By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009
VIERA, Fla., March 1 -- Day-to-day, for 1,580 days, Jim Bowden survived as general manager of the Washington Nationals. The uncertainty never bothered him, at least until it cost him his job. On Sunday morning, dressed in a charcoal suit, Starbucks coffee in hand, Bowden walked into a full Washington Nationals clubhouse at 8:45, closed the door, and told the team of his resignation.
"I've become a distraction," Bowden said minutes later, "and unless you're Manny Ramírez there's no place for distractions in baseball."
Jerry-rigged to a de facto expansion team in November 2004, Bowden maintained the tenuous relationship with his team -- and, sometimes, with those who worked around him -- in a manner that defied the odds and exemplified his gift for winging it. He inherited uncertainty, taking a job with a team just relocated from Montreal, still without a name. He also left uncertainty behind, resigning from an organization deeply imbued by Bowden's maverick image, and still without a chosen successor to start a new path.
Since taking this job, Bowden -- more than any other character -- dictated the feel of Washington's baseball team. His moods kept many in the organization on edge, sources said. His devotion to baseball and work won him just enough loyal allies, whom Bowden trusted fiercely. His penchant for low-risk roster roulette created a clubhouse of talented twenty-somethings, third-chance reclamation prospects, and plenty of ex-Cincinnati Reds. Still, it was his connection to an ongoing FBI investigation -- and the manner in which it dominated story lines this spring -- that rendered his always-shaky job finally untenable.
"I believe I have had one of the great challenges a GM could ever get when I was hired in November 2004 on a day-to-day basis," Bowden said, "and I kept that job on a day-to-day basis for over four years."
Starting Monday morning, President Stan Kasten will gather others in the organization to map out what's next. At an unusual time in the baseball calendar, the Nationals have a job opening; the winner inherits an improved lineup, a bounty of young pitching talent and the opportunity to parlay two top-10 picks in the June draft into a franchise foundation. Kasten, who joined the franchise in 2006, sometimes admired Bowden's penchant for creativity, but now he'll get the chance to hand-pick a partner. That search, one industry source said on Sunday, will end poorly only if "they're looking to find a personality like Jim's."
The team, several industry sources said, is expected to begin with a list that includes current assistant general manager Mike Rizzo and Toronto Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava. The two, in baseball circles, share similar reputations. Both are hailed for their evaluative ability. Both, antidotal to Bowden, have a deep network of friends within the industry. Both are on any executive's short list of GMs-in-waiting. And both, sources said, very much want the job.
That Rizzo did not immediately receive the interim general manager title surprised some in the organization, but indicated Kasten's preference for a wider search. Kasten, though, warned that "it would all be unwise to speculate or guess what's going on" and said: "I'm not going to have anything to say to you about next steps for a while -- later in the week I have some things I've been working on, some things I'm thinking about. For today, though, we should just be talking about Jim."
After meeting with Nationals players on Sunday, Bowden spoke for roughly four minutes to a small gathering of media members. His message mirrored that given to the players: "I want to be able to turn the page, and I want this franchise to be able to have everybody from the media and the fans focus on what the game is about," he said. "It's about players. It's about what happens on the field." He spoke of disappointment about recent media coverage -- a tacit, final reminder that while he's being investigated as part of the FBI's money-skimming probe, he's not been found guilty of wrongdoing. Then, Bowden thanked the full list: the Lerner family, Kasten, Manager Manny Acta, even clubhouse attendant Mike Wallace.
Briefly, Bowden choked back tears. He took no questions. He gave no suggestion of what comes next.
Numerous agents and other executives predicted on Sunday that Bowden would struggle to get another job in the game, having burned any bridge that could lead him back. He and longtime assistant José Rijo are under federal investigation for the 2006 signing of a 16-year-old prospect named Esmailyn González, who turned out to have faked both his age (by four years) and his name. González, whose real name is Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo, received a $1.4 million signing bonus, the largest of its kind given by the Nationals.
But Bowden, to his credit, always has shown the ability to cross gulfs even without a bridge. When he broke into the game, Bowden only wanted a job, no guarantees necessary. With only a high school playing background, he hustled through a business and communications degree at Rollins College, doing play-by-play for the school team, finding an internship with the Pittsburgh Pirates, eventually accepting his first full-time job for $12,000.
In 1989, briefly unemployed, Bowden called an executive named Pat Williams in Orlando. Williams was helping to start up the NBA's Magic. He also had his sights set on a National League expansion team. The franchise had no office, no owner -- only a nickname (SunRays) and a potential manager, Bob Boone. Bowden scheduled a meeting with Williams and presented a direct message: If you get a team, I want to be your general manager.
"Short, sweet, very aggressive, very focused," Williams said on Sunday. "He knew what he wanted to do in life."
Baseball, and nothing else. Once Bowden finally became a general manager with Cincinnati in October 1992 -- then 31, he was the youngest in the game -- he developed a reputation among peers as an exacting but relentless trading partner and among agents as a volatile force, by equal chance sullen or delightful. Sometimes, Bowden wore three-piece suits with pocket squares to work. Sometimes, he wore Fubu warm-up sweats.
His intelligence, after his firing from Cincinnati in 2003, enabled his second chance at his favorite job. All over again, Bowden jumped at the chance to link up with a team that was barely even a team. And by early 2006, as the Lerner ownership group was placing its bid on the franchise, Bowden had played his most savvy hand. From the beginning of the bidding, sources said, Bowden tried to curry favor with Mark Lerner, knowing he'd be fired if any other group won the team. Bowden presented Lerner with information on the free agents he would sign, the minor league system he would build, the budgets he could maintain.
"The single thing that stood out for me about why we needed someone with Jim's skill is that he's resourceful, perhaps as resourceful as anyone in the game as a GM," said Kasten, who came to the franchise along with the Lerners. "That's exactly what we needed for where we were when I got here. We needed someone who would look around every corner, dig under every rock to find the pieces that we could put in place. And because of that we have a foundation that looks very exciting for '09. And I hope with this move today we can turn our attention back to '09."