Sunday, March 30, 2003

Off-field miscues threaten Bowden's tenure as GM

He wants to be judged by his record -- It's not that simple

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Reds' general manager Jim Bowden has a one sided, animated conversation with Ken Griffey Jr. in February during spring training workouts in Sarasota, Florida.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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Jim Bowden thinks general managers should be judged by the team they put on the field.

The future of Bowden, the Reds' general manager who is in the last year of his four-year contract, hinges on whether chief executive officer Carl Lindner ignores Bowden's off-the-field follies and gives him a new contract based strictly on his record.

"As far as baseball, I think he's one of the best," Lindner said.

But the possibility that Bowden's contract won't be renewed is a hot topic in baseball this spring. Some insiders speculate Bowden's future will depend upon the kind of year the Reds have.

"At the appropriate time later in the year, we'll sit down," chief operating officer John Allen said. "Ownership will certainly be involved."

Those close to Lindner say the chances Bowden will return next year are good.

The Reds are 783-772 during Bowden's tenure, and Bowden hopes he's judged by that record.

"I think a GM should be measured by the team he puts on the field year in and year out within the budget they have to work with," Bowden said in a recent interview. "... You have to be evaluated overall based on the dollars your organization has to work with."

By that standard, Bowden is probably safe, even though some of his recent decisions have hurt the Reds. Just one of four pitchers for whom he traded last year is still with the club. Guaranteed contracts (Kelly Stinnett and Juan Castro) and players out of options (Wily Mo Pena and Ruben Mateo) hamstrung the Reds as they put together the 2003 roster.

But it's Bowden's actions off the field that could get him in trouble. He has attracted more than his share of the kind of attention Lindner abhors: the firing of Tony Perez 44 games into the 1993 season; the dispute with Ron Oester over whether he had been offered the manager's job; Bowden's stating last season that the team doctor misdiagnosed Ken Griffey Jr.'s hamstring injury; his referring to Sept. 11 in his comments last summer about a possible baseball strike; and his remarks this spring that the Griffey trade was a flop.

"I take responsibility for my mistakes," Bowden said. "I apologized and tried to do a better job the next time. I'm in a business that when you make a mistake, the world knows about it. If you work for IBM or Xerox and you make a mistake, it's not headlines."

Allen wouldn't say how off-the-field problems will play into the decision about Bowden's future.

But he will say the obvious: A bad year for the Reds could be a bad thing for Bowden.

"Obviously, we want to do well in a new ballpark," Allen said. "We've seen what happened in other communities where they opened a new ballpark and didn't have super-competitive teams out of the chute. Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh - again, not casting shadows on their teams - but they didn't end up real well in the standings."

Winning is key

In the cities Allen mentioned, non-competitive teams created no demand for tickets in the new ballpark once the novelty wore off.

The Reds, on paper, are better than the teams Detroit, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee put on the field.

The starting eight - Sean Casey, Aaron Boone, Barry Larkin, Brandon Larson, Austin Kearns, Griffey, Adam Dunn and Jason LaRue - are competitive with any in the National League. The bullpen is solid, and the starting pitching has been upgraded.

Bowden is responsible for bringing in every player on the roster except Larkin.

"We've got a bunch of good young ball players on the field every day," Bowden said. "We're very pleased with that."

Great American Ball Park didn't prove to be the financial boon the Reds once thought it would be. The Reds' payroll will come in below $60 million, nowhere near what the large-market teams spend.

"We all would have liked to be able to get (Greg) Maddux, (Bartolo) Colon, (Curt) Schilling or (Randy) Johnson," Bowden said. "But financially it didn't work to do that. But all the other pieces are there. We're going to try to develop pitching from within, because we're never going to be able to afford it from outside."

The Reds were in first or second place 121 days last season before fading badly. If Griffey is healthy and the Reds stay strong all season, it could increase Bowden's chances of getting a new contract. If the opposite happens - and things go bad early - Lindner might want to make a move before fans stop buying tickets.

Lindner is said to like Bowden. It was a call from Lindner that kept Bowden from pursuing other jobs in 1998, although at the time, Lindner was just a limited partner.

Bowden would not comment on whether he has discussed his future with Lindner. He says he's not dwelling on the fact this is the final year of his contract.

"That's out of my control," Bowden said. "I work hard every day in the first year of a five-year contract or the last day of a five-year contract."

'Only job I want'

Despite the turmoil that swelled around him at times, Bowden never considered a job where his mistakes wouldn't make headlines.

"This has been my dream job since I was a child," he said. "It's the only job I ever wanted, the only job I want."

Bowden was the youngest general manager in major-league history when Marge Schott named him to that job Oct. 16, 1992.

At 42, Bowden remains the same brash, high-energy guy he was when Schott promoted him to replace Bob Quinn.

His aggressive style has earned him his share of detractors inside and outside the Reds organization.

"Jim's always trying to get something done," ESPN analyst Peter Gammons said. "Some people don't like that."

Though he has made some enemies, his success with limited resources is hard to argue with.

No less an authority than Yankees GM Brian Cashman appreciates how difficult it is to put together a competitive team on a budget.

"Jim has the ability to be competitive on a budget. I would think people would want to hire someone who can do that," Cashman said. "I have great respect for Jim. ... He's very creative. He keeps trying to find ways to put together a good ballclub."

Bowden's contract runs out Dec. 31. The Reds possibly would allow him to take other offers between the end of the season and the end of the year.

"The rumor is (Bowden) could end up in Tampa Bay," Gammons said. "Lou Piniella loves him."

