Thursday, July 3, 2008

Liar, Liar, Leatherpants on Fire

With the team in the Queen City, it seems like a good time to look back again at JimBo's record in Cincinnati. Most of what he did there isn't really all that relevant to the Nationals, other than to get a sense of his long-term track record and strengths and weaknesses.

One aspect of his record from Cincy that I believe is affecting us here in Washington is his reputation for being an unpleasant, and sometimes dishonest, person to deal with. People who don't like him say he's an egotistical show-boat. People who hate him say he's a liar.

At least some GMs just refuse to deal with him period. As Padres GM Kevin Towers said, when asked if there were any GMs he preferred not to deal with, "Only one. And I'll name him. Jim Bowden. The guy's an idiot. I won't take his calls, and I don't think many others do." That's an incredible quote, something you just don't hear from one MLB exec about another.

So what's the deal? Nationals fans who didn't follow the Reds probably don't have much idea what I'm talking about, so let's review some of the incidents that built JimBo's bad rep.

In a lengthy 2001 Cincinnati Enquirer article titled "Bowden makes deals--And enemies" (where I got a number of the quotes in this post), Tim Sullivan reports that way before he became a major league general manager Bowden had a reputation for backstabbing his way up the organizational ladder. While working under Cincinnati general manager Bob Quinn as administrative assistant for scouting and player development, he was believed by others in the organization to be a Marge Schott spy. Sullivan writes, "To trap him, player development director Howie Bedell told Mr. Bowden - and no one else - he had rented a Cadillac during spring training in 1991, confident the story would get back to Mrs. Schott. Soon enough, Mr. Quinn was ordered to demand an explanation of the fake extravagance. By August, Mr. Bowden had replaced Mr. Bedell." Sullivan quotes Bob Quinn: "Jim had a penchant for trying to eliminate people, which is unfortunate as hell. It's almost to the point where the guy can't help himself.

In 1993, in his first year as Reds GM, Bowden fired Reds legend Tony Perez as manager. The move and how Bowden did it, over the phone just 44 games into the season, prompted a near-rebellion among the players and death threats. Scapegoating Perez didn't help the team win--the Reds finished 75-87 under Davey Johnson.

In 1998, Cincinnati local boy Jeff Shaw wanted to re-sign with the Reds, but the team couldn't afford his market value. Shaw agreed to take less, in exchange for what Shaw later said was an agreement that he not be traded. JimBo signed him for cheap, then traded him anyway. Shaw said later, “We had a handshake deal that he wasn't going to trade me. Three months later, he traded me ... If I had been in the room with him, I would have killed him."

In 2000, he conducted a managerial job search that insulted so many people so many ways it's hard to summarize. First he unceremoniously dumped the respected Jack McKeon just one year after he won the Manager of the Year award. Then he spent two months dropping big names like Lou Piniella and Bobby Valentine whom he had no chance of signing given the Reds' budget. Then, he gave people the impression of just going through the motions on minority hiring by low-balling Willie Randolph with a $300k salary and telling him he wouldn't be able to hire his own coaching staff. Then, he offered the job to Reds hero Ron Oester, who accepted before balking at a ridiculously similarly low-ball salary offer. Then, after telling Oester that he would get back to him on the salary question, JimBo offered the job to Bob Boone, which Oester learned about through the media. Respected sportswriter Ritter Collett penned a column calling Bowden "the Lowest of the Low." HOF Reporter Hal McCoy summed it up by saying, "The Reds' biggest problem? It's Bowden." Oester channeled Keith Olbermann, calling Bowden "one of the worst people in the world."

After trading for Ken Griffey, Jr., in 2000, he spent so much time gloating about it in the media that the Seattle front office felt like he was showing them up. Reds COO John Allen had to fly to Tampa to tell Bowden to cut it out. Then-St. Louis GM and current Reds GM Walt Jocketty said, “He made a great deal with Seattle, but I don't think you have to talk about it,” Mr. Jocketty says. “I would hope to never put another GM in a bad light, and I think that may have happened in that case.” Seattle was so offended in fact that they refused to deal with Bowden directly in the final Griffey negotiations and later Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said he went out of his way to resign Pineilla to keep him away from Cincinnati, saying, I really, quite frankly, didn't want to listen to Jim Bowden crowing again."

Later, when it appeared Bowden might be out of a job in Cincinnati, he publicly bad-mouthed then-Dodgers GM Dan Evans, telling USA Today Sports Weekly's Bob Nightengale, "It would be fun to go to a big market, though, and have a chance to win year after year. If I can be creative with a payroll in the forties and fifties, I can be creative with a budget in the hundreds. "I look at the Dodgers, and think, how can you have the best pitching staff in the league and score less runs than the Tigers? Come on. You've got to do something."

Nationals fans no doubt remember the Alfonso Soriano situation, when JimBo traded for him while planning to play Jose Vidro at second base and move Soriano to left field. Every casual baseball fan knew that Soriano didn't want to play the outfield, given that despite his sub-par defense at second, the Yankees and Rangers had been unsuccessful getting him to move for years. But the New York Times reported that Bowden claimed dubiously that he "would have never traded for Soriano if they had known he would refuse to move to the outfield." The situation was diffused when Soriano, one of the league's truly good guys, made lemons out of lemonade (and got out of DC as fast as possible).

