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Broadcast Interrupted For Nationals' Spotlight

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page E01

Jim Bowden projects his voice through the room. It is late at night. No one is there to listen. "The Washington Nationals have signed free agent third baseman Vinny Castilla to a two-year, $6.2 million contract," Bowden says aloud. He is either a television analyst moonlighting as a Major League Baseball general manager, or a general manager who once moonlighted as a TV talking head. Maybe he is somewhere in between.

During the day, Bowden scrambles to make deals for the Washington Nationals, for whom he is serving as the interim general manager, sitting restlessly in an office in Viera, Fla., ideas shooting through his brain one after another after another. But late at night, he rehearses breaking news broadcasts for television shows that will never air, analyzing deals -- real and fictitious -- that he may or may not make. He pays attention to tone, to facial expression, to the inflection in his voice.

Jim Bowden made over 100 trades as the Reds' general manager, including the blockbuster deal that brought Ken Griffey Jr. to Cincinnati. (Al Behrman -- AP)

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"I'm a committed person," Bowden said. "I love being a GM. I love television. You have to work to get better at anything. Right now, I'm working at getting better at both."

Because in four or five months, Bowden doesn't know which job he'll be performing. "One of the oddest men in baseball," as one agent said this month, sits in what might be baseball's oddest chair. He is preparing the future of a team with which he may not have a future. Though the D.C. Council's vote to approve a stadium financing package last week assures that the Nationals will play in Washington, they still have no owner -- and therefore no way of knowing not only who the new bosses will be, but who they will keep, and who they will let go. So while Bowden grows antsy about whether he can make one deal or another, his official status as an analyst with the ESPN2 morning show "Cold Pizza" is merely "on leave."

Thus, the late-night monologues to no one in particular, in which Bowden looks at the work he has done that day, pretends he has cut a deal, and gins up a report. It's how he got into baseball, sitting on his father's lap in Weston, Mass., an amateur general manager, talking about trades they could make. He thought he would go into sports television soon after graduating from Florida's Rollins College, reading the scores at 6 and 11.

But when the rejection letters rolled in from TV stations -- letters he tacked to the wall of his room as motivation -- he instead took a job as an assistant in the public relations department with the Pittsburgh Pirates. At 31, he became a GM for real, then the youngest in the history of the game. Over the next 10 1/2 years running the Cincinnati Reds, he made more than 100 trades.

And along the way, he built a reputation as . . . as what? Long before he signed on with the Nationals in November, Bowden became one of the most polarizing figures in the sport.

"I don't trust him," said agent Barry Axelrod, whose clients include Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Matt Clement. "He'll say one thing and do another."

"I love dealing with Jim," said another agent, Adam Katz, who lists Sammy Sosa among his clients. "I don't know where that [negative] reputation comes from. He's creative and aggressive."

Those two qualities -- creativity and aggression -- are mentioned frequently by Bowden's supporters and detractors. When he first got to the Pirates in 1984, he was given a job overhauling the team's communications systems, and team president Mac Prine said if he completed it in two years, he could have a position on the baseball side of the business. Bowden finished in five months.

"I had to make him go home at night," said Syd Thrift, then the Pirates' general manager. "I had to harness his energies."

So there are stories of spending Thanksgiving Day in the office, of coming up with computerized methods to chart players' progress and analyze the free agent market. In 1989, he left to work for the New York Yankees, a stint that lasted just one season. He left for the Reds in 1990.

"He was a bright, innovative kid that had the conviction to follow through on his ideas," said Lou Piniella, then the Reds' manager. "You could tell he had a good baseball mind, and he enjoyed the business of baseball. He thrived on it."

This was long before Theo Epstein and Paul DePodesta made 30-something GMs commonplace. So when Bowden made a play in the fall of 1992 to be the Reds' GM, it seemed precocious at best. He had been the team's director of player development for little more than a year. He was 31. And he met with the Reds' owner, the late and legendary Marge Schott, at Schott's house.

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