Bowden Saga Continues to Drag On as Uncertainty Surrounds Nats

Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden's future remains in question, creating a scenario where every Bowden absence sets off alarm bells of a potential permanent departure from the club.
Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden's future remains in question, creating a scenario where every Bowden absence sets off alarm bells of a potential permanent departure from the club. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 28 -- Normally, Jim Bowden travels around Florida this time of year, watching his team. The Washington Nationals expected as much on Saturday, figuring they'd see Bowden slide into a choice seat at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter for the afternoon exhibition game against the Cardinals.

Bowden never showed, though. In less complicated times, that would raise no antennas; the general manager is perfectly entitled to skip a two-hour road trip down Interstate 95.

But for the Nationals, with Bowden under FBI investigation and with the rest of the organization awaiting a resolution, every moment connects to the same, protracted mystery. Exhibition games become Where's Waldo games. More important, the uncertainty regarding Bowden's future has left many in the organization wondering who's in charge, and why a resolution hasn't yet been reached.

The Bowden controversy has obscured the many promising story lines of this spring and interfered with the run-up Washington needs for the 2009 regular season. Never have the Nationals seen a greater need to sell their on-field product. With their welcome-to-the-District grace period now over, and with the honeymoon benefits of the new stadium waning, the Nationals, more than ever, must attract fans with talent and with the potential to win. And the early returns from February indicate that they have some promise. A healthy Nick Johnson. A pain-free Shawn Hill. A free agent slugger capable of hitting 40 home runs. A group of young pitchers nurtured by an improved farm system.

They lack only one thing. Clarity.

Bowden retained his job as of Saturday night, according to numerous sources. Still, one Nationals employee said, "you can't wait for this investigation to play out" to make a move.

In recent days, players have made sarcastic comments about the sideshow aspect of the situation. Some who speak frequently to Bowden have avoided discussing his future, leaving the elephant untouched. One source who spoke with Bowden within the last 72 hours said that the general manager, during their conversation, called the situation "a circus," but said he is guilty of nothing.

On the surface, the Nationals are conducting business as usual. The scouting department, preparing for a draft in which Washington has two first-round picks, already has mapped out its travel and strategy, and requires little daily direction. Bowden, meantime, is still responsible for at least minor decisions. He requested that Hill, injury-prone over the last three years, go only one inning, not the customary two, in his Grapefruit League debut on Friday. Less clear, though, is whether Bowden would be authorized at this point to make major trades.

The team's fourth exhibition game on Saturday became merely another barometer for the uncertainty. During the team's batting practice, which started 90 minutes before game time, assistant general manager Mike Rizzo -- the presumed successor to Bowden -- and front-office member Bob Boone -- a loyal Bowden lieutenant -- filed into the stadium. Rizzo watched batting practice from behind the cage, same as Bowden usually does, talking to hitting coach Rick Eckstein and glancing at the scouting reports in his hand.

Minutes later, when speaking to a few reporters, Rizzo gave his thoughts on the players behind him -- a group that he and Bowden, together, had watched develop. Rizzo called the early returns on the young pitching staff -- including John Lannan, Collin Balester and Jordan Zimmermann -- encouraging, and said "it's good to see them all kind of flourish at the same time." Asked about 2006 first-round pick Chris Marrero, trying to rebound from a disappointing 2008, Rizzo had more enthusiasm: "If you tell me Chris Marrero is not one of the top 100 prospects in baseball we could have a very spirited discussion on that."

Asked about his own role within the organization, Rizzo said: "I don't want to comment on my profile. I'm part of the Washington Nationals organization, and we sink and swim together, and I'm happy where I'm at in my career. At this time, I think we have to be about 'we' instead of 'me.' "

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