- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

The phrase started creeping up about a week ago, from both Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden, as they answered questions about various issues facing the Washington Nationals this offseason: “If I’m still here.”

Neither Robinson nor Bowden used that phrase during the first 51/2 months of the season, when they were immersed in a pennant race and couldn’t afford to look past that day’s task.

But since the Nationals were eliminated a week ago, the reality of the situation has set in for the two men responsible for assembling and managing this club in its inaugural season.

Monday, they won’t know whether they have a job anymore, and that can be an unsettling feeling.

“It’s the uncertainty,” said Robinson, who’s in his fourth year managing this franchise but until now has controlled his own destiny. “The uncertainty wasn’t there the last three seasons. There was a 99 percent chance I’d be back if I wanted to be back. Now, who knows?”

There’s only one person in the world who does: the Nationals’ new owner. If only anyone knew his name.

But until the Nationals have an owner, Robinson, Bowden and everyone else on Washington’s coaching and front-office staffs have uncertain futures.

There has been plenty of speculation. Some believe Bowden, hired by baseball commissioner Bud Selig last November after former general manager Omar Minaya left for the New York Mets, deserves to come back for a second season. Others believe his ill-fated signings of Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla, along with other roster moves, merit his removal.

Some believe Robinson deserves credit for keeping this up-and-down club together through a tumultuous six months and has earned the right to return for a fifth season. Others believe the game has passed the 70-year-old by and that his personality and in-game decisions justify his removal.

Such a precarious situation might lead to some sleepless nights for these two, but both Robinson and Bowden insist they’re not worried about their fates heading into the season’s final weekend.

“I don’t worry in life,” Bowden said. “Obviously, your children, your fiance, your parents and your friends worry more than you do. But I feel very blessed every day I’m in this position. And whenever new ownership comes in, they’re going to make whatever decisions they want to make in the best interests of the organization.”

Said Robinson: “Why would I lose sleep over it? I have no control over it.”

It would be one thing if the new owner was basing his decision solely on Bowden and Robinson’s performances, which is usually the case with GMs and managers — judge them by their record (81-78 going into this weekend’s series with the Philadelphia Phillies) or by the club’s overall improvement from the previous year (the Montreal Expos went 67-95 in 2004).

But there’s far more at play here. The Nationals’ new owner didn’t hire Robinson or Bowden, so they likely will bring in their own personnel men.

“Certainly when ownership is going to spend the type of money they’re going to spend on this club, they have the right to put the management team in place that they feel comfortable with,” Bowden said.

Another factor is the relationship between Bowden and Robinson and whether they can work together.

When it comes to their philosophies and methods, they often come across as polar opposites.

Bowden is the aggressive, no-holds-barred type who talks to players like old college buddies. Robinson is an icon, a grandfatherly type who still can intimidate with his glare but who has admittedly mellowed over the years. At times, he has little interaction with his players.

On the surface, they are an odd couple. But for all their differences in approach, Bowden and Robinson have managed to earn each other’s respect. Both have an intense desire to win. Both are willing to buck conventional wisdom and make bold moves when things aren’t working. And while neither would hand-pick the other as a partner if given the chance to start from scratch, both seem perfectly willing to go into next season together to finish what they started.

“How long would that take? Maybe two or three years,” Robinson said. “I think some very exciting things could happen with this club over the winter with the right moves, three or four. If you make the right moves, this could be a very, very good ballclub next year.”

Not that there aren’t potential sticking points to a continued Bowden-Robinson partnership in 2006.

There is concern among several front-office officials about Robinson’s loyalty to his coaching staff. There is a chance Robinson will be told he can come back only if he’s willing to make changes to his staff. It remains to be seen whether the veteran manager would agree.

It’s possible, too, that Bowden will be asked to make changes to his front-office staff, which includes ex-Cincinnati Reds Bob Boone, Jose Rijo, Barry Larkin and Jose Cardenal.

The two major characters in this drama may be taking their uncertain future in stride, but plenty who work for them are not. Several members of both Robinson’s and Bowden’s staffs have privately expressed their anxiety heading into the offseason.

All of their contracts expire Oct. 31. Will the new owner be in place by then? It’s anybody’s guess.

Until then, all parties involved will progress as if everything is remaining intact. Bowden has come up with a list of offseason priorities, pending the club’s eventual budget, and he will begin putting them in action Monday.

“We have a detailed plan, if I’m still here, how we would go forward,” he said.

Not that familiar phrase: “If I’m still here.”

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