A classic American film has a scene that sums up Washington Nationals' manager Jim Riggleman's current predicament with the team.
Happy day-after Memorial Day, Washington Nationals fans. Yesterday, America sat back, grabbed a few brews, lit up the grill, turned on the Indianapolis 500 and honored those U.S. Service members who died while in military service to the country. It was a beautiful day, and the Kinback Family Memorial Day was spent at the water park, grilling some killer steaks and partaking in the most sacred of Memorial Day traditions: watching that great cinematic masterpiece of Road House starring Patrick Swayze.
The lion-hearted tale of a man who is hired to tame a slaughterhouse of a bar and turn it into some 80's discotech out in the middle of nowhere while kung-fu fighting off the evil, corrupt forces of the Jasper, Missouri aristocracy is one for the ages and one of those myths you can apply to most things in your everyday life. The Nationals are no different. If you find this a strange way to start a column on Nationals baseball, bare with me. I'll get there.
One of my favorite movie lines of all time come from this film. It's delivered by the character named Tinker, the fat, CAT-hat-wearing thug with red suspenders that uses one of the last lines of the film to finally reach immortality. He said, "A polar bear fell on me." To avoid spoiling the movie for those who have not experienced the greatness of Roadhouse, I won't spoil the context in which he said the line, because there is no context to spoil. A polar bear really did fall on him. Sitting there on the couch with the kids at my knee and my arm around my wife, I just had to laugh at such a ridiculous line. "A polar bear fell on me." How many people can actually claim this?
I thought it about awhile and could think of two people: The Big Tink and Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. The image of a polar bear falling on someone is in itself in insane, but the idea that a man has worked his whole life at something and the pinnacle of his life's work is to have a polar bear fall on him? Cosmic comedy.
Jim Riggleman's managing career has followed a similar path. He spent years developing himself into a baseball machine in hopes of one day reaching the top of the sport. He started in 1974 as a player being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers. His playing career peaked in 1977 with the Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. He got his first managing job in 1983 and his first Major League managing beat with the San Diego Padres in 1992. He was the manager of the Chicago Cubs in 1995, the Seattle Mariners in 2008 and took over the Washington Nationals' job in 2009. As it stands now, it looks like 2011 will be the time when the polar bear will finally fall on him and probably end his time in Washington.
Would it be so hard to believe? It is still only May, but already the Nationals season has begun to spin out of control. Players are frustrated and speaking out with cryptic messages that point fingers. His designing of a lineup is questionable, his handling of pitchers and bullpens is confusing, his double switches are annoying and his constant insistence that this team is better than this is aggravating. His contract is up at the end of the season, with the team allowed to pick it up for another season, but they have made no movement to do so as of yet. From 2009 to 2010, the team improved by 10 games, but is this enough to retain a manager who has failed at inspiring and guiding his team?
It would not all be his fault. This is where the polar bear comes in. Imagine getting hired to do a job as a plumber, and told instead of using a wrench to unscrew the pipes, you had to use potpourri-colored rooster kitchen mits. You wouldn't have the proper tools for success and you'd look absurd doing it. That exactly describes Jim Riggleman with the Nationals right now. General Manager Mike Rizzo and the front office have not supplied Riggleman with adequate players, and Riggleman can't be blamed for that. You got to work with what you got, even if that means Matt Stairs. Look out, Riggleman! Polar Bear!
An argument some make is it theoretically takes two to three years for a manager's style and plan to gel and stick on an organization, and Riggleman's methods haven't really firmed up. It is bad to switch managers because of the young guys? Rick Ankiel, Alex Cora, Jerry Hairston Jr., Doug Slaten, Adam LaRoche? Stairs? To only name a few, but do these sound like guys going to be around for a whole lot longer? A new manager has more than enough time to make his own imprint, with important and improved tools in guys like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, before this team is even ready to contend.
I feel bad for Riggleman, I really do. He is a good man and he wasn't the one who set up the team as it is. But when frustration builds, the team sinks into the hole and the polar bears come down, unfortunately it is the manager who usually feels the pain