Touching Base with Jim Riggleman
The manager of the Nationals talks about growing up in Rockville, his own ups and downs in the game—and what the future holds for the Washington baseball team.
Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman is a homeboy. He grew up in a modest Rockville subdivision and graduated in 1971 from Richard Montgomery High School. When he wasn’t playing baseball or basketball, both of which he lettered in, he hung out at the Hot Shoppes on Rockville Pike.
Riggleman went away to Frostburg State College (now university) in western Maryland, and then spent several years playing and coaching in the minors. But he came home in the offseason. And at 58, he still considers Rockville home base, even though his father is deceased and his mother now lives in Frederick. In January, Riggleman was the breakfast speaker for Bethesda Cares, a nonprofit agency that helps the homeless. He also has helped raise money for the Rockville Express, a community team that is part of the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League.
Riggleman managed the San Diego Padres, the Chicago Cubs and the Seattle Mariners before replacing the Nationals’ Manny Acta mid-season in 2009. He moved from bench coach that July to interim manager and then to full manager in 2010. There were high hopes Riggleman would turn around the team, which has failed to have a winning season since its 2005 move from Montreal to Washington. That turnaround hasn’t happened—yet—but he’s cautiously optimistic about this year.
The Nats’ manager is currently single and has a 27-year-old son, John, who works for a marketing company in St. Petersburg, Fla. Riggleman lived in Columbia last season, but wasn’t sure where he would be living this year. As spring training approached, he spoke with us from Madeira Beach, Fla., his offseason home for the past 29 years.
What was it like for you growing up here?
You know what? I don’t know how it could’ve been much better. It was a great community. The Little League programs were all run by volunteers and parents. You had great basketball, football leagues organized for you. There was a lot of emphasis on sports in the county. It was just a wonderful place to grow up.
My real father passed away when he was very young and I was very young. My mother remarried. My stepfather was a surveyor. Mom worked as a hostess and cashier for the Marriotts, at the Hot Shoppes cafeteria on Rockville Pike—it’s now Timpano—and also at the Wheaton Hot Shoppes cafeteria.
The subdivision I grew up in is Silver Rock. It was your basic, suburban, cookie-cutter home, you know. Had a quarter-acre lot, two or three bedrooms, one bath. I had three brothers. The oldest played football at the University of Maryland in the early ’70s, when I played baseball at Frostburg. My younger brother played a little football at Rockville High School. They are all baseball fans.
Were you a Washington Senators fan?
My stepfather was a big baseball fan. On the back porch in Rockville, he had the Senators on one of those little transistor radios everyone had, listening to the games. It was a talking point in our house, what the Senators were doing. I read about them the first thing in the morning in The Washington Post. I’d check what the Senators did last night, then go off and deliver the paper.
The first game I ever went to was at Griffith Stadium. I was 8 years old. I think that’s what really sold me on becoming a professional ballplayer. As you’re coming up those ramps, getting closer, all of a sudden you see all those uniforms, the green field, all that grass. It really struck me, the beauty of it. Wow, what a sight to behold.
Every now and then there’s a certain aroma or certain noise, something that brings you back in time. I’ll be going into a ballpark after being dropped off by a cab and get that first glimpse of the infield—and just the beauty of it does bring back memories. But for the most part, I’ve been in stadiums so many times—it’s pretty much in and out of there—those moments are few and far between.
What was school like for you?
I wasn’t that good of a student. I really became a better student in college. I really feel our teachers and counselors at Richard Montgomery did a great job. They geared me toward classes where I could have some success. I got a little more confidence, took a little more pride in my grades and carried that on into college. I knew I wasn’t the greatest academically, so I’d better bear down in college, not come home because I failed out. I worked pretty hard at it.
It was kind of expected I would go on to college. I didn’t really have great interest in any one particular thing. But I could kind of foresee myself back in those days as a coach/physical education teacher kind of thing. In those times, Frostburg and Towson were geared toward getting a teaching degree. As I got into junior, senior year of high school, I was kind of hearing that Frostburg had a pretty good baseball program. I applied, and immediately started playing ball there.
I certainly wanted to be a major league baseball player. But if you go to college, you’ve got to major in something. So I chose [physical education]. You had to have something to fall back on. The longer I was at Frostburg, the more apparent it became that there was an opportunity to play professionally.
You had a long playing career in the minors, but never made it to the majors as a player. Was that a big disappointment?
Yeah, definitely it was a disappointment. When you sign that first professional contract to play and they send you off to the minors, you don’t dream of being a coach and/or manager, you dream of being a player. I gave it seven years. [But] it became apparent I was kind of spinning my wheels. I’d had pretty good years, playing at the highest levels of the minor leagues, but I was not getting calls from the majors.
