Washington Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman feels he's the right man for the job

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010; D01

VIERA, FLA. -- Jim Riggleman is just beginning his tenure as the full-fledged manager of the Washington Nationals, but he can already envision how he wants to look back on it. He is a baseball man, and so Riggleman knows how the people in charge when a franchise transforms from laughingstock to contender are remembered.

Years from now, Riggleman said, he wants to be able to think, "I was one of the people there when we started to get this thing turned around."

On Monday, Riggleman will manage on opening day for the first time in 10 years, and he no longer has the word "interim" attached to his name. He wondered if this chance would come, both over the past decade and for more than a month this winter. The results of his first full season managing in his home town will help determine both if the Nationals will get themselves turned around and whether Riggleman will be one of the people there.

"I know I am the right guy," said Riggleman, who grew up in Rockville rooting for the Senators. "It's not going to do any good until you prove it. You've got to win ballgames to prove it. Only time will tell if my assessment is right."

From the start, the stakes will be high. Riggleman's contract provides him less security than the Nationals have publicly stated, according to a person close to the team. In a strictly legal sense, Riggleman is operating with a two-year contract that includes a team option for the 2012 season. For practical purposes, Riggleman has a virtual one-year contract, the source said.

The Nationals owe Riggleman $600,000 this season, according to the source. While the Nationals cannot technically opt out until after 2011, they will be able to buy Riggleman out of the contract for $100,000 after this season. Therefore, Riggleman is guaranteed only one year. The Nationals could pay Riggleman $700,000 for this season and not retain him, a total that, even with the buyout money, is less than a typical year's pay for a major league manager.

"He's certainly part of the future," said General Manager Mike Rizzo, not discussing the specifics of Riggleman's deal. "We hired a manager last year to take us through these years and work us through being where we were in '09 to someday being a championship-caliber club. He's the guy that we hired to take us to that level. We wanted the best guy available for now and for the future."

"At some point, we expect to have success here," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "We certainly hope he's a big part of it."

Both Riggleman and his agent declined to address the details of his contract but, to be sure, Riggleman is accustomed to managing in uncertain circumstances. Three times in his career, including last year with the Nationals, Riggleman has taken over a team in the middle of a season. Riggleman also managed the 1997 Chicago Cubs, who started 0-14. The toughest part? "Not knowing if you're going to manage to the 15th game or not," said Jon Riggleman, his son.

St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa, one of Riggleman's baseball idols, once told Riggleman something he made his own motto: "I manage by a what-if philosophy." A manager needs to be prepared to handle any situation, to operate under any conditions.

"I never allow myself to feel secure," Riggleman said. "I guess it's just my nature. If you feel secure, you're going to take something for granted. You're going to slip up. It's almost like security builds overconfidence. I never want to be overconfident."

Riggleman has made a life in baseball by rarely, if ever, being over-anything. One season as a minor league third baseman, Riggleman could not keep from blinking when he fielded groundballs. The problem threatened to derail his career, but teammates hardly noticed and, eventually, Riggleman ditched the tick.

"He always was real steady," said Mike Dimmel, Riggleman's minor league roommate. "You wouldn't know if he was hitting bad, wouldn't know if he was hitting good."

Sticking with the Nats

On the final weekend of the 2009 season, Riggleman spoke over the phone with his agent, Burton Rocks. Rocks had called Riggleman to discuss options for the offseason. The Nationals were going to consider Riggleman, the interim manager who replaced Manny Acta, in their widespread search for a new manager. Nothing was certain. Rocks wanted to prepare in case they did not choose Riggleman.

On the phone, Riggleman told him not to bother. He wanted to see his time through in Washington, where he could live close to family. He wanted to stay, period.

Rocks asked to meet with Riggleman in person. He wanted to look into his client's eyes. They met over lunch, when Riggleman told him, "I want 2010 to be with the Nats or I'm going to sit out." Rocks had been convinced.

"I said to myself, 'Oh my God. He's really serious,' " Rocks said. "Those were serious, serious eyes."

By the time November arrived, the Nationals still had not settled on a manager and Riggleman still had no job for 2010. Rocks told Riggleman he could arrange an interview for a job with another team. It would be a fallback and, perhaps, a bargaining chip.

Riggleman would not even entertain the offers. "What about a little leverage?" Rocks asked Riggleman. No, Riggleman said. He wanted only to manage the Nationals, and he would not act disingenuous in pursuing it.

"He was not going to waffle," Rocks said. "When the days ticked by, it never changed. He just rode that rollercoaster. At the end, he was concerned. But he was at peace with it. Whatever it was going to be, he was going to be at peace with it."

On Nov. 12, 39 days after last season ended, the Nationals announced Riggleman would become the third manager in their history. The morning of his news conference, Riggleman met Rocks at a Starbucks. He started talking about possible lineups and the excitement of working with Stephen Strasburg.

"He couldn't be any more excited," Jon Riggleman said. "It's the place he grew up."

Consumed by the game

Riggleman grew up consumed by baseball. He couldn't wait for winter to break in Maryland so he could play. During college, he worked construction and caddied in the summer, and when he got off work he drove around Northern Virginia to find a baseball game. He once lied and told his mother he was sick so he could sit in front of the television on opening day and watch the Senators play the Chicago White Sox.

His playing career stalled at Class AAA, and the Cardinals made him manager of their Class A team when he was 30. The sport still consumes him. During the season, he replays games in his head on his way home from the park at night. He'll watch late night West Coast games, and he is still thinking about his decisions over morning coffee. When he arrives at the ballpark, he talks baseball with his coaches. He anticipated watching the Yankees play the Red Sox on Sunday night.

Aside from baseball, "I really don't know all that much about him," said Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn, who played for Riggleman for two-plus seasons with the San Diego Padres.

Outside of baseball, there may not be much to know. Riggleman talks to his son, Jon, every day. In the offseason, he lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. He goes to the gym in the morning. He comes home and goes for a run on the beach. Sick of dining out on the road, he likes to eat dinner at home. Most nights, he watches television -- "The Office" and "48 Hours Mystery" are current favorites.

"He's just probably one of the more laid-back people you're going to come across," Jon Riggleman said. "He just likes the simple things. He's pretty down to earth. He's kind of a throwback."

Riggleman manages in the same style. He emphasizes fundamentals, always has. After Riggleman took over for Acta last year, Gwynn heard Riggleman had instituted pregame infield-outfield sessions. "That's Jim Riggleman," Gwynn thought.

In the clubhouse, Riggleman allows players space, but he holds them accountable.

"He won't say much," said Nationals reliever Miguel Batista, who pitched for Riggleman when he was the bench coach and interim manager in Seattle. "But if you need to hear him, he's going to speak."

Riggleman has managed 1,250 games and won 555 of them in his career. He has earned a reputation as an excellent in-game technician, but he understands his .444 winning percentage leaves some doubting him.

"You're not validated yet," Riggleman said. "Until you've really gotten to, won in the postseason a couple times, you really don't get validated."

Starting now, Riggleman has another chance. He never worried about not managing again, but he wondered. And now here he is in his hometown, a decent man who knows he's the right guy for the job.

Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.

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