- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

VIERA, Fla.

Jim Bowden walked through the Space Coast Stadium complex Saturday for the first time since news broke that the Nationals got scammed out of $1.4 million on his watch by their highly touted Dominican prospect, the player formerly known as Smiley Gonzalez. And no one yelled, “Dead man walking.”

You would think he might be considering what his last meal will be as the Washington Nationals‘ general manager, but never count Bowden out. He’s the ultimate survivor, and since the news surfaced last year that Major League Baseball and federal authorities were looking into allegations of fraud and money skimming involving Dominican baseball prospects - and that the Nationals were part of the investigation - he has been in survival mode.

Who would have thought — five years after he was picked off the scrap heap by Major League Baseball to be the GM of the franchise after it moved from Montreal — that Bowden would still be here?

He was out of baseball after 10 tumultuous years as the Cincinnati Reds’ general manager, leaving behind a reputation as a wheeler and dealer who clashed with many rival front office executives.

Bowden had nearly no shot of getting another GM job in baseball. He was doing baseball analysis on ESPN2’s “Cold Pizza” for pocket change and probably was destined to someday be the ShamWow guy. But baseball, which took over ownership of the Expos in 2002, needed a carnival barker to get the ball rolling in the District when the franchise moved after the 2004 season. Omar Minaya, who had been the GM under baseball’s ownership, left to take the New York Mets job. So after Bob Watson turned the job down, they gave it to Bowden.

Most observers thought that once the team was sold to new owners in 2006, Bowden would be history. Yet here he is, reporting to work in his Viera office for another spring, with a resume that includes a driving-under-the-influence arrest, a long list of multimillion-dollar contract boondoggles and a team that last year had the poorest attendance - 2.3 million - of any franchise opening a new ballpark in the Camden Yards era.

Bowden may be his own worst enemy, but you can’t underestimate his cunning and intelligence. He scouted the field of prospective owners when the franchise was up for bid and picked the right one to ingratiate himself with - the Lerner family. In particular, he became close friends with Mark Lerner. So when the Lerners took over the team, they insisted on keeping Bowden, forcing the bizarre marriage between their new partner and team president Stan Kasten - a relationship that still defies explanation.

Bowden watched pitchers from behind the batting cage for much of Saturday’s workouts. He spoke with Kasten, manager Manny Acta and a number of others. He seemed relaxed. It was as if Smiley Gonzalez never existed — which, as we now know, he does not.

It should be noted that the club has taken steps to make sure it doesn’t get fooled again. On the grease board leaving the clubhouse, the following note was written to the players from the Nationals’ human resources department: “Please bring all valid IDs to the ballpark (passports, driver’s license, etc.)”

The key word here is “valid.”

Bowden did not, as expected, speak to a group of reporters about the state of the team, as he did at the start of spring training last year.

One public relations spokesman suggested it would be difficult for Bowden to do so since it was his first day in camp. But it wasn’t his first day on the job, and he had no problem talking about the state of the team when introducing Adam Dunn at a news conference in the District last week. It’s his team. He put it together.

So he wasn’t around to talk about his longtime friend and special assistant, Jose Rijo, who was not in camp Saturday. Rijo, who had a major part in the signing of Gonzalez , has taken a leave of absence from the organization while the investigations, both the federal probe and the one by Major League Baseball, continue.

No one else, according to Kasten, has been asked to leave.

If Bowden is somehow implicated in the Gonzalez scandal, then not even a call from the governor can save him. But if his role turns out to be simply that of being duped - which, based on the franchise’s status as a source of ridicule throughout baseball and Bowden’s contributions to that, still should end his tenure here - Bowden may not be a dead man walking.

At least not without a stake through the heart.

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