I loved playing in the minors: the road life, the bus rides, the give-and-take with teammates, razzing each other, the games themselves. It was a great life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Most of my career I played third base. As far as visiting cities, I enjoyed Reading, San Antonio, Tulsa, Indianapolis. I loved New Orleans. A lot of your time and experience in the minors depends on where you’re going to stay, where’s the hotel located, what are the eating establishments. The ballparks themselves at that time, none was to the standards of minor league parks today. The clubhouses, the locker rooms were really substandard. We didn’t know that then; we just figured that’s the way it was.
During the offseason, I would come home and work various jobs. I worked for a local construction company, I sold shoes in a sporting goods store, refereed basketball games, substitute-taught—everything and anything all over Montgomery County. You have a lesson plan the teacher left, you execute the lesson plan, and you stop the kids from hurting each other. You’re basically keeping the peace. During three offseasons I went and played winter ball in Mexico.
The Cardinals gave me an opportunity to coach or manage and make a career out of it. Choices then were to use my teaching degree or stay in professional baseball and see where that took me. I chose the baseball route. That was certainly a great decision. I have absolutely no regrets.
What have been your best and worst moments in baseball?
One of the greatest was the day in June of 1974 when I was honored to be drafted by the Dodgers and a couple of days later when I signed my first professional contract at my [parents’] house in Rockville.
My greatest moment playing? That was the 1980 season, playing for the Little Rock Travelers, a Double A [farm] team for the St. Louis Cardinals. That whole year was just unbelievably special for me. I had a good year in home runs, RBIs, stolen bases—but it wasn’t about that. We just had an unbelievable passion for the game. We had fun, we won the championship, we really played hard. If you saw the movie Bull Durham, it kind of captured our season in Little Rock. And it was toward the end for me. I was 27; you didn’t play in the minors much older than that. I could see the end creeping up on me, so I was really appreciating every day, knowing it was going to be over soon.
My worst experience was after the 1980 season, knowing it was time for me to stop playing, that I wasn’t going to make it in the big leagues. That was a real down time.
My greatest moment managing? One of my best days was the playoff game in 1998 when I was managing the Chicago Cubs. We were tied with the Giants for the wild card, so we had a one-game playoff for the postseason at Wrigley Field. We won 5-3, and that put us in the playoffs. Then we got swept by the Braves.
As a National, it was the final games of 2009, when we finished with a seven-game winning streak. That was very encouraging.
What is the outlook for the Nationals? Winners or losers?
I think we’re never happy if we’re not playing winning baseball, but you know the direction of the team is very important. The Washington Nationals really started behind the eight ball, with Major League Baseball owning the franchise for a while. There were a lot of obstacles to overcome.
In today’s world with sports, people want results real quick. We do, too. But realistically it’s a process. By showing the patience the Lerners [the owners] have to this point, eventually it will pay dividends. It could be as early as year 2011. Going into ’11 and moving into ’12 and ’13, there’s going to be some great talent coming to [the team]. We’re in a very tough division that has maybe the best pitching in baseball. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to be the best.
We don’t know for sure when [pitcher] Stephen Strasburg will come back. His [elbow] operation was in September, and this is a 12- to 18-month process. You can’t speed that up. Nature will take care of that along with his hard work. We just want to make sure we’ve got him real strong and healthy for the year ’12. Anything that happens before that is icing on the cake.
As for [slugger] Bryce Harper, he’s 18; it’s too early to tell. Some great scouts throughout baseball put that tag on him: “future star,” worthy of being the No. 1 pick in the country, all that stuff. But the competition he’s up against will decide. Two phenomenal guys in our division were [right fielder Jason] Heyward for Atlanta and [outfielder Mike] Stanton for the Marlins. They were 20 and really did a good job. If someone told me that Bryce Harper would do that for us at age 20, I’d take that right now. [Mickey] Mantle got there at 19 back in the day, but anybody who gets there by age 20 has really flown through the system.
Will the team be .500 or better this year?
I never put any numbers on what we might do. I don’t like saying how many games you’re going to win—it seems odd to say it, but you’re conceding you’re going to lose X amount of games. All your competitive juices are flowing, you’re trying to win every day. Whatever number of wins we end up with is who we are. It’s my job and the staff’s to maximize that.
People are paying to come to these games, tuning in, taking time out of their day. You owe it to them to give your best effort. We probably played as many one-run games [last season] as anyone in baseball. Maybe we won, maybe we didn’t, but we put pressure on other clubs. When [they] left town after a three-game series, they knew they were in a battle, that the Nationals were coming after them.
Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor at the magazine and lives in Silver Spring