- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — What do you think the odds were back in the fall of 2004, when Jim Bowden was picked up off the ESPN “Cold Pizza” scrap heap and hired as general manager of the orphan Washington Nationals, that more than three years later the colorful and controversial former Cincinnati Reds GM would still have the job?

Myself, I would have given him maybe 20-to-1 odds of surviving this long. He had to go through several interim deals, where he would be general manager six months at a time. He had to survive the decision about who would own this team. And then, of course, he had to survive himself — often his own worst enemy.

But here he is, sitting in the general manager’s office at Space Coast Stadium, as the Nationals’ 2008 spring training is about to begin, not only surviving, but thriving. With one of the lowest payrolls in the league last year, Bowden managed to patch together a team that competed on the field every day and, even at just 73 wins, exceeded most expectations. He hired a manager with no major league experience, Manny Acta, that is now considered among the best young managers in the game.

His draft last June appears to have been the best in baseball. The farm system — ranked 30th last year by Baseball America — is ranked ninth going into this season, a nearly unprecedented jump.

And, perhaps most importantly, Jim Bowden, who used to fly like a satellite the government might want to shoot down, is now flying below the radar these days. It is not by accident.

“We all learn from our mistakes,” Bowden said. “We all try to get better. I try to teach my children that every experience you have, you try to learn from. Every time you fail you are supposed to learn from. Every time you succeed you are supposed to learn from.

“After we learned we won the Felipe Lopez [arbitration] case, we digested everything we didn’t like that we did in that case, because we didn’t do as good a job as we would have liked,”Bowden said. “So how do we do a better job next year?

“It almost becomes an obsession. You try to improve as a person, as a GM, people skills, media relations, yes every day you try to get better.”

Bowden had a long way to go from the days when he was the general manager for the Reds, where he gained a reputation as a creative baseball man, producing winning teams while working for a lunatic like Marge Schott, but also a loose cannon who would find himself in hot water for comments like comparing a potential baseball strike in 2002 to the planes that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11 and a style of doing business that alienated many.

After 10 years as the Reds GM, Bowden was fired in 2003, but he got his second chance when Major League Baseball, which had taken over operation of the Montreal Expos in 2002, named Bowden as the team’s interim GM when the franchise moved to Washington for the 2005 season.

He nearly blew that second chance when he was arrested in Miami Beach in April 2006 for driving under the influence, but he had forged a close relationship with the Lerner family, who would soon be awarded the franchise and was kept on after the Lerners and their partner, team president Stan Kasten, took over in July.

Since then, Bowden has indeed flown under the radar and instead of self-destructing, he has helped construct an impressive front office and a farm system that is now envied instead of ridiculed.

“When you become the youngest GM in baseball history [Bowden was hired as the Reds general manager at the age of 31] and you are working for Mrs. Schott, and you have no baseball people around to teach you, no experienced people there, you are learning a lot on trial and error,” he said. “That is kind of difficult to do unless you have some wise, experienced baseball people around to help you.

“This is a completely different job than I had in Cincinnati. Working for Stan Kasten, you are working for a proven winner who is very professional in every way he operates. The ownership is completely committed to long-term winning and doing things the right way. When you come to work and make decisions, you know that intellectually you have the freedom to hire the very best people in the game — the very best scouts, the very best development people, the very best big league manager.

“You have the ability to compete and bring to Stan and ownership every opportunity that is out there, even if it is not in the budget, at all times. There is nothing out there that I don’t have the ability to bring to them — even if the answer is no, I have the ability to make my argument why and have intellectual answers back. You don’t ever look at it and say our situation above the GM isn’t first class and isn’t going to give this organization a chance to win for a long time. I never had that in Cincinnati — ever.”

But Bowden admits he was not solely a victim of circumstances. Some of the damage was self-inflicted. “I am not making excuses because some of it certainly was my own personality flaws that caused some of my problems,” he said. “You try to learn and mature and get better.”

I’m sure it is a daily challenge for Jim Bowden to fly low, especially when his star is back on the rise in the game. The odds were against it, but Bowden has Buster Douglas-ed his inner Mike Tyson.

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