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Neilson, who looks younger than his 56 years, gazes off into the street. It is the day after the Rangers lost their opener, to the Blackhawks in Chicago. Then their plane was delayed three hours on its way to Hartford. They have a night game with the Whalers. Neilson looks tired.
"But you're probably better off on your own," he says.
When Willie McCovey was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1986, his first major league manager, Bill Rigney, was sitting in the front row. McCovey told the audience in Cooperstown, N.Y., that when he was first called up to the majors, in the summer of 1959, he traveled all night to reach San Francisco from Phoenix. He didn't tell Rigney, then the manager of the Giants, that he hadn't slept, and Rigney put McCovey in leftfield, starting him against the Philadelphia Phillies' ace, Robin Roberts. McCovey went 4 for 4 with two triples. "For the season," McCovey recalled, "I hit .354, was named Rookie of the Year and made Bill Rigney a genius. In 1960, 1 hit .238 and got Bill Rigney fired."
Rigney delights in the story. He is 72 years old now, a special assistant to Oakland A's general manager Sandy Alder-son and the cheerful survivor of three firings in 18 years of managing. "You're only as good as your players perform," Rigney says. "When you sign the contract, you know that the security is zilch."
That is experience speaking. Thirty years ago, Rigney was not so fatalistic. The wound of being fired by his beloved Giants still oozes when memory pricks.
Rigney had the Giants in his blood. Mel Ott was his boyhood hero, and Rigney had wanted to play for the Giants from the time he was a child. That dream was fulfilled when Rigney's contract was bought by the Giants, then in New York, just after World War II. His playing career ended after the 1953 season, but Rigney stayed in the organization, managing its top farm club, the Minneapolis Millers. When Giants manager Leo Durocher was fired after the 1955 season, Rigney was promoted to run the parent club.
The Giants steadily improved under Rigney, and in 1959, in San Francisco, they led the National League by two games with eight left. But they collapsed and finished third to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves. As a result there was a lot of speculation about Rigney's future, and he recalls a Saturday Evening Post cover line that read: RIGNEY MUST WIN IN '60. The next season the Giants started slowly, but by June they were battling the Pirates for first place until Pittsburgh swept them in a three-game series to move four games in front.
The next night the Giants got back on track with a 7-3 win at home over the Phillies. Rigney, who had grown up and still lived in the East Bay, often stayed in a downtown hotel when the Giants had a home night game followed by a day game. He remembers riding up the elevator at the Fairmont Hotel after the win and seeing a headline in the Chronicle: is RIGNEY IN OR OUT? "Now I'll sleep good tonight," Rigney recalls thinking.
At the ballpark the next day, Rigney began hitting infield practice. "I remember looking over, and there was Chub Feeney, the Giants' vice-president, on the bench. He never came down to the bench. I looked at him, and he turned his palms up and shrugged. So I went to him and said, 'It looks like you've got something to tell me that you're not all that happy about.' Chub said, 'That's right. You're fired.' Horace Stoneham, the Giants' owner, had said he was going to fire me, and Chub told Horace, 'If he's going to be fired, he's my friend, I'll fire him.' "
Rigney's first thoughts after getting the news were about what it meant to be a Giant. "To me the Giants personified what major league baseball was about," he says now. "The traditions around that club—it was marvelous. It's maybe like your first love. You never really forget it. I'll never forget the Polo Grounds. I'll never forget my first game. I'll never forget the '51 season. To have to accept being fired, and never really being given a solid reason why, five minutes before a ball game was...." Rigney pauses. "It's like anything else. The first time it happens to you is the toughest one to handle.