washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Columnists > Mike Wise
Mike Wise

Bowden Could Be The Real Deal

By Mike Wise
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page E12


Jim Bowden is 43 years old. But when asked his age, the Nationals' general manager curtly replies, "Old enough, young enough." He lives not in a Pentagon City apartment or a Georgetown townhouse like some of his players; Bowden resides in a downtown hotel.

"Interim hotel, interim life," he said.

He put Washington's new baseball team together on the fly and has no idea whether he will be around to see it fully emerge. At some point, the Nationals will be sold, and Bowden could be gone. He could wind up the rabbit in the marathon, the guy who sets the pace but never finishes.

"I love Washington," Bowden said during a recent interview. "And I want to live in Washington. I want this job. I want to keep this job. I want to work hard enough to do a good enough job so that the new owners are going to come in and want me to continue."

Two of Bowden's main offseason acquisitions, Jose Guillen and Vinny Castilla, homered Saturday night to push the Nationals above .500 five games into their inaugural season. Guillen hit the game-winner over the center field wall in the top of the 10th inning, Washington's second extra-inning victory in three days. The lone struggling player Bowden traded for, Cristian Guzman, was moved from second to eighth in the batting order by Manager Frank Robinson. Guzman responded by drawing two walks and doubling.

Just like that, Bowden was 3 for 3. The bunch he partially assembled tries for its second straight series win over a National League East team on Sunday afternoon at Dolphins Stadium. Every win helps the résumé.

Since he was named interim general manager on Nov. 2, Bowden has been selling Washington baseball harder than QVC sells eye cream. He has a little of that polyester, car-lot feel to him. You could imagine the guy actually saying, "Have I got a used Buick for you!"

His hair -- full, coiffed and parted -- is reddish-blond. His face is tanned, if slightly creased and sunburned. He was standing behind the batting cage late Saturday afternoon, wearing a pastel turquoise shirt that would have made "Miami Vice" star Don Johnson proud. He calls people "Dawg" often, as in, "What kind of story you writin', Dawg?" During spring training, Bowden wore loose-fitting nylon sweat suits so often the Nationals players began to call him "Eminem." He has a little of that Grandma-trying-to-slip-on-Spandex in him, a primal desire to defy age.

But then, being hired as the youngest general manager in the history of major league baseball in 1992 -- and working for crotchety Marge Schott -- might make one want to remain young, too.

At age 31, Bowden began overseeing the Cincinnati Reds. Ken Griffey Jr. was his signature acquisition. His other big-impact trades include Kevin Mitchell, Ron Gant, David Wells and left-hander Denny Neagle, when Neagle still had something left. When Bowden was finally fired in 2003, only Atlanta's John Schuerholz had a longer tenure as a general manager. Impetuous at times, Bowden made instant friends and enemies.

"He's a fan," said Harry Dunlop, the Marlins' bench coach who, along with Florida Manager Jack McKeon, was relieved of his duties with Cincinnati after the 2000 season by Bowden. "He used to stand around the cage and get excited when guys were hitting home runs in batting practice. Jack would tell him, 'It would be great if they could do that in the game.' . . . One thing, though, he's aggressive. He's not afraid to make a trade."

Or more than 100, the number of deals he made in Cincinnati. Bowden has actually been conservative during the spring, making one minor deal to severely dent his reputation as an impatient executive.

"One of the problems in baseball is people get labeled," Bowden said. "They have perceptions. When you have a history of doing something, then people assume that's all he is is that, which isn't fair."

But 100 deals? "It seems like a lot of trades, but over 10 1/2 years as a GM, that's an average of 10 trades a year. That's not that many if you've got 164 players in your system."

As for the Nationals, Bowden does not concern himself with acquiring a superstar. Washington has the third-lowest payroll in the National League at $50 million. Until the new owners come aboard, he said it is impossible.

"There's no pressure because you can't afford it," Bowden said. "But when you only increase your payroll by $8 million, well then you're going to get Guillen, Guzman and Castilla."

Since the Montreal Expos lost Vladimir Guerrero to Anaheim, the franchise has been lacking marquee appeal. "He's a superstar," Bowden said. "You never replace a Guerrero. You never replace a Bonds. Omar would have kept Guerrero if he was able to afford him," he said of Omar Minaya, the team's former general manger. "That's the only reason Guerrero is still not here. Economics only."

Bowden kept going, outlining his dilemma. "Why didn't the club get Randy Johnson? We didn't have enough money to do it. We tried to get Odalis Perez, who won [last week] for the Dodgers. At the end of the day, we couldn't do it. The Dodgers could. We got [Esteban] Loaiza instead. They have him and we don't. So the young left-hander won the game for them last night instead of winning it for us."

He is often a carnival barker in general manager's clothing. Bowden is about as tight-lipped as James Carville, as confidential as Jose Canseco. Sleuth does not depict him. He is on leave as an analyst for ESPN's morning show, "Cold Pizza." He writes an as-told-to weekly column for a regional newspaper, telling readers about getting up at 6 a.m. Tuesday, changing planes to go scout a 17-year-old outfielder named Cameron Maybin in Asheville, N.C. Bowden writes this week, "He's definitely a player who will be one of the top 10 picked in the country this year." If the kid wasn't, he is now.

Bowden was asked about his most satisfying trade. He said it occurred on his father's lap in Weston, Mass., as a young boy. They improved the Boston Red Sox daily. "Well, I think I got Reggie Jackson for a minor league player to be named later on my dad's lap," he said. "That was one of my favorites because that way we had Jackson, Reggie Smith and Yastrzemski in the same outfield. I was pretty excited about it myself. You don't get to make those in real life."

No, but Jim Bowden can fantasize behind the batting cage. He can dream up prospective deals, dream of a committed ownership to make them come true. He can dream of a job that may or may not be his in a few months.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company