Ethics Dunce: Ex-Washington Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman

Jim Riggleman is a major league baseball manager of modest accomplishments, one of the forty or so men in the rotating pool that teams will use to fill manager vacancies with low-risk options rather than try someone promising but with little experience. He had a one-year contract with the hapless Washington Nationals that included a team option for a second, which the manager felt the team should pick up now, rather than at the end of the season.

Riggleman believed that he had some leverage. The Nationals have been surging since star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has returned from an injury, and are, for the first time in the team’s  short time in Washington (they were once the Montreal Expos), flirting with a winning record more than half-way through the schedule. But as is often the case with players when a club option is involved, the Nationals saw no reason to make a decision on Riggleman’s contract until the season was over. A lot can happen in three months. General manager Mike Rizzo told Riggleman he would just have to wait. That’s what a team option is, after all. The team’s option.

This made the manager unhappy, and he told Rizzo that if he couldn’t at least begin discussions about whether the team was thinking of retaining him or not, he would quit. There is no up-side for the team to do this. If it tells the manager that it currently has plans to move in another direction in 2012, it will have a lame-duck manager on its hands who might not be trustworthy in his insecurity and resentment. If the team tells the manager, “Don’t worry; we plan on picking up your option,” what is that? It isn’t a binding commitment. If the team tanks, if Riggleman shows up at games drunk, if he makes idiotic decisions or alienates his players, the Nationals would probably refuse to pick up his option no matter what they promised in June. Unless they were prepared to pick up his option now and bind themselves contractually, contract talks were pointless and potentially destructive. Despite Riggleman’s threat, which he thought would have extra force because the team was doing unexpectedly well, the Nationals called his bluff. No talks, they said. We’ll decide about the option after the season. Keep up the good work.

Riggleman quit.

He quit on his players, who relied on him to lead them. He quit on the Washington fans, preferring to disrupt the season and the team’s winning ways as a demonstration of annoyance with his superiors rather than complete the season and the job he had been hired to do. Leaders always have multiple obligation—to their superiors, to those they lead, and those whose objectives they are pledged to try to achieve. Abdicating the obligations to two of those stakeholders because of a quarrel with a third is a breach of trust, responsibility and loyalty.

Ironically, Riggleman’s actions validate the catalyst for them. They prove that he is an unworthy leader, even more than his career record as a manager, which is a losing one. The Nationals were right not to pick up his option. He is not worthy to manage or to lead.

As web comments usually do, the comments from baseball fans on the episode  frustrate me, because they show how little most people comprehend the obligations of leadership.  On ESPN’s site, for example, virtually every commenter cheered Riggleman for telling management to “take this job and shove it.”  “The Nats were not willing to commit to him. He’s not necessarily wrong for quitting in that situation,” one commenter wrote.  What? The team committed to paying him for a season and deciding whether to pick up his contract for a second year at agreed-upon terms. That is exactly the commitement Riggleman bargained for and agreed to abide by. He’s the one refusing to honor a commitment. “It’s his life,” another commenter wrote on the NBC baseball blog. No, it’s not. When you accept a leadership position, you commit to making decisions based on other people’s lives and needs, those who trust and follow you. Ditching your followers for purely selfish reasons is no less than a betrayal. “He stuck to his guns,” yet another commenter gushed. Sure—he stuck to his guns and breached his duty. Riggleman’s job was to manage the team, not to use it to jockey for a contract extension mid-season.

I’ll be stunned if Jim Riggleman gets another chance to manage a major league baseball team. By placing his own welfare above that of his team, he proved that he cannot be trusted as a manager, a leader, or an employee.

The Washington Nationals are better off without him.

UPDATE: I just heard Riggleman try to explain his resignation on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” and he certainly validated the “dunce” portion of his “Ethics Dunce.” Riggleman kept blabbering about how when it is clear that an organization doesn’t want you in its future, you should leave. No, Jim: the team wanted you in its present, and that’s what the contract you signed committed you to…managing the team now. If the team didn’t want you to do the job in the present, then you would have a reason to leave. But the Nationals did, obviously; if they didn’t want you managing the club now, they would have fired you now.

What an idiot.

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