By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 23 -- Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said Monday that he has done nothing wrong. The federal investigators looking into Bowden still aren't so sure, a source familiar with the investigation said. The Nationals, meantime, are waiting to find out, and want to learn more about Bowden's possible involvement in a growing baseball-wide scandal before they determine whether he retains his job.
But behind the scenes, according to sources, some within the team's ownership group -- which includes Theodore N. Lerner, the team's managing principal owner, seven principal owners and nine founding partners -- are eager to cut ties with the general manager they inherited almost three years ago, and see the investigation as a way of facilitating Bowden's exit. The Nationals, one source said, are encouraging the investigation to return an answer on Bowden so the parties can "go on their merry way."
In the past week, the federal probe examining scouting practices in Latin America -- including the skimming of signing bonuses earmarked for prospects -- has intensified scrutiny of Bowden and tested the team's willingness to tolerate it. On Monday, Bowden denied any wrongful practices, saying simply, "I'm innocent of any wrongdoing, and besides that I don't have any comment."
Team president Stan Kasten, asked directly about support for Bowden, said: "Listen, I support everyone who works for the Washington Nationals all the time, period. But we're not going to talk about things that are going on away from here that I have no control or involvement in. I've told you, I am gonna allow the process to play out. We'll allow the chips to fall where they may, and we're going to look at things honestly and deal with them as is appropriate."
Neither Ted Lerner nor his son, Mark, were willing to comment on Monday, saying through a spokeswoman that "Stan's response will stand as the Nationals' statement."
To date, Bowden is the highest-ranking baseball official involved in the investigation. And while the probe has revealed numerous problems that occurred on Bowden's watch, it has failed to prove he was responsible for them. Still, Bowden's proximity to these problems has led investigators to examine his practices dating from 1994, when he worked as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, a source said.
Both in Cincinnati and in Washington, Bowden worked with José Rijo, who owns and operates a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. In 2006, Rijo brokered negotiations with a prospect, thought to be 16-year-old Esmailyn Gonzalez, who was using a false name and age. Major League Baseball confirmed this week that Gonzalez is actually four years older than thought, and named Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo. The Nationals, with Bowden's approval, awarded Gonzalez a $1.4 million signing bonus in 2006.
On Saturday, Rijo, a special assistant to Bowden, took a leave of absence from his job after meeting with team officials. Rijo has since returned to the Dominican, but has not been fired. No other team officials have been punished, Kasten said.
Kasten noted the investigation involves many pieces, the Gonzalez case being "just a discreet thing" within the bigger picture. The White Sox fired senior director of player personnel David Wilder and two scouts over the investigation; the Yankees and the Red Sox also have fired scouts. "This has already taken in, covered a number of teams. Several teams have already let people go," Kasten said. "Several other teams have learned they didn't need to let people go. So it's a wide-ranging investigation."
Washington's pragmatic stance with Bowden, several sources said, will change instantly if the investigation gives team ownership any ammunition. That group, which took control of the Nationals in 2006, inherited Bowden as its general manager -- and ever since, Bowden has built a reputation for survival skills.
He survived the transition to a new ownership group by fostering an alliance with principal owner Mark Lerner, still his closest supporter. He survived a forced marriage with Kasten. He survived a 2006 drunken driving charge. He survived three losing seasons in Washington, including last year's 102-loss calamity.
Forced out as Cincinnati's general manager in July 2003, Bowden initially worked as an analyst on ESPN2's "Cold Pizza" morning show. But in November 2004, the Nationals -- then under the control of Major League Baseball -- became Bowden's opportunity at another GM job. In Cincinnati, after all, he'd curried a reputation as a polarizing, impulsive, vibrant risk-taker -- sometimes outrageous, and always willing to find creative ways to build a team on a low budget.
He did just that in budget-tight Washington, and shortly after taking the job, he got to know Mark Lerner, whose family hadn't yet purchased the team. Bowden developed a friendship with Lerner. And later, even though Bowden's sensibilities clashed with the Lerners' preference for restraint, Bowden kept his job for one reason.
"Jim endeared himself to Mark," one source said Monday. "And they have continued to be close, to the dismay of Stan."
Bowden's track record in building the Nationals reflects a mix of unwise contracts given to veterans, savvy high-reward risks on players such as Elijah Dukes, and notable offseason upgrades, including the early February signing of free agent Adam Dunn. While talking about Bowden on Monday, Kasten bemoaned the lack of recent attention given to on-field story lines.
"It's happened with your backs turned to it at the moment," Kasten said, motioning to one of the practice fields. "I hope you're not happy about that. Something could be happening out there. We could have Adam Dunn at third base at the moment and you wouldn't know about it."
Staff writers Thomas Boswell and Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.