VIERA, Fla. | As Washington Nationals players worked out on a practice field down the street from Space Coast Stadium, Stan Kasten sat on a dugout bench Monday morning. For the third time in a week, he fielded questions about controversial team matters that have nothing to do with the baseball being played right before the team president’s eyes.
More than a week after Nationals pitchers and catchers reported for spring training, baseball at times seems an afterthought in a camp that has been defined by international scandal, a disgruntled player and a near-daily barrage of reports and allegations that paint the organization in a negative light.
Kasten and other team personnel insist none of this is a distraction to the players and coaches who are trying to prepare for the 2009 season, but the public and the rest of the baseball world may not agree. Right now, the Nationals are viewed around the sport as a franchise in disarray, one that can’t escape bad publicity.
“It’s all you hear about with that team,” said one longtime executive from another National League club. “It just seems like it’s one thing after another with them.”
The latest firestorm came Monday in the wake of a report on SI.com that offered new details about a federal investigation of general manager Jim Bowden. The report said investigators looking into the skimming of signing bonuses given to Dominican prospects by major league team executives are examining Bowden’s dealings dating to 1994, early in his tenure as GM of the Cincinnati Reds.
The report links Bowden to a former Reds scouting coordinator named Jorge Oquendo, who later worked with Chicago White Sox scouting director David Wilder. Wilder was fired last season for reportedly skimming money from bonuses intended for players.
Bowden, whose involvement in the FBI investigation was first made public in July, again denied any improper actions when asked about the report Monday.
“The same comment I made in July: I’m innocent of any wrongdoing,” he said. “And besides that, I don’t have any comment.”
Asked whether he supports his GM, Kasten said: “Listen, I support everyone who works for the Washington Nationals all the time - period. But we’re not going to talk about things that are going on away from here that I have no control or involvement in. I told you I’m going to allow the processes to play out. We’re going to let the chips fall where they may. We’re going to look at things honestly and deal with them appropriately.”
This latest development comes on the heels of a tumultuous week for the Nationals. On Wednesday, Kasten confirmed that top prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez, recipient of a $1.4 million signing bonus in 2006, falsified his name and age in a “deliberate, premeditated fraud” against the organization and is actually Carlos David Alvarez Lugo, who at 23 is four years older than he originally said.
On Saturday, Jose Rijo, special assistant to Bowden and the man who brought Gonzalez to the Nationals, was asked to take an indefinite leave of absence. And Monday, in addition to the report of the FBI investigation, disgruntled left-hander Odalis Perez was given his unconditional release after refusing to report to camp unless he was given a better contract.
All of that, combined with the negative vibe that has hovered around this franchise for the past year, leaves the Nationals in a precarious position. There are legal issues to be concerned about in relation to the Dominican cases. Perhaps just as important, there is a perception issue to be worried about.
Executives from several other major league teams interviewed Monday echoed similar sentiments: The Nationals are viewed around baseball as a mess, and Bowden is seen as one of the prime reasons for it.
“There’s a track record of things that have happened over the last few years,” a front-office official from another NL team said. “And it always comes back to the GM.”
Bowden, 47, has long had his detractors throughout the game, and that could cloud some executives’ views of the organization. But even those within the franchise are worried about the negative perception much of baseball has.
“We have to do something to get our respectability back,” one member of the organization said.
Whether the Nationals can repair their image in either the short or long term remains to be seen. Success on the field would certainly help. Then again, that would require attention to shift back to the field of play - and off the drama playing out on the sidelines.
Team officials would like nothing more.
“This is a fantastic camp - as positive, upbeat, optimistic a camp as I can recall in my career in terms of athletic talent and atmosphere and the attitude of the players,” Kasten said. “[The negative news is] certainly not affecting any of them in their preparation.”