The right man for the plan

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, November 13, 2009

The Nationals hired Jim Riggleman as their permanent manager on Thursday in what they hope will be another step in the construction of a baseball franchise that will someday rival the excitement that the Capitals now create for their NHL fans.

For the Lerner family, especially principal owner Mark Lerner, who's on the board of the Caps, a friend of owner Ted Leonsis and a rabid Caps fan, the comparison is seldom off the radar screen.

To the Lerners, the Nats' 102 and 103 losses the last two seasons have simply been their version of the dark days of tearing down and rebuilding a franchise that their friend Leonsis endured from '03 until '08 with the Caps. Joke to genius: it happens.

Time will tell if they are right on that big picture. But, despite a howling wind on a dark day, this was one of the bright moments at Nationals Park. A hometown boy, now 57, came full circle.

Riggleman, who started 0-5 after replacing Manny Acta at the all-star break, saw his team fall to a hideous 40 games below .500. Yet, the Nats went 33-37 their last 70 games and finished with a seven-game win streak. Yes, 40-games-under to four-games-under will get you rehired, especially when everybody in nearly 40 years in baseball speaks well of you.

"This has been a dream of mine -- to land right here," said Riggleman, who grew up in Rockville, watched the Senators often at RFK Stadium and hoped one day to be their shortstop.

"It's still the Senators-Nationals to me. It's still Washington baseball. It's the dream of a lifetime to grow up watching a ballclub and then play for it or manage it."

To get the job, Riggleman ultimately beat out Bobby Valentine, who took the Mets to the World Series and has one of the game's brighter minds but tends to burn bridges. Valentine lobbied hard for the job but had an uphill climb. Nats insiders compared him to the managerial equivalent of ex-GM Jim Bowden.

However, in a long interview with General Manager Mike Rizzo, Valentine sparkled. Few talk the game better. The whole decision went back into the hat. Everything was rechecked. And Riggleman still got the job.

Baseball, at the moment, is the opposite of the NFL where a fistful of famous coaches is on sabbatical. In baseball, there's a void of unemployed stars. As a result, Acta had his choice of the Houston or Cleveland jobs and held out for a three-year contract to pick the Indians. Acta beat out, essentially, everybody the Nats considered.

In the end, Riggleman got his dream job, yet by being available, Acta got more money, more years and a better team in Cleveland.

This was, to a degree, a win for strong consistent character. Every day, Riggleman talks to his team after games, if only briefly. Every day, he's in the locker room chatting with players. "He has an open-door policy," said Rizzo, who then added, "but he also comes out of the door."

"After games, sometimes I'd just go in his office and we'd talk baseball for 20 minutes," Nationals left-hander John Lannan said.

For theory of the game, for a funny quote, maybe even for a pennant race in a mega-market town, pick Valentine. For a young team that needs discipline, constant instruction (some remedial), consistent temperament and correction without sarcasm, pick Rig.

Riz and Rig, if they are lucky, might be together for years. President Stan Kasten has only one time frame for major hires: long-term, like the Braves. He hates, "He'll do for now."

After so many recent losses, where are the Nats headed?

In the last 10 months, they have signed Adam Dunn and locked up Ryan Zimmerman to a five-year deal just before a breakout season that, this week, has included a Gold Glove at third base and a Silver Slugger award. Rizzo raves about Dunn so much that he might as well say: Contract extension some time in '10.

In those 10 months, the Nats have also traded for Josh Willingham and Nyjer Morgan, now outfield fixtures, and signed first-round picks Stephen Strasburg and reliever Drew Storen.

Can Strasburg really throw over 100?

"In Arizona, he's 96 to 101. He's usually at 97-98," Rizzo said.

"What scout? Is he believable?" I asked sarcastically.

"My dad," Rizzo said.

Okay, point taken. How is the movement on his fastball?

"At 100, it doesn't have much time to move," Rizzo said.

What comparison might be reasonable here? Perhaps [former No. 1 overall-pick] Andy Benes? Or Mark Prior?

"I've heard Dwight Gooden," Rizzo said.

Since the end of the regular season, the Nats also have made more than a half-dozen additions to their front office. "We've 'paid up' to get quality people in every case," Rizzo said.

Nobody knows if the Nats, with their tiny '10 payroll -- only about $40 million is now locked up -- will be aggressive in free agency this winter. Their clear needs, which they acknowledge, are two starting pitchers, two relievers (through probably not a closer) and a quality middle infielder, most likely acquired in a trade that adds rather significantly to payroll.

"We'll see what happens with free agents," Rizzo said, "but the owners have given me everything I've needed for the front office."

Are the Lerners, despite the skepticism with which many view them these days (including me), headed in a direction similar to Leonsis and the Caps? On such issues, I try to keep one painful object lesson from several years ago in mind. All bad franchises in all sports say they have a grand plan that will take them from the very bottom to somewhere near the top. It's easy to scoff at them. Especially since those rebuilding plans, often inexpensive in their early stages (and thus profitable to the team), usually fail.

But sometimes they turn out to be dead right.

In March '04, I began a column: "If Ted Leonsis can dump all the salaries he doesn't want to pay, then where can his customers dump all the Capitals tickets that they no longer want? On Leonsis's front lawn?"

Three years later, even four years later, that column still looked sensible, if snide. Then, within a few months, those words looked wrong and, eventually, downright dumb. Leonsis, what a hockey genius! Ted has had fun citing that column as an example of shortsighted critics. No problem. He's right.

But hindsight is easy. Seeing the future, several years out, is harder. Make the call now -- this time on the Nats, not the Caps.

With each step, as the Nats add Dunn, Morgan, Willingham, Strasburg, Storen, Rizzo and Riggleman to key positions, as they rebuild their sparse front office, as they prepare to add several free agent pitchers this winter, are they the Caps of '04 or '06? Is Strasburg (or that No. 1 draft pick in '10), akin to Alex Ovechkin?

Or are the Nats a team that has lost 205 games in two years, that still has a tiny payroll, that will be fortunate to improve enough to win 70-some games next season and that deserves all the scrutiny it gets?

If everybody is lucky, the answer will turn out to be: Both.

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