John McLaren is bench coach for Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman
Sunday, March 14, 2010
KISSIMMEE, FLA. -- On June 19, 2008, John McLaren lost the only major league managerial position he ever held, a job he had spent nearly 30 years chasing. The Seattle Mariners fired McLaren less than one year after they hired him as their manager. They replaced him with his bench coach, the first name McLaren had thought of when he got the chance to hire one, the friend he talked to in his office after every game. The new manager of the Mariners would be Jim Riggleman.
This season, McLaren and Riggleman will sit across a desk and speak after each game, same as they did they did for a half of a season two years ago in Seattle. They'll just be wearing Washington Nationals uniforms and sitting on different sides of the desk.
When the Nationals named Riggleman their manager this winter, the first name he thought of when he got the chance to hire a bench coach was McLaren. Their role swapping, they both said, changed neither their friendship nor their professional relationship. McLaren will now be the one putting out clubhouse fires while Riggleman writes out the lineup, but neither Riggleman nor McLaren gave the new dynamic much thought.
"It's really not that much to it," Riggleman said. "I don't think it's that big a deal. It's certainly not something I've ever thought about or he's talked about. It's probably coincidence, and it's unique, maybe. But it's very smooth."
Not odd at all? "No, not really," McLaren said. "It's baseball."
And baseball, really, is what McLaren knows. McLaren, 58, managed in the minor leagues for seven years. He met Ted Williams while coaching the Red Sox bullpen in 1991. He worked next to Lou Piniella for a decade. He coached in Columbia and Venezuela. He scouted amateur players and major leaguers.
McLaren recently finished his recovery from rotator cuff surgery, the result of countless batting practice throws. A bench coach's role is to be an extra set of eyes and ears next to the manager, and McLaren has seen and heard everything.
When McLaren and Riggleman go out to dinner, "We talk shop," McLaren said. "It doesn't always have to be about baseball. But most of the time, it is."
Riggleman and McLaren have been friends for a decade and acquaintances for longer. They came to know each other well when McLaren coached under Piniella for the Tampa Bay Rays from 2003 to 2005. Riggleman lived in Tampa as the field coordinator for the St. Louis Cardinals, and they bounced ideas off one another, their analytical bents allowing them to talk and talk.
McLaren stayed on to scout for Tampa when Piniella left after the 2005 season. He scouted for only one year, then joined the Mariners, where he coached for 11 seasons earlier in his career, to serve as Mike Hargrove's bench coach in 2007.
On July 1, the Mariners trailed the Los Angeles Angels by four games when Hargrove suddenly resigned, changing the course of the franchise and McLaren's life. The new manager was McLaren, the baseball lifer those inside the game knew well and those outside didn't know at all. One of McLaren's first congratulatory calls came from Riggleman.
The Mariners finished 2007 in second place, which persuaded them to keep McLaren as manager. The Mariners became a favorite for 2008 after the acquisition of Erik Bedard gave them a potent rotation that included Félix Hernández to go with J.J. Putz in the bullpen.