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The right man for the plan

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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.

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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."


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