Thomas Boswell on the Washington Nationals' New Leadership After General Manager Jim Bowden's Resignation

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, March 5, 2009

The expressions on the faces of Manny Acta, Mike Rizzo and Stan Kasten on Sunday after the resignation of Jim Bowden told a vivid story. They ranged from relief to smiles. No tears for sure. Seldom have three men been so at peace with a colleague blowing up. Meet the new bosses, same as the old bosses but, minus Bowden, all more powerful and maybe more cohesive, too.

All three men had qualms about the former general manager. Acta didn't like him or the kind of troubled players he accumulated. Rizzo wanted his job. Kasten constantly had to worry about Bowden or his palace intrigues.

Bowden's career was hardly cold when Kasten leaned against a clubhouse wall, noting: "Resigned, not fired. A big difference." No loose ends. No hard feelings. Ah, a team president finally at peace. For days, Kasten had been referring to himself as Gilligan: "I came down here for a three-hour cruise. I've been stranded for two weeks." That was life with Jimbo. But not anymore.

Minutes later, Rizzo was animatedly analyzing players, chatting trades, his career-long GM dream close to coming true. As for Acta, asked a general question, he veered directly into his relationship with Bowden, volunteering that, "If it had been as bad as some people said, I wouldn't have been around here for three years." But it wasn't good.

As soon as Bowden left the scene, the chemistry at the top of the organization changed radically. Much as Bowden got under their skins at times, Kasten, Rizzo and Acta have few problems with one another. They are competent, no-drama peas in a pod. The Nats' hierarchy just got less entertaining, but, maybe, more functional. Few leadership trios were ever more bland than Kasten, John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox in Atlanta under Ted Turner.

The three vital qualities in an executive, it's said, are energy, brains and character. The third is most important because, without it, the first two virtues turn into vices. For years, the Nationals, especially the Lerner family, focused on the first two qualities, which Bowden had in spades, and which the team desperately needed. Now, in the wake of Bowden's resignation, the veil may be falling from everybody's eyes.

A general manager is supposed to solve problems, not create them; be the adult, not the child; bring people together, not divide them; and focus his energy, not spew it.

Now, the grown-ups are running the Nats. We'll see if it works any better. Bowden always asked to be judged on his record: trades, drafts, free agents, Rule 5 steals. With so few resources, that record didn't look too bad. But maybe that missed the point. Was it Bowden's personality, his impact on the team's internal life that had more impact?

Did the Nats need a GM who, with his penchant for halfway house players, undermined his strict young manager's clubhouse morale? Did a franchise with so many problems need a GM who put out hints that the team president might leave town because he wanted to win or that the owner wouldn't spend and didn't get it?

By the time he gave up the GM ghost, not many Nats secrets were left in the shadows. Bowden's version got out -- one way or the other. He wanted to sign free agent pitchers but Kasten had the spreadsheets to show it was a bad investment. He wanted to re-sign Ryan Zimmerman for close to $60 million for six years, but Kasten saw the player differently. And, thanks to Ted Lerner, who makes every important decision, the Nats had a moment when they might have gotten Mark Teixeira at $188 million for nine years. But the Yankees pounced.

Post-Jim, life will be simpler. Better, who knows? Yesterday, Kasten gave Rizzo all the duties, though not yet the title, of GM. That's a formality; if you jilt Rizzo at the altar now, he has to start packing. Use him or lose him.

It won't take long to find out how Rizzo, Kasten and Acta work together on trades because, before Opening Day, the Nats may be as active as any team. From its scary thin bullpen to its glut of outfielders, the Nats' lopsided but promising roster screams out for deals.

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