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A Definitive Moment Awaits

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Baseball might as well post a morning line on Jim Bowden's odds of keeping his job. Even money? Worse?

Every day, the Nationals sit and wait for word, from federal and MLB investigators. Can they, or should they, fire their general manager? Who -- if anyone -- in their organization is guilty and of what? How much is black or white, and how much will just be ambiguous gray?

"We are still waiting on the professionals," Nationals President Stan Kasten said cryptically yesterday. "I hope, and expect, we will be able to provide more information soon."

The Nats would love to fire Bowden. Or support him. Go or stay; either is fine. Though "go" probably has a solid lead in the organization's electoral college at the moment. But they want to be fair and also to be perceived as fair. Yet the way the shoes keep dropping around Bowden, the Nats are starting to look at him like he's a toxic centipede.

"We're getting pressure from the Nationals," an MLB source said. "They want to find out, one way or the other, so they can go on their merry way."

Throughout Latin America, especially the Dominican Republic, federal investigators are turning over rocks, trying to find evidence against anyone potentially involved in illegal scouting practices, especially skimming bonuses. Behind them come MLB's own handful of investigators, usually turning over the pebbles that are left. Already, one executive and several scouts from three franchises have been fired. The whole sport is on alert. The Nats aren't in this alone. But Bowden's is the biggest name thus far.

Meanwhile, the Nationals sit by the phone, paralyzed, frustrated, sometimes angry, waiting month after month, ever since Bowden was first interviewed by the feds last summer. Now in his fifth year of workaholic labor for the Nats, Bowden, regardless of his results, deserves far better than a guilt-by-association firing that could effectively end his baseball career.

You have to stand by him until "the professionals" finish with him. Then, if you want to fire him because the team lost 102 games last season, or just because you're tired of his drama, that's any franchise's prerogative. Or, if you think that signing his old Reds buddy Adam Dunn and a good offseason trade for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham should be rewarded with another season, then go for it.

But the limbo in which the Nationals now find themselves would be destructive to a 102-win team, let alone this club, which is trying to regain its respectability and actually has made significant steps to do it.

Those who run the Nats don't even know how to react when you start a telephone conversation with "Good morning."

"Ohhhh, you have no idea how good a morning it's been," groaned Kasten, who was besieged Monday with questions about Jorge Oquendo, a former Reds scouting coordinator. Oquendo worked for Bowden in '93 and again from '99 to '03 and also worked for the White Sox in '06-07 under player personnel director David Wilder, who was fired last May.

Got that? The only executive who has been fired thus far because of the Dominican scandal is Wilder. Oquendo worked for him. Oquendo also worked for Bowden -- twice. That gives investigators a link between Wilder and Bowden.

It also, let's be clear, doesn't prove a thing. But it is the kind of step good cops take in building a case and extracting information. So far, Oquendo, fired by the White Sox a year ago, has been quoted as saying, "[Bowden] didn't even know who I was." Doesn't sound like he's quite ready to "flip" yet, does it?

The Lerner family inherited Bowden when it bought the team in '06. Because of his work in sprucing up the '05 team that went 81-81, as well as his 11 years' experience in Cincinnati and his manically entertaining Barnum personality, Bowden was retained. His bosses appreciated his willingness to attempt a brutal task: spend to rebuild the farm system completely but, as much as possible, don't spend on the big league product. But don't be awful.

"Jim got tough marching orders," said one Nats insider.

The team should have been rotten in '07, but wasn't. Bowden's baling wire worked so well the club didn't even get the ultra-high draft pick that it secretly wanted. Last year, the scrimping caught up. If the Nats want to look for "cause," Bowden's name, fair or not, goes on the 102 losses.

It is hard to remember a baseball GM who was ever so surrounded by real fire, as well as the smoke of suspicion, yet kept his job. His team has the worst record in the sport. Some within his own franchise not only want him out but are actively working to make it happen. And, the more they think about it, the less happy the Lerners and Kasten are that, two days after they officially took control of the team, they spent $1.4 million on a bonus to a player -- pitched to them by Bowden -- who turned out to be a 20-year-old with a fake name, not a 16-year-old hot prospect. And the next highest bid by Texas was half what Bowden endorsed.

Just two weeks ago, Bowden had perhaps his proudest moment in Washington as he hammed with Dunn, his wife and small son at a news conference to announce the signing. Bowden made it clear that he was the guy with the inside track, the personal history and the charm to land a player who is second only to Alex Rodriguez in home runs in the last five years. And Bowden signed Dunn for two years, not just one, as many assumed Dunn preferred, and at $10 million a year, after Dunn made $13 million in '08.

Dunn talked about the appeal of D.C. and helping a franchise establish itself. But mostly he talked about "Jim."

Bowden never had more credibility than he did that day. Now, his credibility has never been more under attack. On Monday, he stood in Viera at spring training and said, "I am innocent of any wrongdoing."

At one level, the Nats still have Bowden's back. "The only news is that this is part of the same investigation as last June," Kasten said. "The Nationals are just part of a much wider investigation in which some other teams have already fired personnel and others have decided not to fire anybody. It is myopic and unfair to focus only on the Nationals."

The key word is "only." All of baseball has had ethical problems in Latin America for 20 years. The Nats have company. But concentrating on Bowden is inescapable.

The Nationals now care at least as much about getting a resolution to their public embarrassments and internal distractions as they do about whether their GM stays or goes. That is a bleak juncture for any executive to reach.

Eventually, the Nats and Bowden will end their waiting ordeal when "the professionals" finish their task. On that day, Bowden can still hope to save his name. As for his job, shades of gray may not be enough. Only white will suffice.

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