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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

September 9, 2008 at 10:17 AM

Riggleman’s uphill road

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Some of you wrote in yesterday to ask me about this Rick Freeman column from New Jersey on the state of Mariners manager Jim Riggleman and the clubhouse he’s trying to navigate.
Let me just say, right off the bat, that it was always going to be a longshot for Riggleman to keep his job in Seattle. A new general manager usually wants his (or her, potentially in this case) manager to be a hand-picked person they can work with. The last time I covered a situation where that was not the case, it didn’t work out well. Buck Martinez had managed the Toronto Blue Jays for one season in 2001 when ownership decided to blow the whole thing up and go on a rebuilding kick. The Jays hired J.P. Ricciardi as GM that November and he declared that he could work with Martinez — who had been a highly popular player and was the personal choice of team president Paul Godfrey as manager. Since the president wanted Martinez to stay, novice GM Ricciardi agreed to keep him around. But Ricciard hired Martinez’s eventual successor, Carlos Tosca, as a coach that winter. Come the 2002 season, Martinez — having clashed with a meddlesome Ricciardi all spring — was gone by the end of May after the team, in full-fledged rebuilding mode, got off to a predictably poor start.
No sense doing that here. The Mariners are still spending a lot of money and will keep payroll up near the $100 million range — unless something radically changes — in 2009, free-agents or not. That’s too much cash to set things back any further by keeping Riggleman around if he’s only going to get fired within the next 12 months. Each new manager change can set a team back at least a year, because it often means rearranging the rest of the staff and getting players used to an entirely new approach. There has been too little continuity in this team’s ranks already. The new GM has to be fully on-board with whoever is running the team. And the best way to do that is to let the GM pick the manager. In that scenario, it would be one heck of a coincidence if Riggleman just so happened to be the incoming GM’s top choice.
All that said, the best Riggleman could have hoped for this year was to get his name out there as a candidate for a future managerial job someplace else and maybe, if all the stars were aligned somehow, hold on to the job here. But the task facing him in Seattle was always going to be an uphill climb.
Is the clubhouse now worse under Riggleman than it was under John McLaren?
It depends how you define worse. The players liked McLaren. They put up with Riggleman.


