Sometimes, we just don't know what's churning inside of a person. Jim Riggleman's unhappiness over his contract situation had been festering all year and finally reached a full boil during the series against the Mariners.
Sometimes, we just don’t know what’s churning inside of a person.
Last week in Washington, D.C., I made it a point to seek out both Jim Riggleman and John McLaren, who had short stints as Mariner managers, to say hello. Neither one had much success in Seattle, but I had a good working relationship with each and respect for their abilities.
McLaren, the Nationals’ bench coach, — his role would abruptly change by the time the M’s left town — was bursting with hilarious Lou Piniella stories and warm remembrances of his Seattle days.
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Riggleman, on the other hand, seemed tense, distracted and withdrawn. Yes, I know I can have that effect on people, but I wasn’t the only one to make the observation that he didn’t seem to be much enjoying the Nationals’ emergence as the hottest team in baseball.
When Washington completed a sweep of the Mariners with a 1-0, walkoff victory Thursday, it gave the Nationals 11 wins in their last 12 games, and put them over .500 deeper into a season than they’d been since 2005.
That should have been cause for rejoicing, and there was indeed jubilation in the stands and, initially, in the Nationals clubhouse. But then general manager Mike Rizzo emerged from Riggleman’s office, gathered the team and gave it the stunning news that Riggleman had just resigned.
No wonder Riggleman had seemed tense. He would later tell reporters that the unhappiness over his contract situation had been festering all year and finally reached a full boil during that series.
“I’m 58,” he said. “I’m too old to be disrespected.”
Riggleman told Rizzo before Thursday’s game that if the GM wasn’t willing to at least talk about picking up his option for 2012 when the team got to Chicago for its next series, he wasn’t getting on the team bus to the airport.
Rizzo wasn’t, Riggleman didn’t, and suddenly one of the most anonymous managers of our time was the No. 1 trending topic in sports.
Naturally, my first thought was of that bizarre morning in early July 2007, when Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, with the team riding a seven-game win streak and surprisingly in contention, announced that he was stepping down. Hargrove said he was experiencing something akin to burnout.
“The highs weren’t high enough, and the lows were too low,” he said in a hastily called news conference, right before guiding the Mariners to one last victory, and then staying behind when the M’s flew to Kansas City after the game. “That’s about as simple as I can put it.”
Again, we simply don’t know what’s churning inside of someone. Hargrove’s announcement was just as shocking as Riggleman’s. He was 57; the mid- to late 50s seems to be the age when coaches and managers decide the aggravation and stress — whatever happens to be the source of their particular aggravation and stress — just isn’t worth it.
Dick Bennett was 57, like Hargrove, when he stepped down as Wisconsin’s basketball coach right after a 78-75 win over No. 13 Maryland. Bennett had taken the Badgers to the Final Four the previous year.
“I was prepared to quit after last season, but the way it turned out buoyed me,” Bennett told Sports Illustrated. “I decided to ride the euphoria a little longer.
“I was berating young men for not being all they could be, when I wasn’t being all I could be.”
Whitey Herzog was 58, like Riggleman, when he quit as Cardinals manager on July 6, 1990, three years after guiding St. Louis into the World Series.
“I still enjoy managing,” Herzog said that day. “But I just don’t feel like I’ve done the job. I feel like I’ve underachieved. I can’t get the guys to play.”
Frank Layden was 56 when he resigned as coach of the Utah Jazz in December 1988, while his team was in first place in the Midwest Division. Layden had guided the Jazz to five straight playoff berths.
“The game actually consumes you,” Layden told Sports Illustrated. “You are no longer in charge of your life. After a while, the ball dribbles you.”
Layden also said, “I just didn’t have the burning desire anymore. The pressure eats you alive.”
There are still conspiracy theorists who insist there was more to Hargrove’s decision than has been revealed. I’ve always taken Hargrove at his word when he has staunchly denied that it was anything more than an inability to summon up the necessary passion to manage.
“There are no dark, sinister reasons for this decision,” he said that day. “This has been my decision. … I have no reason to lie.”
Then, as now, it was McLaren left to pick up the pieces. Back in 2007, McLaren finished the year as Seattle’s manager, helpless to stem a late-season collapse that saw the M’s lose 15 of 17 games in late August and early September to drop from one game back to nine out in the division. In 2008, on June 19, McLaren was fired with a 25-47 record and replaced by his bench coach … Riggleman.
This time, McLaren gets to fill in for a weekend until the permanent replacement, Davey Johnson, arrives on Monday. It has to gall Riggleman to no end that Johnson got what he never did — a contract that runs through the 2012 season.
McLaren always said he didn’t see the Hargrove resignation coming, and in the wake of Riggleman’s resignation, he said similarly he was “shocked, blindsided. It caught me off-guard.”
McLaren said he believes Riggleman didn’t tell him because he didn’t want his friend to try to talk him out of it.
Riggleman had thought it through and was prepared for the consequences. He knew he’d be branded a quitter. He knew he would almost certainly never manage again. He knew most people would never understand why he had to overplay his hand instead of letting the Nationals’ success force Rizzo into extending him.
None of that mattered to Riggleman. He had reached his breaking point. He wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last.