Washington's new Major League Baseball franchise yesterday named Jim Bowden its general manager, and Bowden in turn said he intends to bring back Hall of Famer Frank Robinson as the team's field manager. It is, however, much more difficult to find other certainties as baseball officials continue the enormous task of moving the Expos from Montreal to the District in time for the 2005 season, which is due to open five months from tomorrow.
Describing himself as "obviously very honored and excited," Bowden, the former general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, said yesterday in a conference call with reporters that he accepted the job with the Expos on an interim basis, that he has no idea how long he'll hold it, and that he's not sure how much money the club will have to spend on free agents. He said he is taking a "leave of absence" from his job as a baseball analyst for ESPN because he felt a "loyalty" to the sport.
"I think one of the things that was intriguing to me is that it was a short-term commitment," Bowden said, "an opportunity where this is an organization that has a lot of good young players, a lot of potential. And it's going into a marketplace that I believe is going to be tremendous not only for Washington fans, but for Major League Baseball."
Bowden's approach to the task as a temporary post underscores the flux in which the franchise finds itself. MLB announced its intention to move the team from Montreal to Washington in late September, but a plan for a $440 million stadium project has not yet been formally approved, and there are already estimations that the project could cost millions more. The Expos are owned by the other 29 major league clubs, and MLB has just begun the process of sifting through applications of interested buyers. MLB officials hope the franchise brings in at least $300 million.
Robinson, who has never worked with Bowden, said he was impressed by him from afar. But unlike Bowden, Robinson has made it clear that he would like to remain the manager even after the club is sold. Robinson's contract expires Dec. 31, but both he and Bowden expect to reach a deal for next season.
"I don't feel very comfortable talking about [keeping the job beyond next year], because it makes me seem kind of selfish," Robinson said by telephone last night. "I certainly would like the new ownership to take a look, and hopefully, they'll be pleased with the work I have done."
For now, the Expos are scattered across the continent. Bowden -- who spoke from his home in Los Angeles -- said he and the baseball staff, including assistant GM Tony Siegle, will work from the team's spring training site in Viera, Fla. Expos President Tony Tavares is assembling the team's offices in Washington, but the club's accounting and business operations will remain, for the time being, in Montreal.
"Jim and I felt like it was kind of a bonding thing for them to be down there in Florida," Tavares said. "We've been kind of fractured in the past, with people spread across the nation. This will be good, because then they'll go right into spring training after the winter."
Bowden, 43, was chosen to run the baseball side of the operation over Dan Duquette, who once served as the general manager of the Expos but most recently held the same position with the Boston Red Sox. Duquette and Bowden were considered by MLB officials, led by President Robert DuPuy, only after Bob Watson -- a vice president with MLB and the former general manager of the Houston Astros and New York Yankees -- turned down the position last week.
Bowden (pronounced BOE-den) replaces Omar Minaya, who left in September to take the same position with the New York Mets.
"I think we are bringing onboard a very credible guy, a guy that has a terrific track record, a guy I've spoken to and know that we're on the same page," Tavares said. "And that same page is to make this team as good as we possibly can, both in the short and long term."
Both Tavares and Bowden realize, however, that they are likely to be in Washington only for the near future. Bowden said that aspect actually appealed to him.
"This is the transition period," Bowden said. "I think it's very important that the new owner, when he comes in and buys this franchise, has the opportunity to put in place the people that he wants in place. . . . Number two, I don't think it's fair to make any drastic changes in personnel when you're bringing someone in who may be reevaluated in three months or four months."
During his 101/2-year tenure in Cincinnati -- where he became general manager at age 31, but was fired midway through the 2003 season -- Bowden developed a reputation as someone who could work within a strict budget, something he will have to do with the Expos. The team's payroll, which will be determined by Major League Baseball, is unlikely to be more than $50 million. The club has two free agents -- third baseman Tony Batista and backup catcher Einar Diaz -- who were on the roster last season, and it has already made overtures toward retaining Batista.
"It's not going to be at the low end, like Tampa Bay, and it's not going to be at the high end, like the Yankees," Bowden said. "It's going to be in the middle."
Robinson and Bowden spoke about the roster yesterday, and both agreed the team needs more strength in the middle of the batting order.
"I told Jim we need a couple of players," Robinson said. "He said, 'No, I think we need more than a couple.' I said, 'I didn't want to scare you off.' "
Tavares, for one, is happy to have the player and personnel issues off his hands. Temporary office space, for ticket sales and marketing, is just now being set up at RFK Stadium. But the baseball decisions -- with the offseason general managers' meetings less than a week away -- are now in Bowden's hands.
"If the truth be known, he's probably doing this to get his oar in the water again," Tavares said. "If he pulls this off, well, people are going to notice."