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In the end, the ultimate goal is to win ballgames. The team is doing a slightly better job of that under Riggleman this season, but then again, the games don’t mean anything in the standings, so how do you really judge?
For me, the notion of the clubhouse being worse is a bit hard to swallow. There have been so many younger players infused into its dynamic that it can’t help but become a more upbeat, competitive place. You have young players getting a taste of the game for the first time, who have little choice but to run through walls if they want to stick in the bigs. So, from that perspective, you would expect it to automatically become a better place.
So, technically, no. I don’t think the clubhouse could possibly be worse than it was earlier this season.
But does that really matter? Has there been enough of a difference moving forward? I don’t think so.
You don’t establish a winning culture by prevailing in, or staying close in, meaningless games once your team is 30 games out of first place. It’s a start, no doubt. But this season was lost in May. The only way it would really make a difference is if we later see the M’s carry this over next April. Are they going to beat the Yankees when it matters? Or get hammered when they go to New York and lose six straight?
I don’t think anything that’s happened lately is going to change much come next year. This team is about to be reshaped. The lineups now being trotted out likely won’t be the same come next year. Until we know who’s going to be on this team and who won’t, talk of a new “winning culture” is premature. But at least the players are now seeing some consequences for failing to execute. Maybe not enough, in some cases, but at least some. That’s a start.
Back to Riggleman for a moment. Obviously, he’s the reason there have been some consequences. He was put in the manager’s chair to be the tougher guy than John McLaren was. McLaren was trying to navigate a clubhouse minefield a year ago at this time and made some decisions that later came back to haunt him. He made sure he had his players’ backs and defended them to the hilt. He played veterans over rookie Adam Jones and outwardly stood behind Richie Sexson, even as the latter was bringing that stance crashing down in a smouldering heap.
McLaren’s reward for that support was to see his players abandon him when it mattered most. The players on this team played their worst baseball and failed to execute on offense and defense in 2008 at a time when McLaren desperately needed that to happen to save his job. The players liked McLaren. Some of them loved the guy. And why wouldn’t they? He was their daily apologist. One of the only people in the organization showing any signs of true, daily accountability in April and May. When the M’s lost, he was out there blaming himself and answering for it. He didn’t hold a gun to the heads of the hitters who weren’t hitting and pressure them into taking early BP. Heck, on many Sundays, he didn’t hold any BP at all, allowing players to get extra rest at the team hotel and take the late bus in to the ballpark on road trips.
There was no extra pre-game fielding practice with McLaren the way there now is with Riggleman. It didn’t matter how many balls the Mariners booted around during games. McLaren’s approach was that he was going to get more with honey than with vineagar. That the kinder love to his players was ultimately going to win out over tough love. And while that now seems foolish, it’s worth remembering that life often works out that way. The folks who succeed in this world, who thrive and advance through promotions, are often the ones who make others feel good about themselves. Not the ones who are brutally honest, tell people what they need to hear and don’t know how to have fun unless the task at hand has been completed.
In this case, though, the Mariners never got better and McLaren lost his job.
Enter Riggleman, who, in baseball tradition of alternating between “nice guy” and “tough guy” managers with each change, got to be the designated tough guy.
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I’ve seen Jim Fregosi play the tough guy firsthand as a manager and I can tell you that Riggleman is not quite the same. He’s a much softer spoken individual. Doesn’t have the bravado as a very good former player working for him. Fregosi could always look his players in the eye and make them feel like they knew nothing because he had been a better player than 99 percent of them. Riggleman doesn’t have that going for him. But he carries a stick nevertheless. It was apparent the moment he introduced early fielding practice to the team on a daily basis back in late June. Party time was over. The kinder love didn’t work and it was now tough love time.
The problem is, in Fregosi’s case, he got to practice his tough love with a new two-year contract under his belt when he came on in emergency fashion to manage the Blue Jays in March 1999 after the firing of Tim Johnson. Riggleman has no such contract. He’s a lame duck. And in the eyes of players, lame ducks can get even lamer as they grow tougher and their job becomes less secure.
Riggleman has had to make some tough choices and punish players as his tenure has progressed.
He made an example of Richie Sexson when the latter did not take well to an early July benching in Oakland.
That move, and the way Riggleman made sure the public knew why Sexson had been dispatched, did not initially go over well in the clubhouse, where Sexson was popular amongst a large segment of players. But most players also knew Sexson needed a fresh start and likely would not have held that one against the manager on a permanent basis.
