Temp job gives Bowden another shot
by Jerry Crasnick
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.—The Boy Wonder is 43 now, and boyish only in the sense that he fidgets if forced to sit still for extended periods.
When Jim Bowden arrives at the baseball general manager meetings as interim general manager of the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, he conveys the image of a man who'll burst if he can't get something done right here, right now. He talks fast, and thinks at hyper-speed.
But he's also matured, most definitely on the outside. Bowden once walked the lobbies of these meetings looking like Don Johnson in "Miami Vice." Now he's partial to dark suits and conservative ties. Bowden credits his fiancée, actress Joy Browning, with convincing him to dress like a grown-up.
Most likely, he's different on the inside too. Get divorced, lose your job and spend a year in the public eye trying to figure out where you're headed, and it's a recipe for taking stock. A lot of men in their 40s have wigged out over less.
Bowden was 31 and the youngest general manager in history when Marge Schott named him to run her club in October 1992, and he never lacked for ideas or chutzpah. In his tenure with the Reds, he traded Opening Day starter Dave Burba 24 hours before Opening Day, brought the charismatic Deion Sanders to conservative Cincinnati, and traded for Ken Griffey Jr. in what looked like an inspired move at the time.
He was also diplomatically impaired on occasion. Bowden fired franchise favorite Tony Perez by phone 44 games into the 1993 season, ticked off the Dodgers at the Winter Meetings by insisting that trade talks couldn't commence until Tommy Lasorda, the "Big Dodger," was in the room, and equated a potential player strike in 2002 with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He subsequently apologized, but the damage was done.
Bowden is proud of the fact that he spent 10 years in Cincinnati, built two division champions and had the longest tenure of any active general manager not named John Schuerholz. Now he's "transitioning," as corporate headhunters like to say. The question is, to what?
One And Done
As Mike Berardino pointed out in a recent Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel article, baseball managers are routinely recycled, but the GM job is basically a one-and-done proposition these days. Of the 30 general managers at the Key Biscayne meetings, only three—Bowden, the Brewers' Doug Melvin and the Mariners' Bill Bavasi—are taking their second pass at the job.
So many others are now working as assistants or looking at the game from the outside. Randy Smith is scouting for the Padres. Kevin Malone, the erstwhile new sheriff in town, does fund-raising for a small Christian college in California. Dan Duquette runs a baseball camp in western Massachusetts. And Steve Phillips dispenses advice from Bristol, Conn., for ESPN.
It doesn't matter whether you're a scouting guy (Bob Gebhard), an administrator (Dean Taylor) or a little of both (Frank Wren). Good luck finding someone who'll give you a second chance to run a ballclub.
Bowden is back in the game only because he was happy to take a short-term gig. As the Washington franchise resolves the issues of a buyer and a ballpark, he'll operate out of Viera, Fla., with assistant GM Tony Siegle and lots of cows for company. Once a new ownership group takes over in Washington, he will be replaced.
But that doesn't mean he'll stagnate. Bowden was on the job about three days when he started talking about the need for an upgrade on the left side of the infield. Less than a week later, he made the first significant free-agent deals of the offseason by signing former Rockies third baseman Vinny Castilla to a two-year contract and ex-Twins shortstop Cristian Guzman to a four-year deal.
"Jim knows what he wants to do, and he's not afraid to go forward with something," says Yankees GM Brian Cashman. "He's always open for business."
From 1984, when he stepped off the Rollins College campus to work for the Pirates, until July 2003, when he was fired by the Reds, Bowden was accustomed to viewing life through the prism of the baseball season. That meant Christmas caravans in the winter, roster cuts in the spring, a trade deadline in July, and incessantly figuring out new and inventive ways to work around payroll constraints.
But the summer of 2004 was different for a self-professed baseball lifer. Bowden spent the month of August vacationing in Maine and bonding with four of his five sons in a way that was nearly impossible when he was juggling phone calls and monitoring the waiver wire.
Bowden's family has a camp in Boothbay Harbor, and the ESPN people allowed him to do live remote shots from Maine in his role as a correspondent for the show "Cold Pizza." He'd rouse his boys from bed at 4 a.m. and load them into the car for the lengthy drive to a studio in Auburn. They made routine stops at McDonald's for Egg McMuffins during the trip, and Bowden discovered what he'd been missing while working 17-hour days with the Reds.
After Bowden got the Washington gig, his boys Tyler, 13, and Chad, 10, immediately called and began peppering him with trade proposals.
"They're giving me input on almost a daily basis on how to improve the club," he says.
Bowden came across as a little too brash and bold in his previous incarnation with Cincinnati, and alienated some fellow executives and Reds employees along the way. Tony Perez and Ron Oester are among the Cincinnati civic treasures who don't speak kindly of him, and probably never will.
While Bowden declines to get into specifics, he concedes he's had plenty of time to reflect on his missteps with the Reds. "I could write a book on so many things I would do differently, sure," he says.
The job in Washington will probably last three to six months, at which point Bowden will return to his work with ESPN. In the meantime, he has a baseball team to run—and that means upgrading his roster in a manner that's both baseball-savvy and fan-friendly.
Bowden once conducted a clinic in "shrewd" by plucking a future 18-game winner, Pete Schourek, off waivers from the Mets. He also dreamed of assembling an infield consisting of Bret Boone, Aaron Boone, Barry Larkin and Stephen Larkin—two sets of brothers covering four positions.
"You don't just accept you're in a small to middle market," Bowden says. "You don't just accept losing. But this is also the entertainment field."
In other words, he'll do everything in his power to make the game competitive and fun in Washington, for however long the job lasts. Stay alert, baseball: The Boy Wonder is open for business.
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.