BOWDEN BOWS OUT, LEAVING QUESTIONS BEHIND

By Murray Chass

March 8, 2009

Sometimes things don’t always work out the way you’d like them to. I’m not talking about a team winning the World Series or a pitcher winning 20 games. I’m talking about the status of an individual.

Jim Bowden is the person I have in mind. The recently resigned general manager of the Washington Nationals, Bowden is not the most liked executive in baseball. When he was named interim general manager in November 2004, executives of other clubs raised questions with the commissioner’s office, which was responsible for the appointment.

There was one question in particular: How can you do that?

Despite the view of him within baseball, I like Jim Bowden. I like the way he works, and it was his way of working that made the Nationals respectable for a couple of seasons.

Bowden caught my attention when he was general manager of the Reds, a job he held from 1992 to 2003. The Reds didn’t have much money to spend – at least that was the impression they gave – and Bowden scrambled to find players as cheaply as he could to make the Reds a respectable team. He did the same with the Nationals.

“No one was smarter, no one was harder working, no one was better at signing players, looking around corners and under rocks,” Stan Kasten, the Nationals’ president, said.

Bowden used every source of player acquisition available, often plucking players off one scrap heap or another. He did the same with the Nationals, taking chances with players no one else wanted like Dmitri Young and Elijah Dukes.

“With personnel, he’d always give guys a second chance,” Young told the Washington Post. “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.”

Maybe Bowden gave Young and others a second chance because he himself got a second chance early in his career. In 1989 he was an assistant to the Yankees’ general manager of the moment, Syd Thrift, when Thrift, weary of George Steinbrenner’s harangues, resigned late in August.

The next day Bowden was fired, escorted out of Yankee Stadium by security guards. He had been accused of hacking into another team’s computer and helping himself to scouting reports.

By the end of the year, however, Bowden got his second chance. The Reds hired him as an assistant in scouting and player development. A little more than two years later they made him, at the age of 31, the youngest general manager in baseball history.

In his years as the Reds’ and the Nationals’ general manager, Bowden acquitted himself well, working tirelessly, as hard as any general manager, harder than many. But there were times where he antagonized other general managers, which is why there are some who have no sympathy for his current plight.

Bowden, 47 years old, left the Nationals in the midst of two so-called scandals: the skimming of bonus money paid to young Dominican Republic players and the $1.4 million signing of a Dominican player who, it was subsequently learned, lied about his name and his age.

Bowden denied involvement in either matter, and I want to believe him. I want to believe he didn’t participate in the skimming scheme and did nothing shady or questionable with the $1.4 million John Doe (as good a name as any) bonus. But he told me he is not being investigated, and two baseball officials said he is, by Major League Baseball and the FBI, so I am left wondering what to think.

“They’ve interviewed me about other people,” Bowden said about the skimming scheme in a telephone interview. “I am not a target of the investigation. There is a big difference between being interviewed and being a target. The targets are people who had worked for me for a short period of time. That doesn’t mean they’re guilty. We cooperated with them.”

The skimming investigation has been ongoing for more than a year. The Chicago White Sox fired David Wilder, their director of player personnel, and two scouts who were based in the Dominican, last May as a result of skimming allegations. Jorge Oquendo, who worked for Wilder and Bowden, has been reported to be a target of the MLB and FBI investigations, and a baseball official confirmed that.

Another official said investigators have had “grave concerns” about Bowden for months.

Before Bowden resigned as the Nationals’ general manager, Jose Rijo, an aide, was fired for his involvement in the signing of Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo, a.k.a. Esmailyn Gonzalez, for a $1.4 million bonus.

When the Nationals signed him in 2006 as Gonzalez, they said he was 16 years old. They subsequently learned he was 4 years older and had a different name.

On the surface it seemed unlikely that the Nationals or any of their employees could be faulted for anything more than incompetence for letting Lugo scam them. It was to the Nationals’ detriment that they were fooled so expensively, giving first-round bonus money to an older player.

