Commentary

Jim Riggleman's last stand

A confusing and incomprehensible day in Washington Nationals history

Updated: June 24, 2011, 10:41 AM ET
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

It seems inconceivable that the day the Washington Nationals moved above .500 for the first time since 2005, and two days after one of the biggest victories in franchise history, their manager, Jim Riggleman, resigned. This was not Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez resigning because the team was losing and the players weren't hustling or listening to him; Riggleman left at the height of a franchise's success, the players were hustling and they were listening, but he quit because Nationals management wasn't sure he was part of the future.

I've never been so shocked in my life. I thought Jim was getting a contract extension. Then I saw him come out of his office, and he was pacing. Then I thought someone had died. Then [general manager Mike Rizzo] told us that Jim had tendered his resignation, and the club accepted it. I couldn't believe it.

-- A Nationals player

However confusing and incomprehensible it may appear, it is that simple. The manager who took over a hopeless team with a 26-61 record in July 2009, changed the culture in the clubhouse and on the field, and played 33-42 the rest of the way, was rewarded after that season with a one-year contract for $650,000 for 2011, with a club option at $700,000 for 2012, hardly a handsome deal for a manager with over 1,000 games managed in the big leagues. The 2011 Nationals have taken another big step toward being competitive, another big step toward someday perhaps making the playoffs, yet the club still wasn't prepared to pick up a $700,000 option for a manager who helped rescue the team.

"To do this job, you have to feel there's a commitment to you," Riggleman said. "I didn't feel that. I just wanted to have a meeting in Chicago [on Friday]. They wouldn't do that."

Still, how does a manager leave a team having won 11 out of 12 games, finally getting the organization above water and finally capturing the fans in Washington? And how does Rizzo not agree to meet with Riggleman in Chicago on Friday and explain things, smooth things over, if nothing else, to avoid a major distraction at such an uplifting time? Now the Nationals will name bench coach John McLaren the manager for a few days until they can name an interim manager -- likely Davey Johnson or Bob Boone, former major league managers who work for the Nationals -- for the rest of the season.

"I've never been so shocked in my life," one player said one of the postgame scene in the Nationals' clubhouse. "I thought Jim was getting a contract extension. Then I saw him come out of his office, and he was pacing. Then I thought someone had died. Then Mike told us that Jim had tendered his resignation, and the club accepted it. I couldn't believe it."

It is more difficult to manage today than ever in part because of the players' sense of entitlement, even without achievement. And when the manager's future is uncertain, some players feel they can do and say whatever they like knowing the manager might not be there next year anyway. That wasn't happening inside the Nationals' clubhouse because Riggleman wouldn't allow it, but that's what happened in Baltimore last year for lame duck manager Dave Trembley, then Buck Showalter was signed for three years, the Orioles played extremely well for two months because, center fielder Adam Jones said, "Now we're accountable."

When Rizzo was signed to a five-year contract in October 2010, there was no change in Riggleman's contract -- no extension, and the option wasn't picked up. That's when Riggleman began asking, and wondering about his future. When he asked Rizzo again before Thursday's game and was told it as not the time to discuss that, Riggleman took a stand and held firm to that stand after a 1-0, walk-off victory over the Mariners. There are conflicting stories here; Riggleman said there was no ultimatum made about getting his option picked up or he wasn't going with the team to Chicago; Rizzo said there was an ultimatum.

Either way, Riggleman quit, left the ballpark without a job, and likely will never manage again. Anyone who knows Jim Riggleman knows he's not a quitter; he is the opposite -- a guy who would do anything to win, a man's man in every way. But in his mind, a man can be disrespected for only so long before he has to do what he thinks is right. So he stood on principle, and the Nationals let him walk. And in the end, no one was right. And no one won. And everyone was mad.

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