June 24, 2011
The BP Broadside
The Hubris of Riggleman
Vanity is a sin not because our self-approval hurts others, but ourselves. It blinds us to our own limited value, which is a particularly handicapping set of blinders to wear in the workplace. Many of us have fought the impulse to quit a job with which we have grown frustrated, thinking, “No one else does what I do here, or can do it as well as I do it even if they tried; let’s just see how they get along without me.”
Don’t ever let yourself think that; unless you’re the star of an eponymously-titled television program, the business might experience some temporary turbulence as the result of your absence, but chances are it’s going to be just fine in the long term. Most of us are, no matter how talented, dispensable. There might not be someone exactly like us ready to take our place, but Mr. or Miss Close-Enough is always right around the corner, and in most cases close enough will do just fine.
In baseball, there is the well-known tale of Charlie Dressen, best related by Bill James in his underappreciated Guide to Baseball Managers. Dressen, a former manager and longtime coach with undeniable baseball acumen, took over a successful Dodgers team in 1951 and won two pennants in three years, narrowly missing the third when he bollixed up the playoff game against the Giants that ended with Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world.” At this point, his Dodgers record was 298-166 (.642).
Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley liked to keep his managers on one-year contracts. Maybe he was thinking back to the early 1930s, when the team fired both Max Carey and Casey Stengel before their contracts were out, thereby paying them to take a year’s vacation. Dressen had a problem with the policy and insisted on a three-year deal. He was a good manager, or at least an intelligent one, and he knew it. No doubt, like Jim Riggleman, he felt that as a man in his 50s he was too old not to receive the respect implied by a long-term commitment. He likely felt he had played an important role in the team’s success, and didn’t want each new season to be an on-the-job audition for the following one. This is entirely understandable. It was also, in one important respect, wrong.
O’Malley said, “Hey, we’d love to have you back, but not on those terms, sorry.” The impasse was never resolved. O’Malley turned the team over to Walter Alston, the manager of his International League team. Dressen, shut out of the majors, headed off to the Pacific Coast League to manage the Oakland Oaks for a year, then resurfaced with the Washington Senators where, as good a manager as he might have been, he couldn’t rescue a team whose ownership wasn’t overly invested in having a farm system or African Americans (as either players or customers). James convincingly argues that this series of decisions likely kept Dressen out of the Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, though Alston was, as one writer put it, “23 years of bad managing,” the Dodgers rolled on to seven pennants and four championships during his tenure. He in no way possessed the brilliance of Dressen (Jackie Robinson called him “a wooden Indian”), but it turned out the Dodgers didn’t require more than a steady hand. When he was hired, a sportswriter remarked, “The Dodgers do not need a manager, and that is why they got Alston.” To some degree, this was true; the team, with its strong farm, executives, and ownership (remember, we’re talking about the O’Malleys, not the McCourts) might have been better off with a more nimble tactician (particularly in 1962), but it was generally going to put a good product on the field that needed gentle guidance more than radical sculpting. As Leonard Koppet wrote, the Dodgers “let him… manage the team on the field and in the clubhouse, with no hint of larger responsibilities.”
After Alston had signed the last of his 23 one-year deals, the Dodgers switched to Tommy Lasorda and added another four pennants and two titles. Lasorda was a very different manager than Alston, but the strength of the organization remained consistent and that allowed the outcomes to remain consistent despite the change of emphasis brought by the new skipper. A manager can be the making of a team in small but important ways, but in most cases (with some notable exceptions), the team is the making of the manager.
Riggleman might have considered the way managers and teams interact before presenting Nationals GM, and thereby ownership, with an ultimatum. His career record doesn’t testify to his being a transformational figure, and the recent Nationals turnaround is potentially an ephemeral little soap bubble. Bob Brenly won 92 games and a World Series (two things Riggleman has yet to do), and it didn’t prove he was a good manager. A 15-6 June no more made Riggleman indispensible than the team’s 23-31 record over the previous two months was grounds for immediate dismissal. Note that the Nationals have gone 7-1 in one-run games this month. That’s not progress, that’s a series of lucky breaks disguised as real progress.
Like Dressen, Riggleman had a good thing going but overrated his advantage and destroyed himself. Only the future will tell if he did so more thoroughly than his predecessor, who did, after all, go on to manage in the majors for all or part of another nine seasons. Perhaps, like Billy Martin saying, “One’s a born liar and the other’s convicted” of Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner in 1978, he had an emotional need to get fired but, unable to push himself to jump, maneuvered so that his being pushed became an inevitability.
That kind of psychological explanation would be preferable to what might turn out to be the plain ol’ vanilla truth: that Riggleman believed the Nationals couldn’t get along without him. With the fruits of the farm system starting to fall into place now and in the future, he will have a long time to contemplate whether he mistook an evolution that should have been credited to the organization for his own handiwork. For Dressen, that moment came quickly: The Dodgers won their elusive first World Series title in 1955, as their former manager watched from the sidelines, having brought the Senators in at 53-101.
Riggleman’s comeuppance will probably be further off, but that’s all right. As the saying goes, act in haste, repent at leisure. Some lucky skipper will get to manage Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, and Stephen Strasburg to an NL East title or two—don’t scoff; the Phillies are aging, the Mets lost, the Braves always a player and a dollar short, and the Marlins just don’t care—and he’ll reap the rewards that could have gone to the man who thought he was so important that his reward couldn’t wait another day.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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