“Since 9/11 everyone is checked,” Bowden said. “The government didn’t pick it up, Major League Baseball didn’t pick it up, none of us knew. How are we supposed to know if the Dominican government doesn’t?”

Every club, Bowden added, “gets kids kicked back. If you have six signings per month one or two are being kicked back for age change or birth date change. This guy got through.”

Bowden said that in 2006 the Nationals had Lugo (at left) in the same workout as Emmanuel Burriss, an infielder the Giants picked in the first round of the 2006 draft. “Burriss is 20, 21,” Bowden said, “and this kid outhits him. If we had known this kid was 4 years older we would have looked at him differently.”

Seeing Lugo outhit Burriss, the Nationals might have questioned his age. But they didn’t and gave him the money. Investigators suspect there was more to the signing than a clever ruse perpetrated by a young Dominican.

“Was that one of the skimming sources?” a baseball official asked. “That’s an awful lot of money for the kid.”

Bowden said the Nationals gave the “kid” as much money as they did because of what they thought his age was. They saw him comparable to a first-round pick in the June draft and paid him like it. At least that’s their story.

Kasten, who surprisingly retained Bowden as general manager when he joined the Lerner family’s purchase of the Nationals in 2006, might have nudged Bowden toward resignation, but he didn’t acknowledge it.

“I think there are many things going on to make him realize this wasn’t good for the franchise,” Kasten said in a telephone interview. “The franchise operates on good faith with the fans. This was undercutting it. He felt we’d be better off this way and I agreed with that. I don’t know who was involved in talking with him, but this was his conclusion.”

Kasten said he had no inside knowledge of the dual investigations. “The investigators, who are free with their leaks, suspect something, but I haven’t been shown any evidence of wrong doing,” he said. “Jim swears he hasn’t done anything wrong. I hope that’s the case.”

Asked specifically about the skimming scheme, Kasten said, “None of that has yet been proven with our club. We do have evidence of a wrong signing.”

Kasten sees better days ahead. “I’m glad it’s behind us,” he said a day after Bowden resigned. “For a long time this is all that was written about and therefore what fans were thinking about. The clouds are clearing.”

GRINDING IN THE RUMOR MILL

Stan Kasten, president of the Washington Nationals, is not a fan of rumor. Asked last week about rumors that he and the Lerner family, the team’s owners, were not getting along and that he was considering resigning, he said, “I don’t even talk about rumors that are current. All I know is I’m here. We work together well; we have the same goal, building a franchise that can do well and represent the nation’s capital with pride.”

And with that, he was off on the topic of rumors.

“I read all winter I was going to Toronto,” he said. “And I was firing J.P.” That would be J.P. Ricciardi, the Blue Jays’ general manager. “Now,” Kasten added, “I read rumors that I’m going to hire Tony LaCava.”

LaCava is the Blue Jays’ assistant general manager, and Kasten presumably would be hiring him to replace Jim Bowden, who resigned as the Nationals’ general manager a week ago.

But the LaCava rumor included another element. “I was going to hire LaCava,” Kasten said, “and I had gone to the commissioner to get a waiver of the rule about interviewing minority candidates.”

GOING IN DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS

In the visitors clubhouse in Kansas City before the second game of the 1984 season, one player was sitting in a grocery cart and another was pushing him around the room. It was a scene rarely seen in a major league clubhouse. But these players were teenagers. Stan Javier was 19, Jose Rijo 18.

The next day Rijo (at left) would become the youngest pitcher to pitch for the Yankees. He would pitch in two more games before turning 19.

Rijo had not been expected to pitch for the Yankees that soon. He was promoted to their roster late in spring training only because 19-year-old Dwight Gooden was going to pitch for the Mets. George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ owner, declared that the Yankees had to match the Mets. If the Mets had a young pitcher, the Yankees had to have a young pitcher.

