But the same day he arrived home, June 23, 2011, Jim Riggleman resigned as Nationals manager, minutes after a walk-off win over the Seattle Mariners, over an ongoing contract dispute. That dramatic event started a surreal few days for the organization leading up to General Manager Mike Rizzo hiring Johnson, one of the most accomplished skippers of this generation and Rizzo’s senior adviser at the time, as manager.
“It was a very sad day for me,” Johnson said Saturday. “… I like Jimmy and I hate to see anybody’s career in managing end that way. But it doesn’t feel like I’ve been here a year. It feels more like 10 years. No, it feels more like a month or so. When you’re back in baseball, it doesn’t leave you.”
Since then, the Nationals are 82-71, 80-71 under Johnson. They finished last season strong with 14 wins in their finals 18 games, building the team’s expectations for this season, and Johnson began making his mark on the team. And now, the team is unexpectedly leading its division.
“I felt in August . . . we played to our potential, we could contend and win our division,” Johnson said. “Rizzo also made some good moves over the winter that also enabled us to be more on our way, and enabled us to [get] the guys to start playing up to their potential. I thought we’ve been gradually getting towards that, playing up to our potential. As far as I’m concerned, we still have a ways to go as a team.”
Riggleman is managing the Reds’ Class AA affiliate Pensacola Blue Wahoos and people close to him say he is enjoying his job.
“A lot has happened since then,” outfielder Michael Morse said. “I think that’s past us. I haven’t even thought about it. . . . We’re in a great spot, great position. I wish [Riggleman] the best and I know he’s doing good.”
Johnson’s deal with the Nationals as a consultant runs through 2013 and he could manage for rest of that time based on a mutual decision. Asked about his future with the team on Saturday, Johnson answered in his typical fashion, taking the opposite approach of Riggleman, who wasn’t comfortable want a short-term, one-year deal.
“I keep all my energy on today with an eye on tomorrow,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t go any farther than that. That’s the way I basically live my life. I’m very comfortable living in the short term. . . . For me to think about what challenges I’m going to face six months from now is a useless exercise. Who cares? I hope they still like me today, and I hope they still like me tomorrow.”