't lose so much in '99. Ultimately you've got to win some ballgames and create your longevity."