Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Rigglemania: Knowing When to Walk as a Win-Win  

"Why am I wasting so much dedication on
 such a mediocre career?" -- Ron Swoboda.

As I've repeatedly explained, major league baseball managers have more diverse and challenging responsibilities than 95% of CEOs of billion-dollar corporations and have to make more decisions on a day a game is played than most such corporate executives make in a fortnight. Even the most unremarkable-seeming dugout strategist is a stunningly capable management practitioner, able to successfully take 2nd base (at least) in the MBB model in almost every instance, able to work in a position where accountability is almost absolute. It takes decades of concentrated learning in a broad spectrum of skills, constant attention in thinking about winning in both the present and future -- it's a breathtaking investment in achieving excellence.

So when Washington Nationals' manager Jim Riggleman walked away late last month from one of the only 30 positions (zero-sum) in the world to which he could apply that vast investment, many bloggers and other naive folk chose to call him "a quitter".

They're wrong. And further, Riggleman's process and execution is something every manager Beyond Baseball should master, or at least understand well enough to know how to plan their own exit someday.

Jim Riggleman has been a major league manager for four franchises, all relatively weak ones when he started working with them, all populated largely with young players with a lot to prove or roster-filler veterans considered cost-effective (that is, not great but good values for their price). He non-charismatic (intentionally, as well as by nature), and I can tell you from small personal experience, he's a thoughtful man who intentionally gives dull interviews.

His focus beyond the mechanics of the game, has been on maximum organizational- and personal loyalty (a strong thread within baseball management), making the most of what he has at hand and stewarding the organization's resources. This style Beyond Baseball is known as "Good Soldier" or "Organization Man", and the Baseball management pipeline is always replete with this model. Most importantly to executive management, he doesn't bad-mouth his budget or his roster, takes orders from people who know far less than he does about the content and consequences of those orders, and doesn't make himself a story if he can avoid it.

Unlike more charismatic models (for example, Bobby Valentine, Chuck Dressen, Dick Williams), the Good Soldier doesn't make his or herself the story, doesn't attract attention except to deflect attention away from someone the organization needs protected. 

The insightful Doug Glanville, who played for Riggleperson in Chicago describes this loyalty thusly:

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.

{snip}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. {snip}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.

This is successful "managing down" (players/staff) and "managing up" (owners/executives). He's taking orders, not bad-mouthing his frustration to the players, not bad-mouthing his players to ownership. And he understands and works within the key awareness of Sandy Alderson...that every decision the front office and manager make have to balance the baseball factors and the business factors...that as field marshal, he will have to deploy many sub-optimal solutions to fulfill the business desires of ownership or front office (think Ken Griffey Junior's dreadful lack of production in his final stint with the Seattle Mariners coinciding with the need to keep rolling him out not only almost every day, but in the middle of the batting order where he could relentlessly implode potential rallies, undermining his team's offense by ~12 runs in a single month)

As a rule, the person who plays their career hand as an Organization Man, while never being overtly ostracized because she or he is a safe bet, will almost always be passed over by someone charismatic, someone fans can create legends around, someone who can help sell tickets to non-baseball fans...a celebrity. The Organization Man needs to get as much loyalty as she gives, or the system gets gummed up, freezes. The players realize, in spite of the manager's solid appearance, he doesn't really have the ear of the front office, and, sooner or later, starts to lose their professional (not usually their personal) respect, and Baseball, like some other lines of work, has so little slack for slack, that this can be fatal. 

So Riggleman has, since his taking the Chicago Cubs to the playoffs in the mid-1990s, been seen as a placeholder, an interim solution for the Seattle Mariners, when John McLaren got dumped, and an interim solution at Washington when they dumped Manny Acta in 2009. Riggleman's professional skills and particular attributes make him a useful rook on a chessboard, a relatively inexpensive utility that will never embarrass owners off or on the field.

But after in the pair of decades since he was a 39-year old playing that role, he wanted evidence of the same level of loyalty back from the front office and/or ownership. Everyone, even in Baseball, needs to know their limit.

So when Riggleman piloted the Nationals, a team with ignorant ownership much more interested in the business side of the decisions than the Baseball side (much more interested in the bottom line of dollars than the bottom line of winning percentage), he asked for the loyalty he'd been giving. He was looking at this stage of his life (yes, not just "career") to be treated as the talent he is.

After piloting the sad-sack Nationals to an above .500 record after 75 games, and the second-best winning streak of his career (16-6, behind only a 19-7 stretch for the '98 playoff-bound Cubs), Riggleman asked for a contract extension. He realized that this team, with its budget lower than 22 other teams (lower, btw, than the Oakland As') would not sustain this pace this year, and to go to the playoffs again, he'd need at least another year after this one of seasoning young talent to get there, and the odds of winning a trophy slim. Without a contract extension, he was going to be merely a midwife to others' glory. 

The front office declined to return the loyalty he'd given them (perhaps a good business decision for them, though if they had shown him loyalty, at worst it would have been a cheap business 'loss'), probably expecting him to suck it up again. He walked away from a lose-win situation, his head held high in his own mind. It was one he had probably put up with, though playing with smaller stakes, numerous times over his professional Baseball management career.

¿Did he trash his team's chances for this year and/or beyond, as some bloggers and fans believe? 

Not close. Undoubtedly, some players who felt Riggleman had their back are disappointed. But management used fellow-Good Soldier and consummate professional John McLaren as an interim (un-ironically, the very manager Riggleman had been the interim for previously), and put the celebrity manager, the proven-success Davey Johnson at the helm after a few games. Both McLaren and D Johnson on their worst days are significantly better managers than 90% of the CEOs of billion-dollar corporations or any U.S. President since Lyndon Johnson.

¿Did he overestimate his leverage as some writers and fans believe?

No. He just knew it was extremely unlikely that he would ever have as much leverage ever again. If he was 39 years old (or maybe even 44), he might again get a chance, get another team on a building cycle into a shadow of a dream of a wild card race, but frankly, this was Jim Riggleman's likely sole moment to see if he could alter the trajectory his career was on.

¿Will he never manage again as some bloggers and fans believe?

Perhaps. But I suspect that's no loss to Riggleman. He knows what outcome he's been able to achieve right here and right now. His loyalty will be paid back, at least in small ways, by most of the Baseball people he's shown loyalty to. He hasn't lost the respect of many, if any, of the baseball lifers he's worked with and against over the years.

One of the best survival techniques in the corporate or governmental or non-profit arenas has been being a competent Good Soldier. It's less optimal in the globalised economy where most non-executive positions are viewed as commodity and readily sacrificed for quality in exchange for a few temporary yuan or even jiao. 

If you take on this rôle (it can be quite comfortable, especially for those who grew up comfortably as middle children), you should have a contingency plan in place, at least in your mind, for what level of disloyalty you will trade for temporary apparent job security. As a rule, Organization Men are not risk-takers, but this must not be an absolute avoidance. At some point, you need to be loyal to yourself if you have any talent at all.

Riggleman had such a plan. He knew, in advance, just what kind of accomplishment it would take for toxic executive management to return the investment. He delivered the outcome making the decision relatively easy. If he got his extension, it was a win, and if he didn't, the act of not returning it was all he needed to know about the utility of soldiering on.

Can you figure out what level of loyalty you need to get from an employer for you to soldier on? Don't ever put yourself in the position of having to decide how much it is in the heat of a moment. If you can be as good at thinking it through as Riggleman has, you'll benefit

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