By Barry Svrluga and Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 2, 2009
Only one general manager in baseball rode a Segway around his team's spring training complex, rolling up to players and coaches before zooming off when something else inevitably grabbed his attention. Only one general manager in baseball pulled on a shaggy black wig when aloof slugger Manny Ramírez came to his park as an opponent, laughing around the batting cage like a kid on Halloween. And only one general manager in baseball would say, of one of his injured players, "We pray for his buttocks and his family."
That general manager was one in the same, Jim Bowden, now out as the top baseball executive with the Washington Nationals. Bowden's time in Washington -- four years that marked the return of baseball to the nation's capital, the opening of a new ballpark, nary a winning record and an array of outrageous moments -- showed the dichotomous nature of the 47-year-old baseball lifer. Simultaneously outlandish and shrewd, alternately caring and seemingly insensitive, few figures in baseball were as polarizing as Bowden, whose tenure with the Nationals ended yesterday in the wake of a scandal involving the signing of players in the Dominican Republic.
"With his skill set and work ethic and his ability, he could have been among the top general managers in the game," said Tony Siegle, the Nationals' assistant general manager under Bowden from 2005 to 2006. "Unfortunately, he had that other side. His relationship with people was always very fragile because of that temper and the hair-trigger emotion he had. It was difficult to figure out who he was going to be when he walked into the office."
Agents, executives and players yesterday described Bowden in terms both flattering and disparaging. "He was one of the most creative executives in the business," said one agent who had negotiated several deals with Bowden. But an executive of another club said, "If they got all his enemies together, they'd have to rent Yankee Stadium."
The foundation of such a discordant reputation was built in Cincinnati, where Bowden, at 31, became the youngest general manager in the history of the game in 1992. He ran the Reds for 10 1/2 seasons before he was fired midway through 2003, and he got his job with the Nationals only under unique circumstances. Major League Baseball owned the Montreal Expos and moved the franchise to Washington in the fall of 2004. Just as it did, the club's general manager, Omar Minaya, took the same job with the New York Mets.
That left a vacuum in Washington, where the Nationals were headquartered in a pair of trailers in the parking lot outside RFK Stadium. MLB originally offered the job, on an interim basis, to Bob Watson, one of its own executives. Watson turned it down. Bowden, desperate for another chance, was selected over former Boston executive Dan Duquette, and he took the position with only a three-month contract.
"We were all kind of thrown together," said Tony Tavares, the president of the Nationals when MLB owned the club. "For the most part, we didn't have many problems. But Jim is Jim. He's edgy. He's extremely hard-working. I don't think there's many general managers that would outwork him. But he did have that edge to him that some people didn't like."
When MLB failed to sell the franchise during the 2005 season, Bowden maintained his job into 2006. During that time, sources familiar with the situation said, Bowden developed a close personal relationship with Mark Lerner, son of real estate magnate Ted Lerner, the patriarch of the family that would buy the team. That relationship, those sources said, helped Bowden keep his position when the Lerners took over the team in the summer of 2006, despite the fact that Bowden was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol during one of the team's trips to Miami that April.
"That was probably our most difficult time," Tavares said.
Bowden's baseball moves -- such as trading for slugger Alfonso Soriano in December 2005, but failing to retain him or deal him for prospects -- were almost always controversial. The debates over those moves were sometimes overshadowed by his personal style and penchant for flamboyant quotes, but he tirelessly thought of potential solutions to the myriad problems faced by executives of teams with small player payrolls. When Cincinnati owner Marge Schott disallowed one trade proposal because it would increase the payroll, Bowden suggested finding a corporate sponsor for the player in question, one that could be mentioned every time the player entered the game.
"He even suggested putting the sponsorship on the back of the player's uniform," said Brad Kullman, who eventually became an assistant GM in Cincinnati under Bowden.
Bowden, too, gained a reputation for unfailing loyalty to those he respected, and for granting second chances. Though José Rijo, one of his former pitchers in Cincinnati, failed to deliver Dominican talent when the pair still worked for the Reds, Bowden turned to Rijo to lead the Nationals' Dominican program when he came to Washington. That decision led to Bowden's downfall, because Rijo first scouted and recommended a player named Esmailyn González to Bowden, and Bowden signed him for a $1.4-million bonus. It turned out Gonzalez was really Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo, and that he had knocked nearly four years off his age.
"I love Jim Bowden," Rijo said last week. "He's the only one who gave me a chance. He's the only one who believed in me. People don't know how caring he is."
Bowden constantly hunted for talented players who might have off-the-field issues and, therefore, be available at a discount. In his first week on the job, he traded for troubled outfielder José Guillén, who was productive in the first half of 2005 -- when the Nationals were unexpectedly in first place -- but became a problem in the clubhouse as the season deteriorated. In 2007, he signed first baseman Dmitri Young, who had been cast aside by the Detroit Tigers in the midst of legal and personal problems, to a minor league deal. Prior to the 2008 season, he dealt for outfielder Elijah Dukes, whose list of criminal charges dated back to his teenage years.
"With personnel, he'd always give guys a second chance," Young said yesterday. "Well, there wasn't a team that wanted to touch me with a 10-foot pole, and he was the only one that gave me an opportunity."
Bowden's opportunity with the Nationals ended yesterday in what he and the club officially called a resignation. He was, until now, the only general manager in Nationals history. The franchise will almost certainly never have another one like him.
Harlan reported from Viera, Fla.