When my inaugural season ended, I knew the perfect gift for my first major league manager, Jim Riggleman. He had spoken almost obsessively about how a manager is the captain of a ship. That he leads by putting himself at the front of the vessel, and how he's willing to risk everything for loyalty.
So as a gift for my skipper, I asked my artistic Uncle Viv to paint a picture, one that morphed the historic image of George Washington crossing the Delaware into one of a fearless manager leading his Cubs players into an uncertain future. I thought the final product told the complete story of Jim Riggleman.
That story for me began in my rookie year as a midseason call-up. I wasn't slated to walk in and take anyone's job. The Cubs had Brian McRae holding down center field, and he was on his way to a multiyear contract. Since I wasn't a power hitter, I would never be able to lay full claim on a corner outfield position without naysayers talking about how I didn't hit enough home runs.
So I was stuck. I would get sporadic starts and eventually get sent down to Triple-A. But along the way I learned how Riggleman ran his team. He was always positive, only having harsh words when he didn't like the effort. Sometimes this approach didn't click with veteran old-school players who thought it was not hard-core enough, but he seemed to do well with developing players, getting them to achieve their potential.
Riggleman had a trusted right-hand man in Dan Radison, aka "Rad Dog." Rad Dog was the first-base coach my first year. By my second year, he became the team's third-base coach. Radison seemed to be a part of Riggleman's staff more because he was a loyal friend who had supported Riggleman through thick and thin during their history together. The fact that he had a lot of baseball experience was secondary to "Riggs."
Rad Dog was someone Riggleman knew would give him an honest take, even if he disagreed. He'd get nothing but straight talk from Radison. They worked out together, they came early to the park together, and they covered all kinds of things in conversation. It was like Riggleman surrounded himself with his best friends, because he saw the most important traits of a staff as their loyalty and dependability first, and their expertise on baseball second.
It wasn't until my first full season in 1997 that I attained a deeper understanding of Jim Riggleman. The Cubs were struggling and McRae was also having a tough season. I began the year as the platoon left fielder against left-handed pitchers. To top it off, we started the year 0-14, and during that run Chicago radio personality Dave Kaplan vowed to eat, sleep and shower at McDonald's until the team won. He was stuck there for nine days. But Riggleman was gracious throughout -- he even went over to check in on Kaplan.
Meanwhile, my platoon partners had the difficult assignment of trying to hit against the Marlins and the Braves that year, when those two rotations were full of Cy Young-capable starting pitching. Pitchers like Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Alex Fernandez, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, etc. Our young outfield got its head handed to it, first with Brant Brown, then with Brooks Kieschnick, and so on. It was probably a blessing in disguise that I only saw Leiter, someone who I ended up hitting well against for my entire career. The Cubs tried everyone under the sun, yet quietly I was hitting .300 all along. They seemed set on a scouting report that said I couldn't hit right-handed pitching, but Riggleman started to get frustrated that he had to play who he was supposed to play and where they were supposed to play.
So he would pull me aside every couple of weeks and say to me, "Hey, you're doing a good job, you will be an everyday center fielder one day, just keep doing what you are doing." As a young player, that really helped me stay focused on the prize of playing every day. No matter what may have been dictated to him from the powers that be, he made sure he told you what he thought when he really believed you had something more to add.
Before the trade deadline, there were rumors that McRae was about to be traded. We lost our hitting coach, Tony Muser, to a managerial job in Kansas City, so we were just waiting to see what would be next. McRae was ultimately traded, but they brought in another center fielder, the Mets' Lance Johnson, so I would still have to make do by playing in left field. By then, left field was my job to lose and Riggleman made sure he said to me, "You are the best defensive outfielder in this organization, for now, with this move, you can most help us by continuing to do what you have done in left field, your time will come."
He certainly didn't have to tell me anything at all. I have played for managers that would just do what they had to do and not say a word, or they would endorse every decision that came from above. But when Riggleman had your back, he had your back. He felt obligated to let you know that he believed that you had more to offer than the role you were in. Then he would quietly and steadily fight for you, while talking to you directly.
As the news unfolded about Jim Riggleman walking away from his post as Nationals manager, I knew it had to be bad. This was not a rash act. There must have been a long fuse attached to his decision that burned from a frustrating lack of communication. Loyalty is big with Riggleman. He will keep quiet, pay his dues, move the ship forward, but he also wants to be able to lead his team by getting the same loyalty in return. He wants to know that when he docks the ship on the other side of the river, his boss will keep his word.
When I finished up that 1997 season, I was hitting well over .300 going into September. Riggleman was running me out there every day. Then the Cubs called up everyone and their dog when rosters expanded. There were so many guys that they couldn't fit all of them into the home dugout. I went back to being a platoon player, and that annoyed Riggleman. In me, he had a young player doing all the little things he'd asked for, a player who was hitting over .300, yet the Cubs were uncertain about my future, so I lost my everyday job to their efforts to explore other options.
I ended up having a slow September, and by the last game of the season I was hitting exactly .300. Riggleman did not want me to fall below .300 after the year I'd had, so he told me, "I am going to give you one at-bat against the Cardinals; if you get a hit, you will play the rest of the game, if you don't, I will take you out so that you could hit .300." He had done the math, and it was extremely important to him that I keep that magic number -- .300.
Years after I was long traded by the Cubs to Philadelphia, I would see Riggleman working throughout baseball, and I always rooted for him. Every time he saw me, he would say, "If I ever get another managerial job, I will find a way to get you over to my team." It wasn't the typical story of "out of sight, out of mind, or what have you done for me lately." He just seemed to thrive when he could surround himself with people he could trust. And he never forgot.
For now, he will wait after sticking to his principles. It is a big risk because there are many people saying that he jumped ship, that he left his young team on the shore while he paddled away in his own lifeboat. His trusted circle, guys like Radison, may not find the same opportunities they had with Riggleman. But apparently Riggs felt he was captaining a ship that was being hit by friendly fire, an environment that would eventually hurt his players, too. The Nationals disagree, but either way, they were clearly not on the same page for some time.
Riggleman has been called "selfish," and I get why that would be said. In baseball, you are never supposed to quit anything, even if you feel that everyone is waiting for you to fall on your face to justify their itch to push you out the door. Riggleman would say all the time, "Play for the name on the front, not for the name on the back." It mattered to him that he could feel proud to carry the banner of the team's name. But when he felt that instead of his name on the back of that jersey, he had a knife sticking out of it, the name on the front mattered less to him. He fought for me during my career, and from that experience, I know he will put his neck out there to follow what he believes to be right, even if he risked drowning in the river he was trying to get us all across in the process.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLBPAA (MLB Players Alumni Association). His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville