As I mentioned earlier, I had a good talk today with Jim Riggleman, (above) the new Nationals’ manager, and John McLaren, his bench coach. McLaren, of course, hired Riggleman to be his Mariners’ bench coach in 2008. When McLaren was fired in June, Riggleman replaced him and finished the 101-loss season as manager.
“I knew Mac was looking to get back in, and I knew he was a good baseball man,” Riggleman said. “I want him with me. I didn’t have anyone else in mind anyway, I knew he wanted to do it, and I knew how much he could help me. I was loyal to him, he’ll be loyal to me.”
McLaren spent last year as a scout for Tampa Bay.
“Tampa Bay loves him, but this is more of what he wants to do,” Riggleman said. “He wants to manage again. You’re a little more visible in the big leagues. If we make progress, he’ll get accolades, and maybe his name will get back in the mix.”
McLaren also used the word loyalty to describe his decision to work under Riggleman.
“It doesn’t feel odd to me. Not at all. Jim worked hard for me, and I’m going to work hard for him. It’s about loyalty. I don’t think the game has loyalty like it used to. I believe in loyalty, and this is a case of being loyal.”
Added McLaren, “I had a most enjoyable year last year, scouting for Tampa Bay. I ended up going to Italy for three weeks in August, running an academy for Major League Baseball. I got to do some things I’ve never done before, like go to the Masters. I had a good time, but I thought it was time for me to get back on the field. That’s where my passion is. When the situation presented itself, Jim’s a good friend of mine, and I liked the direction of the ballclub. I thought it was a good fit.”
Riggleman, who replaced Manny Acta — again on an interim basis — when he was fired last July, admits that it was uncomfortable being hired as bench coach and then ascending to the manager’s job in back-to-back years. He worried that people would “start to not trust you. You go somewhere as a bench coach and end up being a manager. That happens all over baseball, but for two years in a row…somebody could question your motives.
“That was never an issue. The way I explain it, I say look, when I was coach in Cleveland, Seattle, Washington, I have no idea where the front offices are, I don’t know how to get there, I don’t talk to any of those people. I just do what I do. I had no designs. I look at it like there’s 29 other clubs. I’d like to get my name in the hat for those positions if someone retires. Not if someone gets fired, because I don’t wish that on anybody. But if someone decides they want to get out, they’re getting toward the end, and talking about going one or two more years, I’d like to get my name in the hat at those places. But not at the place you’re at.”
Riggleman said that he very much wanted a chance at the permanent job in Seattle in 2009, but Jack Zduriencik decided to go in a different direction. Riggleman didn’t get an interview, and the M’s, of course, hired Don Wakamatsu. This past November, after Riggleman guided the Nationals to a strong finish, they took the interim tag off his title and gave him the job on a permanent basis. This will be the first season since 1999 with the Cubs he has left spring training as a major-league manager.
“The Seattle situation allowed me to manage games and deal with everything that goes on in games,” Riggleman said. “That was positive. I didn’t like the way it ended. I really wanted to go back.
“The way I explain it to people, last year, when this ended, I didn’t know if I was coming back. If I hadn’t been asked to come back, I would have been OK with it. I felt like, you know what, we did everything we could do. The energy was good, the players responded, I felt like we really accomplished everything we could do. I have no regrets.
“But I have regrets about Seattle. I really wanted to go back, because I wanted to get it right. There were some relationships I didn’t end on a good note with. Some players didn’t really get to know who I am. Maybe I came off as a hard ass. I’m not that tough to get along with, but I think it came across that way because I was trying to change some things. It just wasn’t received as well as I liked. So I wanted to go back and get it right. You hate to leave something when you feel you didn’t get the job done the way you feel you’re capable of doing.”
I asked him what relationships he was talking about.
“I think I wasn’t able to reach the starting pitchers the way I would have liked,” he said. “It’s funny. It’s hard to explain. I never had a situation anywhere I managed … I had a pitcher or two, or player or two, but never a situation where I felt the pitchers just weren’t on board with me. As a manager, I feel terrible I wasn’t able to reach them. That bothers me. That’s me. That’s not them. I wasn’t able to reach them. I didn’t feel that here. I did something wrong there. Maybe I went over the edge or something, who knows, but I did something to irritate those pitchers. I felt it. They felt it. I wanted to get back there and get it right.”
