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Mudville: May 23, 2024 4:45 pm PDT

Yellowstone Baseball

If you are a veteran baseball man wanting to stay in the game you love in a meaningful, instructive way, where can you go these days?

Well, you might go to Montana.

That’s exactly what Jim Riggleman did. Riggleman, who has managed 1,630 games in the major leagues with five different teams and has 40 years of managing and coaching experience behind him, is heading to Montana to manage the Billings Mustangs in the Pioneer League.

Good for him. Good for the players he will manage.

And he’s got two wise baseball coaches going with him in Dan Radison and Mike Toomey.

“Billings has the best staff in baseball,’’ one longtime MLB evaluator told BallNine.

MLB is too smart for its own good now, we all know, and has no room for such baseball knowledge. That’s okay. When one door closes, you open a window.

And if that window happens to offer a view of Big Sky Country, all the better. The Story was created for baseball adventures like this one. I first met Riggleman when he managed the Padres for 12 games in 1992 and was immediately impressed with his knowledge of the game and his honesty. He went on to manage the team the next two seasons, the first stop in his major league managing journey.

So why did you take this job?

“I love to have coffee in the morning with my coaches to talk baseball or have a beer with them after the game; get to the ballpark at a reasonable hour and debate what we should do with the lineup, that’s part of the allure of it,”

“I love to manage,’’ Riggleman said.

“I didn’t work in 2021 and nothing was offered for me in ’22,’’ noted Riggleman, just another causality in the war against veteran baseball men that MLB is waging.

Riggleman turns 70 in November but said he feels like he is 40. He still has the love and the energy for the game. He last worked for the Mets as a bench coach and would have come back to coach at the MLB level if the right situation had come along, meaning the right manager to work for in the majors.

“If certain guys would have managed again, I would have gone with them, but they did not get those positions.’’ Riggleman explained. “I love to manage but if guys like Jim Tracy or Bruce Bochy were managing again, I would jump at the opportunity to be a coach for them and talk good old fashioned baseball and take in all the new stuff as well. I’d be around those guys that I know, and I trust them.

“The money would have been 10 times better,’’ he said of the MLB life “but this, I am enjoying putting together a team and I enjoy managing these kids and working with two coaches that I am very close with. The guy who got me into this is Mike Toomey, he is going to be one of the coaches and I’ve known Mike since the mid-70s. He was the one being the instigator behind me getting into this. That kind of thrilled me a little bit to work with him.

“I don’t want to say anything here that is going to make people shy away from me, not that I am going to get another (major league) opportunity, but nowadays coaches are going in at 11 o’clock in the morning for a 7 o’clock game, looking at every imaginable piece of information,’’ Riggleman said. “If you get there at noon you feel like people are looking at you like, ‘Where you been?’’’

Manager Jim Riggleman of the San Diego Padres watches his players from the dugout during a game against the Houston Astros at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport

I’ve certainly seen that change across the major leagues and what used to be productive coaching time, taking infield, working individually with players to hone their skills, meetings with the staff to fix what is wrong and discuss lineups, all that productive time is disappearing to life in front of a screen – or having this new game broken down to them in analytic ways that coaches and managers already know through lifelong-coaching experience.

Baseball is no different than the real world. Too many meetings and not enough meaningful work.

There is a great baseball term for this, one of my all-time favorites and Riggleman, remember I told you he was brutally honest, dropped it on me during our conversation.

“That’s False Hustle, some of it,’’ Riggleman said of the MLB’s New World Order or Great Reset, you pick the descriptive term.

“If you have to go to the ballpark at 11 o’clock in the morning to get your work done, there is some eye wash there,’’ Riggleman said. “Now with this type of thing here, I will be at the ballpark early but a lot of the work you do can be done in your hotel room or at home. You don’t have to be there at 11 o’clock just so if the GM walks down there he sees you.’’

Or nowadays one of the 17 assistant GMs, the kings of false hustle.

That’s me talking, not Riggleman.

Through the years players have been coming earlier and earlier to the ballpark and a lot of that is false hustle too. Clubhouses have become way too comfortable with plenty of trips to the food room.

Sometimes it is good to get away from the ballpark to relax as a player, have lunch and just chill. I was always impressed by Derek Jeter, who got his work done, but was never an eye-wash guy. While covering the Yankees, if AMBS decided to take a late lunch in a city like Cleveland at the Blue Point Grille, one of my favorites, I would often run into Jeter and Jorge Posada, sitting at a corner table.

Worked out okay for those guys and the Yankees, I’d say.

28 Apr 1995: Manager Jim Riggleman of the Chicago Cubs speaks with reporter Harry Caray during opening day at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport

As one clubhouse person told me of current clubhouse life in MLB, “It’s so comfortable for them now. There is food, there are 20 TVs, there are games for them to play, so much comfort there, they just as soon get there early and hang out all day.’’

Again, there is nothing wrong with coming to the ballpark early as long as work is done and it is not just eyewash. Too many players these days are over-programmed on the technology aspects of the game and under-programmed on working the physical nuances of the game.

“I like what Joe Maddon used to do in Chicago,’’ Riggleman told me. “Sometimes he would say ‘The doors of the clubhouse are not open until 5 o’clock tomorrow.’ He would say, ‘We’re going to do an American Legion day. Show up, play catch, get loose and let’s go beat the other team.’’’

