Today, the Cubs begin their second half against their old friend and former mentor, Jim Riggleman. Actually, there isn't a single Cub remaining from Riggleman's managerial days in Chicago, so it's just us fans that will be nostalgic.
I, personally, never disliked Jim Riggleman. I thought he was a competent manager who happened to have a roster of crap with a cherry on top in the form of Sammy Sosa. Of the managers I have seen since taking my seat up in Aisle 424, Riggleman does rank a mediocre third in my mind. He is well behind Lou, a bit behind Dusty, and worlds ahead of Don Baylor.
I know many hate Dusty, and I was not sad to see him go as manager, but many managers have come to Chicago with a goal of changing the culture from one of expecting to lose to expecting to win. Dusty actually did that. The actual winning didn't follow suit, but we all now expect and demand a winner, so I give Dusty that.
But this is supposed to be about Riggleman. My best memory of him was actually from my pre-Aisle 424 days in 1997. My buddy and I went to a game and purchased seats in the Club Box section behind home plate (you could sometimes do that back then). Frank Castillo was starting, which automatically made us wonder whether we should have saved the roughly $25 we spent on the good seats.
Sure enough, Frank went out to the mound against the Pirates and started getting hammered. He had nothing. He walked the leadoff man and gave up two smoked singles. The pitching coach sauntered out to the mound and I noticed that Riggleman already had someone warming up in the bullpen. After three batters, Riggleman saw what we all saw: Castillo wasn't going to get anybody out.
Sure enough, Castillo proceeded to walk the next batter and then give up a ringing double that scored two more to make it 3-0 before an out had been recorded. Riggleman popped out of the dugout, took the ball from Castillo, and got a two-man standing ovation from me and my buddy.
The Cubs ended up coming back to win that game, and I credited that to Riggleman giving the earliest hook to a pitcher I have ever seen. I loved it.
I also gave him credit for providing me with one of my best baseball memories ever by somehow guiding the 1998 team to the tie-break game against the Giants. He got the team there through smoke and mirrors and a 'roided up Sammy Sosa.
During the tie-break game, he knew he had nothing in his bullpen other than a spent Rod Beck to close, so he was bringing in Kevin Tapani out of the bullpen. If that wasn't enough, he had Terry Mulholland work in relief a day after he started to close out the Giants. It was tremendously ballsy. I love Mulholland for agreeing to do it, and I loved Riggleman having the guts to go against convention.
Against the Braves, he later let Tapani try to close out a 1-0 lead by himself in the 9th in Game 2 of the NLDS, which didn't work. Then he trotted Kerry Wood out against Greg Maddux in Game 3 when there was almost no hope of resurrecting the series. Many people hold that against him, but when you get that close to success, you go for it. And he did.
In retrospect, you wonder if Wood might not have blown out his elbow in the 1999 Spring debut if he had just been shut down for good in 1998. Personally, I think Wood's elbow was a ticking time bomb and would have blown later in the spring anyway, if not maybe a bit into the 1999 season. I doubt Riggleman's balls-to-the-wall finish in 1998 had that dramatic an effect on Wood's career.
Unfortunately, Riggleman was fairly predictable in most cases. He got outmanaged a number of times when the opposing manager would force his hand. He also didn't have the personnel to execute the decisions he made, even if they were technically correct. When 800-year old Gary Gaetti is your starting third baseman, you have problems.
I think he'll do as well in Washington as can be expected. He'll win some games, though hopefully not this weekend. He'll lose more games because the pitching staff he inherits makes that 1998 Cub bullpen look like the Nasty Boys. At the end of the year, I'm sure he'll be replaced with someone with a higher pedigree or a highly touted rookie manager. That seems to be Riggleman's place in baseball now. He's a placeholder who won't mess things up too badly while he's in charge.
It's sad that is what used to pass for our expectations for a manager in this town. Of course, when the expectations are low, there is less booing.