VIERA, Fla., Feb. 24 -- The other day on the practice fields beyond Space Coast Stadium, Jim Bowden leaned against a batting cage, peered through the net, and watched swing after swing. To his immediate right -- same stance, same intense gaze -- stood Bob Boone. Barry Larkin positioned himself a bit down the line, reacquainting himself with friends and foes. On an adjacent field, Jose Rijo quietly counseled members of a young pitching staff.
And off to the side, sitting in a golf cart, was Manager Frank Robinson. Three years ago, Robinson began managing the Montreal Expos in relative obscurity. At that time, Bowden was entering his 10th season as the general manager in Cincinnati. Boone was his manager. Larkin was his shortstop. Rijo, at 37, was entering the last season of a comeback with the Reds. When Rijo pitched, Larkin was behind him, Boone was in the dugout, Bowden was calling the shots.
Former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, left, shares a laugh with Nationals third baseman Vinny Castilla.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
Now, those five men have been entrusted with developing the Washington Nationals into a successful franchise. Bowden is the general manager, the man who hires and fires, wheels and deals. Boone, Larkin and Rijo are his special assistants, each with responsibilities ranging from player development to scouting. Robinson, the only one with any history with the organization, handles the lineup, the rotation -- and much of the scrutiny.
This developing dynamic among four men with close ties to the Reds, not to mention each other, and Robinson is still very much in its nascent stages. But it could be one that helps define all of their careers, not to mention their futures with the club.
"We're feeling our way," Robinson said.
Bowden has had nothing but praise for Robinson this spring, and is adamant that his new management structure isn't the National League East's version of the Reds. Yes, he knows how it could be perceived, that Boone -- who managed three seasons with Cincinnati and three with Kansas City -- could be seen as the heir to Robinson should the team struggle. But he said he hired each member of his staff not because they're old buddies, but because of their talent and teaching ability.
"Look at the special assistants," Bowden said. "I have a pitcher that won a World Series for us and was a perennial winner. He knew how to get people out. I've got a position player that was not only a great defensive player, but was a great offensive player, a league MVP, a perennial all-star, an 11-time Silver Slugger winner and was one of the best teachers than anyone I ever had in player development -- while he was playing.
"And I've got a former catcher that was one of the best ever in the history of the sport in calling a game, and also has experience as a coach and a manager and as an evaluator."
Just as Bowden gladly praises Boone, Larkin and Rijo, the trio is fiercely loyal to him -- and each other. The chemistry among them is obvious. Larkin, who officially retired this month, is the only one of the three assistants who hasn't appeared in uniform on the practice fields. Bowden eventually expects him to work with the team's middle infielders. He also expects Larkin -- "The best leader I've ever seen, period," Bowden said -- to help foster leadership on a club that has lacked it recently.
"Leadership can be brought out," said Larkin, who was an all-star 12 times with the Reds. "I think you're a leader or you're not. You have to have players with certain fundamentals, certain things inside of them for them to be leaders. . . . Hopefully, I can identify some of those guys and teach them to bring that out."
Rijo, a gregarious personality who was the hero of the 1990 Reds team that won the World Series, can be loud on the field, calling out names and joking, particularly in Spanish. But this week, he sat calmly at a locker in the clubhouse, talking pitching with right-hander John Patterson. Bowden said that in their days with the Reds, he assigned Rijo to work with a slew of young pitchers -- from Hector Carrasco to Scott Williamson to Mike Remlinger -- all with outstanding results.
Boone, who won seven Gold Gloves as a catcher during a 19-year career, has worked closely with Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, and has spent significant time at the batting cage, watching and analyzing. He and Bowden speak frequently, often quietly and off to the side. In July 2003, with the Reds languishing 12 games under .500, they were fired on the same day. Thus, Bowden is about the only GM who could have convinced Boone to leave a scouting job with the Philadelphia Phillies for a job with the Nationals, a team owned by MLB and uncertain about its future management structure.
"We certainly have a relationship," Boone said. "We've worked together before, and there's a comfort there."
The potential discomfort, of course, could be for Robinson and his coaching staff, many of whom are either holdovers from Montreal or men with whom Robinson feels exceptionally comfortable, such as longtime confidantes Tom McCraw, the hitting coach, and Don Buford, the first base coach.
Robinson, though, dismissed any talk that he would feel threatened by Bowden's new assistants.
"I'm all for it," he said. "Some people are threatened by having strong baseball people around. I welcome it. They're other people to observe, other people to bounce ideas off of. We're in the preliminary stages of that, but given what we've had the last three years -- working with a skeleton crew [of instructors and front office personnel] -- it's a plus here."
Earlier this week, Boone was walking from Space Coast Stadium out to the practice fields, a distance of maybe a quarter-mile. Robinson came up from behind him in his golf cart. "Booney!" Robinson called out. "Give those old legs a rest."
Boone jumped into the golf cart, and the former big league manager-turned-front office assistant drove off with the current manager of the Nationals, chatting about developing their players.