Whether he likes it or not, Washington Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman deserves praise

"We feel like we haven't hit our stride," says Jim Riggleman, right.
"We feel like we haven't hit our stride," says Jim Riggleman, right. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

When he started managing in the minors long ago, Jim Riggleman watched every pitch from the top step of the dugout, as if he couldn't get close enough to the field or see every detail intensely enough. After the season, he met an umpire and asked for suggestions on being a better manager.

"You could get off that top step of the dugout," said the ump.

The men in blue thought he was looking for a fight, ready to jump down their throats. They didn't know yet, but like everyone in baseball, they would eventually learn that Rig couldn't help himself. He just couldn't get close enough to a sport whose every nuance gripped him, addicted as he was to the game for its own sake.

Nobody has named him Top Step Jim, but it would fit the Nationals manager who took over a 26-61 joke of a team at the all-star break last year, ended the year with a finish-with-pride seven-game winning streak and now has a 15-13 record despite key injuries and a tough schedule.

"These days, you see most managers up on the step," he says, slyly. "How can you really feel the game, watch your players, get a message to them, if you're sitting back in the dugout?"

Mention Riggleman, 57, within the sport, and it's like a password. He's the purist's baseball man.

"Riggleman is one of the true old-school baseball guys. He's been the Cardinals' farm director," said Braves Manager Bobby Cox, respectfully, meaning he's been the ultimate instructor of instructors on one of the most serious baseball-as-religion teams. "Jimmy also went to the playoffs managing the Cubbies. He's bright. He can discipline. He knows scouting, everything it takes to work with a general manager. During a game, he's not going to miss anything. Nothing. He's seen it all, and he knows it all."

To know Riggleman, you have to know his heroes, like the late George Kissell, the guru of an instructor who taught so many generations that Tony La Russa once called him "the most valuable Cardinal in history" though he never played a big league game.

"One day when he was in his 80s, George came by with a big smile and said, 'I learned something today,' " Riggleman said. The thought of Kissell makes the manager looks into the Nationals Park stands and wonder where he'll be if he gets to that age.

"I'll never be able to get away from the game. People may not see me, but I'll be around," he said. Even a box score can hold him captive. "You can figure out how the whole game was played, just from studying it."

The players Riggleman can never figure out, and doesn't want around him, are the ones who "don't really like the game. They're caught in a velvet trap. They're making millions of dollars. But you can tell that they hate every minute of it," he says. "If they could collect the money without playing the game, they'd be gone that minute. You won't ever win with them."

Part of the Nats' improved morale is his belief that players who appreciate the game "impact others," while those who don't drain everyone. They disappear from his teams, regardless of talent.

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