- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

During the Washington Nationals‘ first spring training in 2005, a representative of the Lerner family - at the time one of the bidders for the franchise owned by Major League Baseball - made the trip to Viera, Fla., to get to know the team.

That was the first time Mark Lerner met Jim Bowden.

Bowden had been on the job as general manager only four months, picked from the scrap heap by baseball to run its orphan franchise shortly after the move from Montreal. He was considered as short as a short-timer could be, gone once baseball selected an ownership group.

But Bowden had other plans. He met Lerner and treated him as if they were best friends.

First, Bowden took Lerner down into the Nationals’ equipment room in Space Coast Stadium and gave him a bounty of swag - jerseys, jackets, anything he could find.

It made a big impression. Bowden had Lerner at hello.

On Sunday, Bowden said goodbye - caught up in the middle of the Smiley Gonzalez scandal and a list of other sins - and he was defiant and delusional in his farewell statement.

“Let me state this is a bittersweet moment for me,” Bowden said in a statement released by the team. “While I will always have the experiences and fond memories of my relationships with the Nationals, Stan Kasten and the Lerner family, who have always been gracious and fair in their dealings with me, I will also carry with me the cold hard realization that my life has been turned upside down by a news media that prints entire stories attributed solely to anonymous sources who refuse to be identified and who are free to allege anything they choose for any purpose without fear of retribution.

“One can only understand the impact of false allegations, insinuations and innuendos by the press if they themselves have been the subject of those false allegations. However, I also want to thank the many media members who have dealt with me with fairness and professionalism, and they far outweigh the others.”

Jim Bowden, the victim - his goodbye con.

The day Lerner met Bowden in the Nationals’ spring training clubhouse planted the seed for the downward spiral that has turned a hopeful franchise into a desperate laughingstock with almost no credibility in baseball and the District.

The jerseys and other items were just the beginning. There was inside information, trade talk, all sorts of trinkets that Bowden gave the Lerner family to ingratiate himself, according to those familiar with the process at the time.

“Mark Lerner was easily swayed,” said one former club official who asked not to be identified. “He had stars in his eyes. Bowden saw that as his opportunity and courted that relationship, and he did a masterful job of doing it.”

That relationship helps explain the inexplicable: why Bowden - who, after a controversial 10-year run as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, was fired in 2003 and seemed unlikely to get another job in the game - was kept on by the Lerners after they took over the team in the 2006 season, even after Bowden had been arrested and charged with driving under the influence in South Beach two months earlier.

To some extent, they felt they owed him - apparently more than they felt they owed their last-minute partner in the deal to buy the Nationals, Stan Kasten, one of the most successful and respected sports executives of his time who would become team president.

Kasten found out the duties with that title did not include hiring his general manager.

“It was going to be the Lerners’ decision, and it was clear it was going to be Mark Lerner’s decision, and it was clear Stan was saddled with Bowden and had no choice in the matter,” another former team official said.

Bowden has not been accused of anything and may be guilty of nothing. But he is no victim.

Even his supporters will say that Bowden has a lot of enemies in baseball. Those enemies are not because he is particularly good at his job. It is because he has abused relationships and earned a reputation within the game as a man not to be trusted. That reputation all along has hurt the way the Nationals do business. Some rival GMs will not even deal with him.

And they couldn’t be swayed with jerseys and trinkets.

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