But then, as the season wore on, came the benching of Jose Lopez for a missed play in the field. Riggleman had just lectured his players about having to stay mentally focused and had been put in a tough spot. Namely by Carlos Silva, who just days earlier had gone off in public saying that not everyone on the team was playing and executing as hard as they could. That some guys were just out to pad their stats regardless of what the team needed in a specific instance, like moving runners over. And the context of the Lopez benching — when Riggleman pulled him midgame in humiliating fashion — came on the heels of a string of terrible play by Yuniesky Betancourt. In Riggleman’s defense, he had just finished benching Betancourt as well, though he did not go out of his way in public to make sure the whole world knew why. And in the greater scheme, Betancourt’s all-round play had been terrible all year compared to the occasional defensive brain cramp by Lopez.
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There are also players on this team who feel Ichiro has not been producing the same defensively the way he did in previous years. They know that Ichiro had a hamstring problem back in June, which kept him from participating in the All-Star-Game’s home run derby, yet still see him out in the field every day. For these players, their concerns boil down to: if Ichiro is hurt, why is he still playing? Or, if he’s OK, why is he not getting to some balls the way he once was? They know Ichiro is still hitting .300. But they see a serious drop in stolen bases and in an ability to chase down balls into the gaps and the right field corner.
Right or wrong, that’s been the perception for some players. And yet, they see Lopez — the team’s biggest (or at least, most consistent) power contributor outside Raul Ibanez most of the season — benched for messing up one defensive play while Ichiro stays in there daily and Betancourt keeps on playing despite botching a week’s worth of balls over a few days. (Betancourt has played better lately, but we’re not talking about that right now).
I’ve weighed in on Ichiro before. I feel he should be allowed to stay in there, as long as he isn’t risking long-term health, to try to reach a 200-hit milestone that’s important to him and historic in a baseball context. Cal Ripken was given similar leeway to keep his consecutive games played streak alive in Baltimore during his latter years. And Ichiro is one of the best players on this team. He works very hard at his craft outside of the games and isn’t part of the crossword puzzle or movie-watching crew. But there is a perception amongst some players that his defense has diminished and that the team would be better served if he gets back to the way he once was.
One of Riggleman’s bigger miscalculations might have been his chewing out of Sean Green live on television as cameras rolled.
Green was one of the few success stories for this team as he was being overused in the first half. And then, after Riggleman admittedly sat him too long to start the second half, his season promptly began slipping down the tubes. Players can tolerate managers admitting mistakes. But they’ll have a hard time swallowing it when the manager embarrasses one of their own in public for something that really isn’t the player’s fault.
Again, Riggleman was in a tough spot since Green appeared to be frustrated with him on the mound. If you’re going to be a tough guy manager, you can’t take guff from players or play favorites. In this case, though, Riggleman might have overreacted to a little frustration from Green. At least, that’s the way some players are perceiving it. They’ve seen Green — as expected — keep his mouth shut and persuasively tow the party line as his season goes progressively downhill. I stood next to one player that night and saw him roll his eyes and shake his head as he watched a TV replay of Riggleman lecturing Green.
If you’re going to be a tough guy manager, you can’t have players rolling their eyes at your antics behind your back.
To conclude, I’ll say that Riggleman was put into a near impossible spot with this team. His job is to hold players accountable when they had not been forced to be accountable before. And he’s made an effort to do that, with both popular and unpopular players. But in some cases, he’s probably gone too far in making his point. Where McLaren was winning players over last year, the players this year don’t know quite what to make of their field boss. Will it matter in the end? It might, it might not. It didn’t matter for McLaren that he won over a group of individuals who couldn’t win for him.
But to pull off what Riggleman is attempting, it helps to have a job that’s secure beyond the next three weeks. That way, players know the guidelines being established aren’t going to change again in the short-term. They know they are taking orders from someone who has the full confidence of upper management. And also, that the person they are breaking their back for on the field is going to have a say in their tenure with the team come 2009.
For obvious reasons, Riggleman can’t be given that job security this season. And thus, for obvious reasons, he was never going to be able to completely succeed at his job. Writing all that in a column as Freeman has done makes for interesting headlines. But it isn’t telling anyone anything new. The Mariners need to establish some continuity in their managerial ranks and coaching staff. And they need to do it as quickly as they possibly can.
ADDITIONAL NOTES (11:31 a.m.): For Lance, yes, there are other examples of new GMs coming in from outside an organization and having relatively short leashes with inexperienced managers they inherit. Bill Bavasi gave Bob Melvin the axe after trying to work with him for one year in 2004. That call worked out real well, didn’t it?
I’m sorry if some of you don’t want me relaying past experiences I’ve seen firsthand covering the Blue Jays. You’ll have to suffer through it. The game of baseball wasn’t invented in Seattle and there are plenty of things that have gone on for decades in other cities and with other teams that have a direct and sometimes indirect bearing on what is taking place with the Mariners. If you want to keep pretending that everything that happens with the M’s is a world’s first, then you’re free to keep doing it. But I will continue to bring you perspectives I’ve gained by working in two cities and two countries and try to tell you stuff you may or may not already know. If you don’t like it, ignore it and continue on believing what you’re going to believe.

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