Commentary

Jim Riggleman case: The wrong pitches

The manager has to hawk the franchise, and Riggleman grew tired of the sales calls

Originally Published: June 29, 2011
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

A big league manager has a thousand different duties, many of them irrelevant to wins and losses. In fact, you could make the argument that most of what a big league manager does is irrelevant to wins and losses. But that's a topic for another day.

One of the most important managerial tasks is to serve as team salesman. Sell the team to the public, the media, the rest of baseball. Sell the future or the present or some combination of both.

[+] EnlargeJim Riggleman
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe hard part for Jim Riggleman were the duties that came between the games.

Which brings us to Jim Riggleman, who decided last week that he could no longer serve as a salesman for the Washington Nationals.

He could manage, which is what a manager does between the first and last pitch. But he couldn't peddle the Nationals during all the other waking hours. He just couldn't sell. He couldn't close the deal.

Everybody sells something. You might generally sell appliances or drywall, or you might specifically sell Coca-Cola or Kohler. Riggleman managed a team during the game and sold the Washington Nationals before and after. Since he felt unappreciated by the organization for not picking up his option for next season, he decided he could no longer keep up the salesman's facade. So he left, in a snit.

Selling is a surprisingly large part of a major league manager's job, and also an inordinately underreported aspect of it. Selling takes many forms.

Managers are asked to cover for players' indiscretions or inadequacies, tasks I'm sure Riggleman could continue to handle with no problem. But they're also asked to be the company frontman when something goes wrong, when the shortstop gets demoted or a starting pitcher gets placed on the disabled list with a phantom injury dictated by the higher-ups. Managers aren't always down with these decisions, but they're the ones who have to provide the rationale. They have to put the public face on it.

Why? Because Dusty Baker is more accessible than Walt Jocketty, and every Reds fan would rather read a quote from Baker than Jocketty, especially when the subject pertains to the product on the field. The only way you'll know whether Dusty disagrees is to read his eyes, and to time the pauses in between sentences. Otherwise, he's pretty much mastered the art. So have many others.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThere might not be good answers to the Dodgers' owenrship situation right now, but Don Mattingly has to say something.

This is nothing new. Employees take bullets for their bosses all the time. GMs take 'em for their owners. Players take 'em for their manager, and each other.

And managers take more than their fair share. If you want to see an extreme -- and extremely uncomfortable -- version of the dynamic, take a look at Dodgers manager Don Mattingly's appearance on George Lopez last Thursday. Lopez, not above picking the lowest-hanging fruit, seized on the Dodgers' bankruptcy and ownership mess. Mattingly was left with a tough decision: Laugh along, or defend Frank McCourt. He did neither, choosing to sit there and look as if he was in the process of passing a stone.

But think about that: Is there a tougher job in sports right now than being the frontman for the Dodgers? Matt Kemp doesn't have to sell the team. Neither does pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. They can shrug their shoulders and say, correctly, that McCourt's personal hairdressing budget (roughly two middle relievers' salaries) is no concern of theirs. Mattingly, though, doesn't have the option of ignoring the situation. He doesn't have anything to do with McCourt's wild spending, but it doesn't matter. He's in charge of the product on the field, so he has to give an answer.

That part -- having to give an answer -- is where I suspect Riggleman had a problem.

Oh, you can call him a quitter. I did, when I first heard that he peaced the Nationals after they'd won 11 of 12 and moved to a game over .500, an unfathomable spot for this team in late June. I wondered if he had a medical problem, or a mental problem, before the deflating news that it was a contractual problem.

[+] EnlargeBaker/Jocketty
AP Photo/David KohlAs a Reds fan, which one of these men would you rather hear from?

As if we don't have enough of those floating around professional sports these days.

But then I heard Riggleman's awkward and mostly inarticulate comments about not being able to do the job before and after the games. If you haven't been around major league teams on a daily basis, it sounded not only weak but weird. But when you've heard managers say a million things they don't necessarily believe -- and say them with enough force to cut off further questioning -- you know exactly what Riggleman was saying.

He could no longer pose. He could sell Mike Morse, but not Mike Rizzo. I don't know whose side to take, but I have a pretty good idea Riggleman could no longer fake it. Before last week, if Riggleman was told to cover for someone by creating an injury, or to say someone else needed another minor league rehab start even if he didn't, he could handle it. Grit your teeth, pretend it's your decision and move on.

When Riggleman decided he was disrespected (damn, almost made it through without that word), he decided he could no longer say the stuff he didn't believe for a group of people who no longer believed in him.

And I think there's some nobility in that. It might be deviant and misguided, but it's noble nonetheless.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of "Pawn Stars" star Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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