Hard to defend Riggleman's choice

Communication breakdown leads to Jim Riggleman's resignation as manager of the Washington Nationals

First of all, what Jim Riggleman did is indefensible. He deserves the coast-to-coast criticism, deserves to be crushed for walking out on his team. His resignation Thursday as Nationals manager was as me-first as it gets, an inexplicable betrayal of his red-hot club.

Sure enough, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo immediately seized the public-relations high ground, releasing a statement that said he was "always taught that one of the cardinal rules of baseball was that no individual can put his interests before those of the team."

Riggleman certainly violated that rule, quitting when the team would not exercise his contract option for 2012. But make no mistake: Rizzo also bears responsibility for this mess. So does Ted Lerner, the Nationals’ managing principal owner, and his son Mark, the team’s principal owner.

Until Thursday, Riggleman was one of the game's more respected figures, a solid, knowledgeable baseball man, if not the most magnetic personality. Now, all of a sudden, he's this unstable, delusional coward?

Too easy.

Too simple an explanation as the Nats prepare for their season debut on MLB on FOX (4 p.m. ET Saturday against the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field).

Most GMs talk with their managers every day; Rizzo rarely spoke with Riggleman, according to numerous sources. Most teams understand that a manager’s authority is compromised when he is in the last year of his contract; the Lerners proceed along their merry way, seemingly ignorant of conventional baseball wisdom.

Again, I’m not defending Riggleman. He signed a contract that included an option for 2012, an option that did not need to be exercised until the end of the season. He gave Rizzo an ultimatum, leaving the GM no choice but to push back. He effectively committed professional suicide, shocking and disappointing his closest friends in the game.

OK, maybe Riggleman knew Rizzo didn’t want him, knew he wasn’t the team’s preferred long-term choice. So? If the Nats had finished with a winning record, Rizzo would have had no choice but to grant Riggleman an extension. And, after winning 11 of their past 12 games, the Nats are above .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2005.

But let’s forget Riggleman for a moment. Let’s go back to Sept. 24, when someone even more highly regarded than Riggleman resigned from the Nationals.

Stan Kasten worked 24 years for Ted Turner, one of the most eccentric owners in sports history. He lasted only four years with the Lerners.

Gee, wonder why.

Kasten handled his resignation as Nats president properly, honoring his contract, then resigning at the first opportunity and barely saying a word. His problem clearly was with the Lerners and not with Rizzo, whom Kasten had hired as GM. Rizzo, though, seems to have his own management problems.

General managers do not simply make trades; they lead entire organizations. This is Rizzo’s third season in his first GM job. Yet, even his top scouts complain about his lack of communication — odd, considering that Rizzo comes from a scouting background.

As for Riggleman, well, according to a source, Rizzo never even visited with him during the Nats' most recent homestand. The source described the situation as "eerie."

I never will understand why all of this had such an unsettling effect on Riggleman, whose frustration had been building since spring training. The Nats were starting to win; Riggleman was gaining the upper hand.

Earlier in the season, when the team was struggling, there was talk that one of the Nationals' coaches was undermining Riggleman. If true, Riggleman might have gotten the last laugh on him, too.

All Riggleman had to do was hang tight. Right-hander Stephen Strasburg will return from Tommy John surgery next season. Top prospect Bryce Harper figures to take over in left field no later than 2013. And more young players are coming as well.

In the meantime, the Nationals could trade for Rays center fielder B.J. Upton, sign free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder, maneuver for other top players. Scott Boras represents Fielder, and Boras' Nationals clients include Strasburg, Harper and right fielder Jayson Werth. You might remember how Rizzo and Lerners signed Werth last offseason — by money-whipping the entire sport.

The Nationals' next permanent manager will benefit from being in the right place at the right time. But the Nats aren't there yet. Bench coach John McLaren will manage the team this weekend, followed by an interim for the rest of the season. Maybe that interim will be third base coach Bo Porter, who is well-regarded within the industry. Or maybe it will be Davey Johnson, who currently is one of Rizzo's senior advisers.

I love Johnson, but his work with Team USA in the 2009 World Baseball Classic was less than stellar. Then again, if the Marlins could hire Jack McKeon at 80, then the Nats certainly could hire Johnson at 68. A copycat movement involving senior citizens. Only in baseball.

Of course, none of this should even be under discussion; Riggleman should still be the Nats' manager. He will regret his decision. He has only himself to blame for his resignation. But this isn’t solely about a manager who failed to see the forest for the trees.

If Rizzo and the Lerners are smart, they also will learn from Thursday’s stunning turn of events.

Once and for all, the Nats need to grow up.

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