And Nationals fans will also remember July 2006, when the Reds complained that Bowden hid medical information about Gary Majewski before the Austin Kearns-Felipe Lopez trade. Later Hal McCoy quoted unnamed sources with the Nationals saying that Bowden at the time believed Daryl Thompson, another player included in the deal, was damaged goods and that he tried to "stick it to the Reds with Thompson."

These are just a sampling. I had to cut out a bunch in the interests of space, and I'm sure there are tons of others that I just don't know about.

In Bowden's defense, you can argue that any one of these incidents is overblown hearsay or just total nonsense. I tend to think some of them probably are. For instance, Krivsky should have known Majewski was an injury risk--there was no secret there. But when the same guy is involved in so many "he said-he said" situations it adds up. And if people don't trust you or just don't like you, it doesn't matter whether it's fair or not, it's going to make it harder to do your job. Bowden's own assistant general manager in Cincinnati Doc Rodgers said, "Once you get a label, how do you get unlabeled?”

Or, as former Reds first base coach Dave Collins said about JimBo, "They say what goes around comes around. If that be the case, then he's going to get his some day.”

Unfortunately, it could be Nationals fans, not just Bowden, who are paying the price. Every time a trade that we should make doesn't happen (Cordero, Soriano, Lopez), you have to wonder whether Bowden's burned bridges are getting in the way of our ability to get better.

It's like my friend who does real estate on the Hill says, you can stick it to someone once, but in the end you just end up costing yourself money by ruining your reputation. As small a world as Capitol Hill real estate is, MLB is much, much smaller. Even if you believe JimBo is as smart and capable as the next option out there, we'd clearly be better off moving forward without the baggage.
  • Additional note: In light of the recent investigation of Bowden's possible involvement in a scouting scandal (skimming money intended for player bonuses) in the Dominican Republic, I thought I'd note some old allegations about Bowden and stealing that seem more relevant now. When Bowden was an assistant for the Yankees, he was investigated by the commissioner for stealing computer files from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The investigation didn't turn up any evidence of wrong-doing, but again when there's this much smoke, people often at least think there's fire, and even if the allegations are all totally false, the damage to JimBo's reputation is real, and by extension the Nationals'.


Hendo said...

The Towers quote, which I hadn't seen before, speaks worlds; he's a guy I respect a lot.

But it also got me to wondering what he or others around the league think about prospective replacement Mike Rizzo. (That would be a good thing to gauge before hiring or promoting someone, instead of afterward.)

Does anyone know Rizzo's rep? Guess it's time to start Googling...

Nationals Fan said...

Hendo--Come back Sunday--I'll have a post all about "other GM options." But at the risk of scooping myself, here's what Baseball Prospectus wrote about Rizzo in June in a column about GM prospects:

4. Mike Rizzo (Assistant GM/Scouting, Nationals)
Rizzo left behind a ton of homegrown talent when he left Arizona to take on the challenge of rebuilding the weak Nationals farm system. While titularly the Assistant GM, Rizzo is more accurately described as the head of scouting and development in the Nationals organization. While no one questions his ability to draft and develop, there are worries that he's not ready to handle the media or to lead a front office. As with Zduriencik, Rizzo's handling of his scouting staff speaks to his management ability. The bigger worry is that while his picks are helping the D'backs win, his work in Washington is still a few years from being able to be judged. "It's hard to get noticed in Bowden's shadow," one current GM noted.

Hendo said...

Thanks, NF; I'll be looking for that on Sunday.

As it happens, I'd seen that BP piece and its lukewarm evaluation. I guess I'm really wondering whether Towers et al. feel they can return Rizzo's phone calls without getting screwed.

Which is what the Nats will be if they can't deal in the trade market (other than with Minaya).

Mike said...

Not a reason to pick a guy obviously, but Thad Levine(#9 on that list) is a local guy just like Depodesta is.

Nationals Fan said...

I don't think BP's eval was intended to be lukewarm. They list him as the #4 top name on the list. Carroll notes each guy's strengths and weaknesses, but being on the list at all was intended to be high praise I think.

Then I don't see any reason why Bowden's bad rep would rub off on Rizzo, if that's what you're getting at Hendo.

Nationals Fan said...

One of the commenters posted recently that Antonetti has a local connection too, as a G'Town alum.

Anonymous said...

Towers is still the GM in San Diego.

Nationals Fan said...

So he is. Thanks anon. I corrected in the post.

Anonymous said...

You only mentioned one of a number of players JimBo has walked over during the years. Agents have good memories too. What happens when the Nats are truly ready to spend and JimBo is still there? What happens when Ryan Zimmerman is ready for free agency. He sees what's donetohis friends on the team now. Who would the Lerners and Kasten have working for this teamm in 2011, Zimmerman or Bowden? Hopefully, it's Ryan.