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

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; D01

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.

When you talk to Riggleman about himself, you find out about everybody else. Like Kissell. Some managers are willing to share credit. He just gives it away. Is there really an "I" in Riggleman?

Great managers are often egotists who try to keep a straight face as they tell others to check their egos at the door. Riggleman is more than the exception to that rule. He's a splendid outlier -- a man who deflects attention, yet leads his men nonetheless.

So far this season, his top two pitchers have just one win, his star Ryan Zimmerman has started fewer than half the Nats' games and his team has already faced the toughest part of its schedule.

"We feel like we haven't hit our stride at all yet. We haven't hit good. We haven't pitched good," he says, following the unwritten rule that managers with a college degree (Frostburg State) must never use "good" and "well" properly.

"But we have played good."

Could that good baseball, playing the game alertly, even when the stats aren't flashy, have anything to do with the manager? Could the Nats' defense, now almost acrobatic, their base stealing, their attention to details and their obvious camaraderie, have anything to do with the boy from Rockville who's now skipper?

Silence.

"Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy deserve a ton of credit," he says.

They've accepted fewer at-bats so rookie Ian Desmond can emerge at shortstop. And they've done it big-heartedly, encouraging the youngster, begrudging nothing. When Zimmerman was hurt, Rig even batted Guzman No. 3 as a sign of respect as well as strategy.

Oh, and don't forget how spectacular Matt Capps, 11 for 11 in saves, and Tyler Clippard (0.42 ERA) have been.

"It all goes for naught if Clip and Capps hadn't done what they've done," Riggleman said.

But what about the Nats' manager? Isn't he part of the success?

Well, Riggleman's got some issues with that guy. Alberto Gonzalez, the 24th man, "is really getting shorted here. He's got some big hits with Zim out. That guy is a major league shortstop. And now I can't find at-bats for him?" What about the relievers who've struggled -- Brian Bruney, Tyler Walker and Miguel Batista? Why hasn't the manager figured out how to get them straightened out, Riggleman wants to know.

What an odd big league manager. No wonder it took him 10 years between full-time jobs after the Cubs fired him. You're not supposed to be a bench coach, making other managers look smart. You get an ESPN gig and show everybody what a genius you are.

Perhaps Riggleman discovered the center of himself as a manager in his first year on the job in the minors. Not much ever came easy to him, certainly not playing in the minors for eight years, but one thing did.

"I understood right away that you are trying to get them to the major leagues," he said. "You are not trying to get you to the major leagues.

"They sense that. When people say, 'They play hard for Jim,' I think, 'I'm the one who's indebted. They gave me a career.' "

In all walks, it's easy to overlook, and undervalue, such men. If you want to see baseball people wince, tell them Rig has a one-year deal while Manny Acta, in Cleveland, has a three-year pact.

In the list of reasons why the Nats are better, and may continue in that direction, the easiest person to overlook may be the guy running the ballclub. Riggleman is used to it, and far past it.

General Manager "Mike Rizzo and I have both paid a lot of dues. Maybe that's part of why we seem to work pretty good together," Riggleman said. "He's not Branch Rickey and I'm not Casey Stengel.

"But we're going to get it done here."

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