By Thomas Boswell
Monday, March 2, 2009
Jim Bowden was never going to be the Nationals' ultimate general manager, the man who, the franchise hoped, would oversee a potential champion. His methods were too suspect, his moods too unpredictable, his reputation too checkered, his enemies in the game too numerous. But he was useful. He worked like a dog. He sold the game. He was colorful and controversial. He took tiny budgets and, sometimes, made something of them. Or else, like last year, all the baling wire snapped. Given few chips, he couldn't blow a big pot. And he landed castoffs and malcontents, occasionally for peanuts.
Bowden was a good servant with brutal marching orders, but he was also a man who many in baseball assumed had an expiration date stamped on his back. At some point, he'd blow himself up, burn too many bridges. Then the Nats would move on to the next stage of evolution.
That juncture came Sunday. It wasn't pretty. The Nats took the convenient, hackneyed way out. Bowden resigned, then said the media had driven him out with innuendo.
"My resignation is based upon my realization that my ability to properly represent the Nationals has been compromised because of false allegations contained in the press," Bowden said in a statement released by the team. "I'm disappointed by the media reports regarding investigations into my professional activities. There have been no charges made and there has been no indication that parties have found any wrongdoing on my part."
Stan Kasten, team president, enjoys a good rant and media persecution is a favorite. He's been beating this drum in private lately. So the manner of Bowden's departure has Kasten's blessing, if not his fingerprints. Such an eminent personage deserves a full and detailed response.
So, here is mine: Oh, please.
Kill some other messenger.
Bowden's team lost 102 games last year. That can get any GM fired, especially one with a .485 career winning percentage.
The entire Dominican operation that Bowden oversaw, delegating the day-to-day operations to José Rijo, had to be razed Thursday when the team fired almost everybody associated with the stinking thing. What Fortune 500 company would retain an executive who was ultimately responsible for a large and important unit of the company that had to be completely dismantled amid scandal?
Also, it was Bowden's personal lobbying that led the Nats to sign their $1.4 million Player to be Named Later in '06. The Nats doubled the next-highest bid for a 16-year-old who turned out to be a 20-year-old with a completely different name.
There is, of course, one decent benefit to the way Bowden left. If he comes out of the ongoing federal and MLB investigations into potentially illegal activities in Latin America with his reputation intact, then he may be able to resume his career as an executive. For his hard work, the Nats didn't want to fire him, which would mean specifying his deficiencies. Quitting solves that. But, you have to blame somebody.
Nationals players themselves saw Bowden's departure more simply. "They had to do something after all the problems down in the Dominican," one player said.
Perhaps the person most sympathetic to Bowden is Bob Boone, who managed for him during his GM days in Cincinnati and was the first person Bowden thanked in his farewell.
"My first team meeting as a manager, I asked the team, 'If anybody thinks baseball is fair, raise your hand,' " Boone said. "No hands went up. I said: 'Then we're in agreement. So don't tell me, "That's unfair." ' "
"I hope Jim's exonerated. He's got to feel like, 'Put a charge on me or leave me alone,' " Boone said. "All he cares about is GMing and this team. The thing that seems most unfair to me is how bad the vetting process is down there in the Dominican for the ages of young players. It goes through the government and MLB first and they have far more resources than we do. But we get blamed for 'Smiley.' "
Bowden's departure will probably have almost no long-term effect on the Nationals while simultaneously allowing the team to focus on its apparent improvement, much of that a credit to Bowden. In all of professional sports, it is rare to find one GM who has taken a team from the expansion stage -- which is essentially what the Nats were in 2005 -- to a title.
How will the Nats replace Bowden's energy level, his ability to work for four years at a pace many could barely maintain for one season?
"We won't be able to," Kasten said. "They don't make people like that. From the day I came here I said that Jim had something that we really needed -- resourcefulness. Is there a better example of that than Jim? He was given nothing or next to nothing but he kept finding players that could help us. That's what we needed."
The biggest question that remains is whether Bowden actually upgraded the farm system, which was his No. 1 assignment, far more than the big league team. At first, results looked promising. But the Dominican has been a total waste of time so far. And the high draft picks he constantly praised have under-performed.
Two pitchers have been exceptions. John Lannan was an 11th-round pick, perhaps a testament to luck as well as skill. The team's brightest prospect this spring has been pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, for whom Bowden doesn't get primary credit.
"[Assistant GM] Mike Rizzo made one of those miserable 'extra trips' that good scouts always take. On a cold day in Wisconsin, he saw Zimmermann," Kasten said.
Rizzo should certainly be the first person given serious consideration for the GM job, though one Nats source said, "The phone has been ringing with people around baseball who have said that they would be 'willing to help us.' "
In time, federal and MLB investigations will end and Bowden's good name may be restored. "I will carry with me the cold, hard realization that my life has been turned upside down by a news media that prints entire stories attributed solely to anonymous sources," Bowden said.
Bowden is entitled to his view and his pain. However, it is difficult to believe, bordering on inconceivable, that the Lerner family and Kasten would let their GM resign (or that as tough a cuss as Bowden would quit) just because the mean old media was jumping up and down.
If nothing else, it would be terrible business practice to allow your second-in-command to be drummed out of town by unproven allegations. What top executive would sign on with the Nats if that's all the backing he could expect?
The Nats joined poor company on Sunday. The last baseball departure in this area that seemed comparably disingenuous was Davey Johnson's exodus from the Orioles -- technically a resignation, not a firing, though everyone knew better -- on the same day he was named American League manager of the year.
A team that terminates a vital relationship, but won't man up and be candid about its causes, especially when those reasons are so obvious and far more than sufficient, is setting a poor standard for its own behavior.