Equal to Howsam

Bowden's tenure as GM is the second-longest in the major leagues; only Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz has been in office longer.

It is also the longest in Reds history since Bob Howsam, the team's most successful GM ever, was in the job from 1967-78.

It is not just Howsam's two World Championships and four National League titles that separate him from Bowden.

Howsam was the antithesis of controversial. Bowden has made comments that have put his job in jeopardy.

Howsam was the ultimate baseball gentleman. Bowden kept the entire Los Angeles Dodgers baseball staff waiting in a hotel suite at the 2002 Winter Meetings because he wouldn't begin a meeting without Tommy Lasorda present.

Bowden said he was having a little fun. "Our people didn't think it was funny," Lasorda said.

Howsam was rarely around the players. Bowden is at the cage for batting practice every day, and he's often in the clubhouse.

The off-the-field news probably wouldn't matter if Bowden's record approached Howsam's. But it's patently unfair to compare the job Bowden faces as GM in 2003 with what Howsam faced in 1973.

When Cincinnati beat the New York Yankees in the 1976 World Series, it was the Reds who had the most high-priced stars. This year, the Yankees' payroll will come in at about $150 million.

Job has changed

The job has changed considerably under Bowden's watch.

"We've been a big-market team. We've been a small-market team. We've been a middle-market team," he said.

Schott could be talked into adding a high-priced player or two to give the Reds a chance to win. Allen and Lindner so far haven't bent much on payroll.

But the Reds have remained reasonably competitive because they've remade the scouting and player development department.

"When John Allen took over, he understood the importance of development and scouting," Bowden said. "You have to develop players long-term. We may not have the high payrolls we had in the mid-'90s. Now we're with other clubs in development and scouting."

The 2003 Reds reflect the shift of emphasis to player development. Dunn, Kearns and Larson, products of the new system, are projected starters making near the major-league minimum of $300,000.

That's key to small-market success, and Bowden is responsible for the rebuilding of the player development department.

But baseball operations have been in flux this offseason.

Doc Rodgers, the assistant general manager, was reassigned and subsequently took a job as the Baltimore Orioles' director of player development.

Rodgers is considering suing the organization over his treatment. Asked if he'd comment for this story, he said: "My mother told me if I didn't have anything nice to say, not to say anything."

Kasey McKeon, the former scouting director, was reassigned and later left for a job with the Colorado Rockies.

Bowden says the departures were normal turnover.

"You're going to have turnover," he said. "People left for various reasons. We have a lot of stability in the organization - Larry Barton (Jr.) and Gene Bennett, Tim Naehring and Johnny Almaraz. There's a core of tremendous baseball people, people who are very loyal and who produce.

"It's about production. Some of the people who left didn't produce for us. . . . That happens in this business."

Wheeling and dealing

Bowden has done well trading older, higher-priced players for younger, lower-priced ones.

Take the case of Jeff Shaw. The Reds signed him as a non-roster player for the 1996 season, and Shaw turned around his career and became a closer.

The Reds then traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1998 for Paul Konerko and Dennys Reyes. Konerko then was traded to the Chicago White Sox for Mike Cameron, who was a principle part in the deal that brought Griffey from Seattle to Cincinnati.

Shaw had agreed to a three-year contract extension with the Reds just before the trade.

"Then Jim trades Jeff before the deal starts," said Shaw's agent, Joe Bick. "It ended up working out for Jeff, but he was not happy at the time of the trade."

Bowden did a similar series of trades with pitcher Jeff Brantley.

Bowden traded Brantley to St. Louis for Dmitri Young after the 1997 season. He later traded Young to Detroit for Juan Encarnacion, who subsequently was traded last season for Ryan Dempster.

So Brantley became Dempster, a 25-year-old starting pitcher.

"We have to keep doing that," Bowden said. "It's hard to trade Dave Burba when he's your Opening Day pitcher 24 hours before the game starts, but that's the only way you're going to get a player of Sean Casey's caliber.

"It's hard to trade Elmer Dessens, our No. 1 starter, but that's the only way you're going to a get a player of (shortstop) Felipe Lopez's caliber."

To Bowden's credit, he hasn't behaved like a GM trying to save his job. The Lopez trade is an example - there's little doubt Dessens would have been more valuable to the Reds this year.

"I always make every decision I can with the interest of the Reds - long-term and short-term - in mind within our financial parameters," Bowden said.

"I'll continue to do that."

As long as Lindner allows him to continue in the job.

Five best moves

• Acquired Danny Graves, Jim Crowell, Scott Winchester and Damian Jackson from Cleveland for John Smiley and Jeff Branson in 1997.

• Acquired Dmitri Young from St. Louis for Jeff Brantley in 1997.

• Traded Dave Burba, on the eve of his scheduled 1998 Opening Day start, to Cleveland for Sean Casey.

• Claimed Pete Schourek on waivers from the New York Mets in 1994.

• Signed Pete Harnisch as a free agent in 1998.

Five worst moves

 • Traded OF Paul O'Neill to Yankees for OF Roberto Kelly in 1992.

• Left P Trevor Hoffman unprotected in 1992 expansion draft.

• Fired Tony Perez after 44 games as manager in 1993.

• Traded P Gabe White to Colorado for P Manny Aybar in 2000.

• Traded for Bruce Chen, Brian Moehler, Shawn Estes and Ryan Dempster during the 2003 season. Only Dempster remains with the club.


Cliff Peale contributed to this story.

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