Riggleman said a big area of contention was what he termed “coming out of the game issues — when I take you out of the game. They weren’t on board with me on some of those decisions, a lot of those decisions. Taking them out early is generally what it is. They want to stay in the game, and I want them to want to stay in the game. It’s hard to put it into words, but it was almost like they didn’t trust me, and that’s a bad feeling. I’ve never felt that anywhere that I’ve been. I hope I don’t feel it again, because your starting pitchers are your most important thing. As a manager, if you feel like you’ve lost that connection…as bad as that season was, I didn’t want it to end. I felt, I’m going to get it right. I’m going to reach these guys. I felt I had to find a different way to reach them, and I was hoping to do it the next season. New start, mend some fences. But it didn’t happen.”
Speaking of which, Riggleman had a positive take on Erik Bedard. “Everyone was saying, why is he coming out after five innings, why is he throwing only 95 pitches, he’s supposed to be the ace. But as soon as I heard how much he was hurting, I said, I can’t believe he pitched at all. The trauma his arm has gone through with these operations is indication how serious it was, and how much he was pitching in pain. I think he wasn’t able to get that message to the writers, because he wouldn’t talk to you. He didn’t say it to the trainers, because it’s old-school baseball; you just battle through it. That happens to a lot of guys. They try to battle through it and it gets worse. I admired him for that.”
Riggleman lauded the Mariners for their turnaround last season.
“There’s enough talent there it was going to get better. You make the additions they made helps it get better. I understand Griffey and Sweeney were a big part of that. So it was going to get better. To get that much better, they did an extraordinary job. Don and Jack did a great job putting that together and then running with it. When something is going bad, it’s hard to turn around, and when it’s going good, you’re hard to beat. They had some positive momentum going there, and they’re building on it again this winter. They had a great winter. It’s got a chance to be a real good situation.”
Riggleman noticed that Ichiro was a happy camper last year after being the center of some teammate discontent in 2008.
“Again, I think Griffey and Sweeney being there really helped. I think a lot of the stuff that took place there took place before I got there. He was there a long time before I was, and I was only there one year. I enjoyed managing him – he’s a great player, and his accomplishments speak for themselves. I don’t know why it was the way it was, and maybe it wasn’t going to improve until some different personnel got in there. It might have been a combination of his response to Don Wakamatsu, his response to Griffey, to Sweeney — maybe that helped some of the other people that had animosity get on board and go in the other direction. It’s good that it happened. You hate to have a situation where there’s tension in the air. It built up for a long time. It wasn’t going to be alleviated that quickly. It took the whole next offseason and new faces coming in.”
McLaren lives in Peoria, Ariz., where the Mariners train. That was tough as he nursed the pain of being fired from what he felt was his dream job.
“It was trying, it was emotional. I guess it’s my Greek heritage – I’ve always been an emotional person, a passionate person,” he said. “I care about people. I’m not ashamed of that one bit.”
McLaren told how one night last spring, he and his wife were out to dinner when Wakamatsu walked into the restaurant with some media members.
“I told my wife, I think it would be best for everyone if I just slide out of here. It was uncomfortable for him, uncomfortable for me. I just slid out the door.”
McLaren added, “I consider Wak a good friend. I pull for him, I pull for the organization. I was treated well there. I don’t want to go into specifics. You know what? Things are going great for them. No one cares, anyway. I just want the fans to know I appreciated their support. I’ll always consider Seattle home.
“I’ve obviously had a lot of time to think about it. There’s obviously a couple of things I’d do different. It doesn’t matter what it is. We got in a situation where we got behind the eight ball and could never get through it. There’s great people that work for the organization. They’re dear friends. Lee Pelekoudas is still a close friend of mine, and I care about him. I hope he lands on his feet and does well.”
Pelekoudas, after taking over from Bill Bavasi as interim GM, is the one who fired McLaren. He stayed on as Zduriencik’s assistant but resigned late last season.
“It was unfortunate situation,” McLaren said. “I was thinking this job was going to last a long time, and it didn’t. I do value and appreciate the time I did have there. All the hard work, it paid off for a short period of time. It’s a chapter I’ve closed and moved on, they’ve moved on. They’ve done some great things.
” I tried everything. I did. It just didn’t work out. I feel real comfortable with my life. It was a proud moment to manage the Seattle Mariners. Although it was only for a year, it’s something I’ll always cherish.”