Chance to Manage Again Hits Home for Riggleman

Jim Riggleman praises his predecessor, Manny Acta, at his first news conference as interim manager of the Nationals. Video by Comcast SportsNet
By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, July 16, 2009

For a third of a century, when Washington didn't have baseball, the bonds of affection between the sport and the nation's capital grew weaker every year. Each season, those who had once played for the Senators and were still in major league uniforms as managers or coaches, dwindled and disappeared from the sport, a Dick Bosman or Frank Howard at a time.

Ever more rare, almost extinct now for decades, were those in baseball who had actually grown up in the Washington area and learned to love the sport in their formative youth by watching the Senators. Once, the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, had worked in the scoreboard at Griffith Stadium. But those authentic Washington connections shrunk long ago.

Right now, as far as I can determine, the only man now wearing a major league uniform -- in any capacity, manager or coach -- who grew up in the Washington area, attended games here as far back as Griffith Stadium and spent his childhood and youth loving the Senators is Jim Riggleman.

Now, in a season of mortifications and misery for the Nationals, Riggleman is suddenly the manager of Washington's team. True, interim only. Perhaps this is just a sweet 75-game interlude, like his 90 games as interim manager of the Mariners last season. Or maybe this will become a mini-fairy tale. Either way, what are the odds?

"This is my home. I still have family here," said Riggleman who grew up in Rockville and went to Richard Montgomery High before graduating from nearby Frostburg State. "I grew up watching Fred Valentine and Danny O'Connell."

O'Connell was one of the original, atrocious expansion Senators in '61. In 591 at-bats that year, he hit one home run. The next year, in 268 at-bats, he got much better -- two homers. So, he retired. O'Connell wasn't a hero to many, just a few Washington kids -- including Riggleman, who was 8 and 9 years old then, the age when baseball grabs you and sometimes never lets go.

"We had the Senators. We loved the Senators. But we didn't win enough, we didn't support 'em enough and we lost 'em," Riggleman said. "All those years when Washington didn't have a team, I always said, 'You've got to have baseball in the nation's capital.' So I was thrilled when a team came back."

The word to note here is, of course, "we." So, a managing job that might be a nightmare for some is actually a dream for Riggleman.

He's also probably good news for the Nats. The 56-year-old isn't the one who created this Natinals mess. No one on earth should expect him to transform it. But Riggleman is more than a stopgap. He's one of only 80 men since 1900 who've managed in the majors for at least 10 seasons. In baseball, longevity is a measure of trust and esteem, as well as, sometimes, old-shoe comfort. Riggleman has taken a team (the Cubs) to the playoffs, something that neither Frank Robinson (in 16 seasons) nor Branch Rickey (10) ever did. Whatever happens in the last 75 games of this season, if the Nats think Riggleman is their problem, they're nuts.

On the other hand, let's face facts and not get mushy. Sometimes you find unsettling stats you were not looking for. Of those 80 managers with 10 seasons, I've interviewed the majority (41) and Riggleman has the worst career winning percentage of any (.445).

In the last two days, many have jumped to the conclusion that since Riggleman replaced Manny Acta, he must be dramatically different either as a manager or in personality type. He isn't. In fact, he's much like Acta, but with the intensity during games and the accountability afterward turned up a notch or two. He's a more experienced, less-touchy-feely but still empathetic version of Manny. He won't hand out self-help books or ask about family all the time. And he might actually chew you out.

"The last couple of days I've been hearing that I'm 'fiery.' I feel like I'm a bit of a softy. I think I'm kind of easy," said Riggleman who, in five years running the Cubs sometimes heard that he was "wasn't getting on 'em enough."

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