Rijo wasn’t ready to pitch in the majors, and he struggled through the season, compiling a 2-8 record and 4.76 earned run average in 5 starts and 19 relief appearances. Gooden, meanwhile, started 31 games for the Mets and had a 17-9 record and a 2.60 e.r.a.

In December of 1984, the Yankees traded Rijo, Javier and three young pitchers to Oakland for Rickey Henderson. Twenty-five years later, Henderson has been elected to the Hall of Fame. Javier is the general manager of the Dominican Republic team in the World Baseball Classic.

Rijo, who won two games and was the most valuable player in the Reds’ World Series triumph in 1990, was recently fired from his front-office position with the Nationals.

RESOUNDING REACTION FROM PIAZZA FANS

Last week’s column on Mike Piazza has drawn more reader e-mail than any of the 97 columns that have appeared on this site. Most of the comments were critical, though some readers appreciated the revelation about Piazza’s telltale back.

“I’m guessing by now you’re getting ripped on this article, but wanted to say it was a good one,” one reader wrote. “I’m a die hard Mets fan, but I appreciate objectivity. I always admired Piazza, and still would even if he were called out, but steroids would explain a lot of things about his career, especially his opposite-field power.”

Another reader said, “No dispute from this Mets fan that Mike Piazza was doing something unnatural for much, if not nearly all, of his career. I don’t know if steroids helped him hit for a high average, but they certainly added muscle to his physique and yards to his long balls. You’re correct to suggest that he somehow was overlooked in much of the noise about steroids when it first came to light in baseball. As time progressed and I watched him play for the Mets on television, it seemed impossible that he’d done this naturally.”

But then came the critics, and it’s only fair to offer their case. It was most vehemently presented by Darrell Sparkman, who said he was a teammate and roommate of Piazza at the University of Miami (Fla.), which Piazza attended for one year.

Sparkman said it was tasteless to write about Piazza’s acne-covered back and argued that Piazza “has long been known for his tape measure shots.”

“We used to call him the best Six o’clock hitter in the nation, batting practice was at six,” Sparkman wrote. “Mike was in the cages hitting every chance he got. When he was at home he was working out or hitting the tire in our backyard. He had a batting cage at his parent’s home. He would tell us of the hours spent in the batting cage over Christmas Break. He was a hard worker and a great hitter with tremendous power.”

“People have made comments about Mike for years,” he continued. “Is he gay? Hell no. Steroids? Absolutely not. He didn’t have some major physical transformation. He was a big strong guy and grew in to his body.”

In addition, Sparkman said, Piazza “has had back acne for years,” adding, “He wasn’t taking steroids when we were at Miami, I can tell you that as can our other roommates. As painful as it probably was, his back acne was a source of humiliation back then.”

Sparkman’s e-mail raised some questions. Just because Piazza didn’t use steroids as a college player, what did that have to do with the possibility that he used them as a professional player?

If Piazza was such a good, strong hitter, why wasn’t he drafted before the 62nd and last round?

“Mike wasn’t drafted because he could not play a lick of defense,” Sparkman said in his second e-mail. “He alternated between third and first, and was very slow. When you are projected as a DH coming of college, your chances aren’t that great. Mike couldn’t hit the breaking ball or off speed pitches when he was younger. Through hard work he learned how to do it.”

The problem with that explanation is baseball organizations will always find a way to take a good hitter who has no position and work with him on his inadequacies. If Piazza was as good a power hitter as Sparkman said he was, someone, certainly the Dodgers, would have taken him before the final round.

One final note. A few readers, referring to my issue with the column that prompted me to write about Piazza, asked why I didn’t ask Piazza about the sudden disappearance of the acne on his back when baseball began testing for steroids and players who tested positive were subject to suspension.

I have tried to reach Piazza through his former agent but have been unsuccessful. I would have preferred being able to ask him about it and should have indicated in the column that I did try to reach him. It was a mistake not to.

 

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.