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."
Kasten didn't become part of the Lerner group until April 2006. Commissioner Bud Selig liked the Lerners' family-oriented approach, but baseball officials believed the club needed an experienced executive to run the day-to-day operations. Kasten, who left the Braves in 2003, was that man.
When the Lerners were named the owners last May, Kasten became the president in waiting. Bowden's job, in theory, was in limbo. Mark Lerner said from the beginning that the decision on the general manager's future belonged to Kasten. "That's proper protocol," he said this week. "We trust Stan."
Kasten had already begun, as he said, "doing my due diligence" on Bowden, asking associates around the game for their thoughts.
Kasten said this spring that it was immediately his belief that the Nationals' situation was unlike any in baseball. He considered the skills necessary to pull off a massive rebuilding project -- particularly resourcefulness and creativity. Bowden believes those qualities were born in him out of necessity when he worked for notoriously stingy owner Marge Schott in Cincinnati.
"Given those qualities," Kasten said, "I felt good enough about what was here to give Jim the first shot."
Kasten said, though, that he knew the choice would be a surprise to some. Last April, Bowden was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in Miami Beach. The case is not closed, and is scheduled for another hearing April 11. Then, according to an official of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, the two sides could decide whether they're ready to go to trial.
Long before that incident, Bowden had garnered a reputation among player agents and other executives as an aggressive deal-maker with an occasionally volatile personality, a man fiercely loyal and supportive of those close to him, but not trusted by others.
"Jim, he's so warm," said Jose Rijo, once a pitcher for Bowden's Reds and now one of his advisers. "And he's so, so smart. Anybody who knows him has to admit that."
When Kasten announced last June that he would retain Bowden, he said he had a conversation with another baseball executive, "someone who is a friend of mine who isn't a fan of Jim," he said.
"We know Jim has been something of a controversial figure for some time, and after I made this decision, this person called me and told me how surprised he was," Kasten said. "Then I told him what I had here, and what I thought was needed to get out of it, what was required. And the guy said to me: 'You know, you're right about that. That's one thing he can do. Now I see what you're saying.' "
Yet because Kasten has a policy of not announcing the length of the contracts of executives, even some people within the organization believe Bowden was essentially an at-will employee. Such speculation makes Kasten bristle.
"I don't know how much more explicit I could be," Kasten said. "People look for a change, expect a change, because they refer to their own generalities or ideas of what performance should be. Past performance is good for whatever lessons you might learn from it, but every situation requires a person tailored to that situation -- and that's what we try to do here."
That, though, leaves open the most important question. Even if Kasten believes Bowden's skills are best suited for the Nationals' current, looking-under-rocks status, does he believe Bowden will be the best candidate to lead the franchise into the future, when the Lerners plan to increase payroll? As Bowden said this week, "It's an entirely different job that I've never had before."
Asked whether he thought Bowden had those traits, Kasten said: "I do. I have no reason not to think that. You know, you make adjustments always. Always, always, always."
Bowden's adjustment, now, is working within the framework of Kasten's larger plan, one that has the Nationals' payroll whittled to $36 million for 2007 and has the baseball operations department intensely focused on the decidedly less glamorous pursuits of scouting and player development. Kasten, too, is a hands-on president, speaking to the team when spring training began, helping with the hiring of key baseball operations staff.
Asked whether he would have made the same offseason decisions if Kasten had not laid out the blueprint, Bowden said: "I think that the decision that was made from ownership to Stan all the way down was something that none of us will ever second-guess."
Publicly, Bowden is effusive in his praise of Kasten, who he says "has a tremendously high IQ and a great sense of humor."
"He's helped me develop a lot as a general manager," Bowden said. How? "Patience. Analysis. Different ways to view things.
"And most importantly, he comes from a large market. I've never had a competitive budget in development, scouting, the major league side and the personnel. He has had those budgets. It's a different job when you're able to do things right, as opposed to being able to do things you can afford."
Bowden is determined to be there when the Nationals can afford more than they can right now, not only when a new ballpark opens next season, but well into the future. He knows he has his detractors, and he hears them. But, as Mark Lerner said, "He just works so hard at it, I think that's the only thing he's focused on."
"It's hurtful," Bowden said. "But you can't complain about it. It's part of the job. But what you try to do, you try to give 100 percent. You work as hard as you can, you do the very best job you can, so when you look in the mirror at least the fans and the media know you're giving it everything you have 24/7."