Worked out well in 2016 for Maddon and the Cubs.

“I’m thinking baseball every hour I’m awake during the season,’’ Riggleman said, something all managers do and making sure people understand where he is coming from and not misinterpret his words. “But how do you go through the league and have any enjoyment of the travels you are involved in when the only thing you have seen is the hotel and the ballpark.’’

That’s such a good point.

It’s interesting for Riggleman to say that because I am currently reading Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty and Cobb would venture out to museums and interesting places during his baseball travels and no player in history looked to gain more of an advantage over the opponent than Ty Cobb did with his studying of the game.

Jim Riggleman #5, new manager of the Washington Nationals, is introduced to the media on July 15, 2009 at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

There will be plenty of things to see in Montana and in the Pioneer League. Montana is all the rage now because of the hit Kevin Costner series: Yellowstone.

I spoke to Dan Radison, who will be Riggleman’s pitching coach and is his best friend as well. Radison said his wife is looking forward to their Montana experience.

“This wasn’t a tough sell to my wife,’’ said Radison, who lives in Florida. “She thinks Kevin Costner is going to be up there somewhere. It’s going to be beautiful up there.’’

Riggleman and Radison have been many baseball places together since their days managing in the Cardinals organization. They learned the Cardinals Way.

“If Riggleman asked me to go to Afghanistan I’d go,’’ Radison said of the friendship.

Riggleman and his coaches will have time to coach these young players and teach them some of the lost arts of the game, like taking a strong secondary lead, going first to third, putting the ball in play and the like.

Times have changed in baseball but then again, they haven’t.

“I’m open to any and all information and a lot of this information when it comes out, I say, ‘You know what, me and Radison used to talk about that all the time 25 years ago,’’’ Riggleman said.

“I love to have coffee in the morning with my coaches to talk baseball or have a beer with them after the game; get to the ballpark at a reasonable hour and debate what we should do with the lineup, that’s part of the allure of it,’’ Riggleman said of the joy of managing..

Then came this hard truth, something every true baseball man I have talked to over the last two years has told me. “People who are with these clubs now, they don’t really want to hear what I have to say.’’

No, they don’t, and the game is much poorer for it – but in Billings, it’s quite the achievement to have Riggleman & Co. in the Mustangs dugout.

Manager Mike Scioscia #14 of the Anaheim Angels and bench coach Jim Riggleman #25 of the Los Angeles Dodgers meet with umpires (HP: Larry Poncino #39, 1B: Phil Cuzzi #99, 2B: Jerry Crawford #2 and 3B: Brian O'Nora #7) before the interleague game on June 21, 2003 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. The Dodgers won 4-2. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Just listen to team owner Dave Heller: “We could not be any more thrilled to have Jim Riggleman come to Billings to manage the Mustangs,’’ he said. “He’s a teacher, a strategist, and a man of great integrity who brings with him an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. I know that under Jim’s leadership our players will play the game the right way, with pride and passion. It’s a tremendous honor to have him in Billings and a testimony to our team, the city of Billings and the Pioneer League that a man of his stature would choose to manage here.’’

Once the game starts, managing is managing and in Billings, Riggleman will be able to manage and not be a puppet for the front office like so many of today’s managers are in the major leagues.

The lockout, of course, has MLB frozen in time at the moment.

Riggleman was managing the Padres the last time there was a work stoppage. Tony Gwynn looked to be on his way to batting .400 and the season came to a crashing halt in 1994.

“I’ve told people this but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten anybody to write this,’’ Riggleman said of Gwynn. “I can honestly say in the two seasons I managed Tony in ’93 and ‘94 I never saw him make a mistake on the field – what I would call a mistake – miss a cutoff man, running the bases, taking the extra base and also making the right decision not to take the extra base, understanding the score of the game, how valuable the outs are, and with the bat it was legendary. It was unbelievable to watch him hit the pitching he would hit. They tried everything, they tried side-arming left-handers, they tried velocity, anything and everything coming at him and he hit it all.’’

Bench coach Jim Riggleman #50 of the New York Mets looks on from the dugout before a spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros at Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on March 11, 2019 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The Astros defeated the Mets 6-3. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

This is a much different baseball job for him now because Riggleman has to help put the roster together as well for the Mustangs in a league that is now a “partner league’’ with MLB.

“With all the conversations I’m having my voice is going hoarse,’’ Riggleman said. “It’s really interesting. It’s kind of like the Wild West.’’

Riggleman has never been to Montana but did go to college one year in North Dakota and loved the people he met from that area of the country. “Some of the most wonderful people I ever met in my life are in North Dakota,’’ Riggleman said. “Just great people, salt of the earth, hard working.’’

He is looking forward to every minute of this experience.

“I’ll be arguing baseball with my two old timers over coffee in the morning,’’ he said of Toomey and Radison. “It’s like when Jim Leyland had his staff of Tommy Sandt, Gene Lamont and Lloyd McClendon, when he had those guys with him that was part of the attraction to it, toss around ideas and evaluate players, it’s enjoyable.’’

It’s baseball.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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