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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

November 19, 2012 at 12:37 AM

Three former Mariners managers linked to Blue Jays dugout vacancy

groverichiro.jpg

(Mike Hargrove talks to Ichiro during batting practice in Cleveland in late August of 2007 — about eight weeks after he resigned as Mariners manager. Photo by Associated Press).

The Toronto Blue Jays, who have made considerable news in recent days via their blockbuster trade with the Marlins, as well as signing free agent Melky Cabrera, have one more order of business.

They need to name a manager, which should happen this week, perhaps even early this week. The job has been vacant since John Farrell, their manager the past two seasons, left to take the Boston job on Oct. 21. I can’t help but wonder if he’s had second thoughts now that the Blue Jays seem to be loading up for a run at the AL East title, while the Red Sox are, for now, a mess. But that’s neither hear nor there.

What’s struck my eye is the reported list of Blue Jays managerial candidates. It looks remarkably similar to the timeline of recent Mariners managers in the post-Piniella era (minus, of course, Piniella’s immediate successor, Bob Melvin, who isn’t going anywhere after being named American League Manager of the Year last week for the remarkable job he did in leading the A’s into postseason play. It’s the second Manager of the Year award for Melvin since the Mariners fired him after two seasons. But that’s neither here nor there).

Don Wakamatsu’s name, naturally, has been tied to the Blue Jays’ opening, considering that he was Farrell’s bench coach the past two years. Wakamatsu fulfills one of the reported requirements of Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos, which is prior major-league managerial experience (something Farrell didn’t have, and teams invariably look for the opposite of the guy they’re replacing). Wakamatsu interviewed for the job the last time it was open, didn’t get it, but so impressed the Jays they offered him the bench coach job. By all accounts, he’s getting strong consideration this time around.

The name Jim Tracy, who has flamed out in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and, most recently, Colorado, has surfaced, as well as Manny Acta, recently fired by Cleveland after a stint with the Nationals . But that’s neither here nor there. Because this post is about former Mariners managers, and I was surprised to read a report by ESPN’s Buster Olney on Saturday that one of the Blue Jays finalists is none other than Jim Riggleman. Riggleman, you’ll remember, finished the 2008 season as Seattle’s interim manager after John McLaren was fired, and went 36-54 over the final 80 games. He wanted the job full-time but didn’t even get an interview from new GM Jack Zduriencik (Wakamatsu got the job instead), and moved onto the Washington Nationals as Acta’s bench coach. When Acta was fired midway through the 2009 season, Riggleman took over as interim manager, and got the job full-time after the season. He went 69-93 in 2010, but then, shockingly, quit in June of 2011 with the Nationals sitting at 38-37 — did so, in fact, immediately after a win over the Mariners in D.C. that I happened to be covering. It was a contract dispute; Riggleman apparently was upset that the G.M., Mike Rizzo, wasn’t offering him an extension, but that — you guessed it — is neither here nor there. The pertinent point is that most people in baseball thought that Riggleman was pretty much burying his chances of ever managing in the major leagues again — or perhaps anywhere. But Riggleman has re-emerged in Pensacola as the Double-A manager of the Reds (whose minor-league director is former Mariners’ GM Bill Bavasi; small world), and now, apparently, is getting at least a look by the Blue Jays (though Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, on Twitter, reported that Riggleman actually hadn’t been contacted by the Blue Jays, according to his agent. Still, Olney had him out there as a candidate of interest.

That wasn’t nearly as suprising to me, however, as the name that emerged late Sunday evening in the Twittersphere. Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, who is as tuned in to the Blue Jays as anyone out there — he’s the first Canadian honored in Cooperstown with the Spink Award, the top award in baseball writing — tweeted this: “Jays have phoned former Mariners executives and others asking ??? about former Seattle manager Mike Hargrove Next Blue Jays MGR?”

I had honestly come to the conclusion that Hargrove, who is now 63, would never manage again. His last game was on July 1, 2007, that bizarre day when Hargrove announced his resignation in the midst of a seven-game Seattle win streak, racked up win No. 8, and then rode away into the sunset with the Mariners locked in the divisional race, 12 games over .500, and four games out of first. They would fade badly in August under McLaren, who nonetheless was given the job on a permanent basis after the season. Hargrove, meanwhile, told of being unable any longer to summon the commitment needed to manage, though that didn’t stop him from telling me after the season that he would listen if contacted about the just-vacated Yankees managerial job after Joe Torre stepped down. I never could quite reconcile how Hargrove could leave the Mariners in June because of a form of burnout, and yet in October be rejuvenated enough to think about managing the Yankees.

The Yankees didn’t go Hargrove’s direction, nor did the Indians when they had their next vacancy (when they fired current Mariners manager Eric Wedge; like I said, small world), or the one after that (when they fired Acta), even though Hargrove went back to work in the Indians’ front office as an advisor.

There have been all kinds of conspiracy theories about why Hargrove really quit, the most popular being that it was somehow related to an ultimatum by Ichiro. That notion gained some steam when Ichiro signed a contract extension during the All-Star break, barely a week after Hargrove’s resignation. But I called Hargrove when the extension came down and asked him point-blank if there was a link between the two events. He denied it so adamantly that I came away convinced he was telling the truth. Here was his quote:

“It had absolutely nothing to do with me and Ichiro,” he said. “I’ll tell you what: If it came down to that, they would have had to fire me. If it came down to me or Ichiro, I would have said, `OK, fire me.’ I wouldn’t have resigned.”

Hargrove reiterated the reasons he gave at his news conference were accurate.

“I was not forced out,” he said. “It was not `Ichiro or me.’ Not once was that talked about. I can’t make people believe. They’re going to believe what they want. If it comes down to an implied conspiracy or the truth, you know which way people are going to go.”

At his press conference after he resigned, Hargrove had said, “There are no dark, sinister reasons for this decision. This has been my decision.”

Of all Hargrove’s quotes that day, this was the one that struck me as the most poignant: “The highs weren’t high enough, and the lows were too low. That’s about as simple as I can put it.”

This could get no farther than the telephone stage. But if the Blue Jays are truly interested in Hargrove, and he in them, I guess we would find out if he’s ready to once again endure the inevitable highs and lows of managing.

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