Nationals' Big Three Don't Run, Hit or Field

"It's an entirely different job that I've never had before," Jim Bowden, with Manager Manny Acta, said of the challenge of being Washington's general manager. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007

COLUMBUS, Ohio, March 29 -- Thursday afternoon, Jim Bowden stood in a blazer on the field at Cooper Stadium, home to the Washington Nationals' Class AAA affiliate here, as his team was introduced. Stan Kasten, Bowden's boss and the Nationals' president, stood nearby in a suit, a blue tie and a red Nationals cap. Mark Lerner, Kasten's boss and a principal owner, joined them in a sweater vest, tie and cap as well. The three men chatted and smiled, the season only three days off.

"Tremendous synergy," is how Bowden, the general manager, describes the relationship among three of the team's most important figures. As the Nationals prepare to open their first full season under the ownership of the Lerner family, the dynamics between and among that triumvirate -- owner, president and general manager -- will help determine the course of the nascent franchise.

Yet even as the Lerner family begins to put its signature on how the team operates off the field, perhaps no relationship -- not that of new Manager Manny Acta and star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, not that of catcher Brian Schneider and a much-maligned starting rotation -- will have as much impact on how the team is constructed, and ultimately how it plays, than that between Kasten, the sarcastic New York lawyer who ran the Atlanta Braves for 17 seasons, and Bowden, the flamboyant former GM of the Cincinnati Reds.

"I think their relationship has been good," Lerner said this week. "We're all pleasantly surprised. We're delighted in Jim's work. I think he's done a great job."

The Nationals' organizational flow chart, on paper, is clear: Acta reports to Bowden, who reports to Kasten, who has a small financial stake in the team and sits on the board of directors, but who is also an employee of the Lerners. Yet those who have worked in the front office and on the field -- both before the Lerners took over and now -- believe how those relationships were created reveals something about how they might work in the future. Some people familiar with both men believe Kasten and Bowden to be polar opposites -- exceptionally strong personalities, but with divergent styles.

"There's more than one way to skin a cat," said Kasten, pointing out that he is also markedly different than his buttoned-down GM in Atlanta, John Schuerholz. "I believe that. There's no formula, no one solution. Each situation requires an analysis of what's required. I tried to do that here, and it changes on a frequent basis."

Kasten and Bowden had known each other for more than a decade when they were thrown together last summer. Kasten, Bowden said, "reminds me every day that the Braves beat our club and went to the World Series in 1995, and we went home." By Kasten's own admission, though, "we really knew each other more from afar."

It was Bowden, though, who first forged a relationship with the Lerner family, and Mark in particular. In 2005, Major League Baseball fielded interest from eight parties who were willing to pay $450 million to buy the Nationals, including a separate group led by Kasten. The Lerners, along with groups led by Fred Malek and Jeffrey Smulyan, eventually became front-runners.

During the course of the audition process, Bowden met and mingled with most of the ownership groups. When Mark Lerner made his first trip to the club's spring training facility in Viera, Fla., in the spring of 2005, Michael Shapiro, then a consultant with the Lerner group and now the club's senior vice president of business affairs, introduced Lerner to Bowden.

"After about two minutes, we just had a great relationship," Lerner said. "I think he was a little different than what I expected. I just like Jim a lot. I respect his work ethic. He's a good man. He and his fiancée, Joy, are good friends of ours."

Bowden, when asked about his relationship with Lerner, turned the discussion to how impressed he was with the entire Lerner family -- from patriarch Ted to Mark to sons-in-law Edward Cohen and Robert Tanenbaum, both principals who are as important in overseeing the club as Mark.

"They're great human beings, all of them, the entire family," Bowden said. "The family includes the wives and the children and the cousins and the grandchildren. They're all special people."

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