OK, I stopped off this morning to talk to Jim Riggleman, the new bench coach of the Washington Nationals.
I swear, this is not part of an agenda to re-open all the scabs from 2008. In this case, it was a simple matter of geography. The Nationals’ camp is in Viera, just a short jump to the North from Port St. Lucie and right smack in the middle of the route between St. Lucie and Orlando, my final destination.
It just made too much sense to check in with the man who took over from John McLaren as Mariners skipper on June 20. Riggleman wound up managing more games than McLaren, compiling a 36-54 record (.400 win percentage), compared to McLaren’s 25-47 (.347).
I’ve always found Riggleman to be very thoughtful and cogent in talking about baseball issues, Not to mention frank. And I thought he had a great take on the faction within the team that had issues with Ichiro.. And, yes, he didn’t shy away from admitting that it was an issue, although he did say at one point he thought it was being overblown.
I’ll let you judge for yourself. Here are his comments, unedited, with transitions where needed for context. I started (in the midst of a much longer, wide-ranging interview I’ll summarize later) by asking him to address the implication from J.J. Putz and others that there was dissatisfaction with Ichiro:
“It’s a tough issue. I never would have thought going in…how could that be? But it’s very hard to really identify what the problem is. Some people say it’s jealousy. I really don’t think players are jealous. What are you jealous of? Everybody is making big money, everyone is having nice careers. There’s superstars, and there’s stars, and there’s regulars, and there’s bench players, and there’s journeymen. Everyone kind of gravitates to their level.
“I experienced it, and I still don’t have a total feel of why there was a group on the club that just wasn’t going to warm up to him. He is a guy that’s going to do his thing…but the things that are regimented by the team, he’s always there. It’s just that he does a lot of things on his own. It’s extra work, it’s his preparation. He’s by himself when he does all that. He doesn’t really say a lot to the other players. I think it’s a style of play. I think people feel he’s not playing the game the way we play it here in America. He’s not bunting enough early, he’s not running as much as we’d like or whatever. They look at it as he’s being selfish, and I don’t know that’s what it is.
“I think one of the main thing is, his numbers are so good, but the team is not getting to the level we want it. So he’s going to be the lightning rod for criticism. But if we had that one more offensive player, he would be recognized the way Jimmy Rollins is. If he was playing for Philadelphia as a leadoff hitter, with Philadelphia’s lineup last year, he would be a perfect fit. In the Cubs lineup last year, he would be a perfect fit. In our lineup, his 200 hits were not really the solution to the problems in our lineup. So I think a lot of people wanted him to hit more doubles and triples, maybe get 190 hits instead of 210 hits, but maybe 15 more doubles and 20 more RBIs.
“His game is outstanding if you add to the club. So I think other players, when he hit a single and would get stranded on base, would say, ‘What the hell? You got a single and it didn’t do us any good.’ But at his age, and playing the game as long as he has, he’s probably not going to change the way he plays. That’s why I felt we needed to add another player to the lineup. I think then Ichiro would not be criticized as much.
(I mentioned at that point that he wasn’t criticized in 2001, when the Mariners had a more potent lineup and won 116 games). “That’s right. And I talked to Ichiro about it. Ichiro brought that up. I said, ‘Ich, we don’t have that team here. We don’t have Buhner and Griffey and Boone. You need to be Boone.’ I told him, if we can add another offensive player next year, your style of play is going to be what gets us to the promised land. But if we don’t, you may have to sacrifice some of your base hits and go for a little more juice. He was, ‘You’re the manager. If that’s what you want….”
(I asked him how he dealt with the issue): “It was overblown a little bit. It wasn’t as bad as people say. I got some of the guys I felt were critical in my office. I said, ‘You know what? You’re accusing a man of being selfish. Sit down and have a cup of coffee with him. Talk to him. Don’t say it to a writer.Talk to him man-to-man, express yourself to him over a cup of coffee. It’s not about taking a swing at somebody, or griping to writers. If you think he’s selfish…he’s not in here saying to me you’re selfish, but you’re not even watching the game when you’re not pitching. He could come in here and say you’re selfish.’
“I just pointed out to them, we all have our deficiencies here. Let’s each take care of our own spots, and the whole thing can come together.
“There was some divisiveness. I felt a lot of the things we were doing, guys were starting to get on board a little bit. We were making some progess. I think it would have been better in ’09.”
(I asked him if he thinks the team is going to co-exist better this year): “I think everyone is going to take a deep breath over the winter. I think everyone probably went home and said, ‘You know what, I need to get past that. I need to do my job.’ Silva, I see he came in 30 pounds lighter. He must have gone home and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to stop bitching about Ichiro and get my ass in gear here.’ Bedard’s going to be healthy. I think guys will say, ‘You know what? Enough of that stuff.’
(Because of that last comment, I followed up by asking him about Silva’s role in all this): “I think Silva was so disappointed in his own performance, he was frustrated. I think he just said some things to the writers, now I have to deal with. If Silva says it, you guys are going to come to me and say, there’s a problem out there. And I have to go to Silva and say, ‘Don’t do that. ‘
I had empathy for Silva. He was having a rough time, he kept taking the ball, he did everything he could. But he needed to lose weight. He went home and did it. Now the club should reap the benefits of it in ’09.”
There’s a lot there to soak in — and I’ll provide more food for thought later.
(Seattle Times photo by Mark Harrison)