Like anybody else, Larry Bowa has many faults. Perhaps his biggest fault — if one wants to label it that — is that he loves baseball and the Philadelphia Phillies more than anyone else.
Bowa eats, sleeps and breathes the Phillies, which very well could have been his undoing. Very often he was unrelenting, curt, difficult, crude and mean when pursuing what was most important to him than, seemingly, anything in his life.
That was winning ballgames for the Phillies.
The Phillies relieved Larry Bowa from his duties as manager of the ballclub on Saturday afternoon, general manager Ed Wade announced in a somber press conference an hour prior to the next-to-last game of the 2004 season. And like anything that involves Bowa, the move was emotional and difficult.
Bench coach Gary Varsho will guide the club for the final two games of the season, which obviously was not the move Wade nor team president David Montgomery wanted to make until next week.
Bowa, as usual, forced the issue.
After responding to questions in his pre-game meeting with the writers regarding numerous published reports speculating on his imminent ouster, Bowa forced Wade to make a decision.
“When I got to the ballpark this afternoon, I got a call from Larry Bowa asking me to come see him,” Wade said at a news conference. “He said he’s been getting inundated with questions about his job status and wanted to know sooner or later. After a lengthy discussion, I decided the fairest thing to do was make a move at this time.”
It was not the first time that Bowa had forced Wade to make a decision regarding his status as manager of the Phillies. Just last month, Bowa responded to a story in the Bucks County Courier Times by asking Wade to fire him immediately or give him a vote of confidence. In response, Wade fired off a hastily written press release saying that all coaching staff would be evaluated at the end of the season.
||Ed Wade explains his decision to fire Larry Bowa during a press conference before Saturday night’s game against the Marlins. (AP)
Even though Bowa and the Phillies had wrapped up the franchise’s first consecutive winning seasons in more than two decades as well as second place in the NL East for the second time in the skipper’s four season, he had failed to end the 11-year postseason drought for the losingest franchise in North American sports history.
Surely there was no escaping his fate either. Despite blatant campaigning to save his job in which he used the club’s plethora of injuries during 2004 as song and verse, Bowa always talked about returning for 2005, but deep down had to see the writing on the wall.
After Wade made the decision, Bowa took off his Phillies uniform for the last time and quickly left the ballpark before anyone knew what had happened. Wade informed the coaching staff, players and Montgomery of the news sometime between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.
“Ed determined it and made the decision, but it’s one I support,” Montgomery told reporters.” Ed came and told me his decision, but in no way am I going to wash my hands of this decision.”
Neither is Wade, who said the failure to reach the club’s goals this season is as much the fault of his and the players as it is Bowa’s.
“The disappointment of this season does not rest with one person. It rests with myself, Larry, the staff, players, we all take a measure of responsibility. This should not be construed as finger pointing at one individual for why we are here today,” Wade said. “I greatly appreciate what Larry has done and it wasn’t a decision that was arrived at easily. It was certainly one that was struggled with for quite some time.”
Nevertheless, it was a decision that everyone knew was coming. As Bowa would have it, the verdict came sooner rather than later.
At the same time, Wade’s ouster has been called for almost as much as Bowa’s by the Philadelphia fans. When injuries ravaged the club, Wade was unable to make any type of significant deal to make the team better. Instead, he picked up less-than-mediocre journeyman Paul Abbott for the rotation. He also added Cory Lidle, who has pitched well, and veteran relievers Todd Jones and Felix Rodriguez.
In 2003 when the Phillies were battling the Florida Marlins for the wild-card berth, Wade added Mike Williams, Valerio de los Santos and Kelly Stinnett. Wade has also traded away Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling, who are both in the mix to win the big postseason awards as well as the World Series.
Be that as it may, Wade isn’t going anywhere. In fact, Montgomery gave Wade an enthusiastic vote of confidence after the announcement about Bowa was made.
“He has put together a championship-caliber team and made a good decision in hiring Larry Bowa four years ago,” Montgomery said. “I think he can take us to a championship.”
Though Bowa kept pointing out the injuries at every turn — pitchers Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla, all three former All-Stars, missed about 35 starts. Reliever Ryan Madson was sidelined more than a month and closer Billy Wagner was out almost 11 weeks, and was placed on the disabled list twice in 2004 — Wade dismissed the notion. Sure, the injuries had an affect on the club, but injuries are a part of baseball. The Anaheim Angels are a team that had numerous injuries in 2004, but they were able to overcome them and advance to the postseason for the second time in the past three years. The same goes for the Houston Astros, a team that overcame injuries to as many key members of the pitching staff as the Phillies. Somehow, the Astros were able to overcome and advance to the playoffs.
“We don’t want to dwell on injuries. We’re not going to use anything as an excuse,” Wade said. “We’re not going to portray Larry as the scapegoat, but in our evaluation of things we are in a situation where we need a different voice.”
Though speculation runs rampant, no one has any concrete idea who will stand behind that next voice.
Who is next?
Wade says the Phillies are not looking for a certain “type” of manager to guide the club where only one other skipper ultimately took the club. The next manager may or may not be the “anti-Bowa” just as Bowa was the polar opposite of his predecessor, Terry Francona. Who knows, the next manager might not even be Wade’s first choice to guide the club, just as Bowa was not the top before finally getting the job in 2000.
According to team sources, the Phillies were all set to name Darren Daulton as the team’s skipper heading into the 2001 season. In fact, as the story goes, press releases had been written and a phone call to Daulton was about to be made informing him that he had the job before special assistant Dallas Green stepped in like the governor with a midnight reprieve to stop the execution. Instead, Bowa was hired and the rest is, well, history.
Still, Wade remains pleased that Bowa was the one he hired four years ago.
“When I hired Larry four years ago he was clearly the right person for the job,” Wade said. “Anyone who has been around during the past four years knows the knowledge he has, the passion for the game and the commitment to winning.”
Though he was the prodigal son returning yet again to a franchise he has carrying the stormiest of relationships with, Bowa was considered as someone from within the organization. That is a road the Phillies would not be shy about trodding down again if the situation is right, Wade says.
Often laughed at for its need to relive its past (one played upon hearing there was a pre-game ceremony before a game earlier this season chided, “What, is this the 14th anniversary of the 10 anniversary of something that happened in 1980?”), the next Phillies manager could very well come from close to home.
Special assistant Charlie Manuel, Triple-A skipper Marc Bombard, Bob Boone, Varsho and (are you ready for this… ) Jim Fregosi are names that have been bandied about.
From outside of the organization, Bob Brenly, Davey Johnson, Mike Hargrove and Grady Little have been mentioned as possible replacements, but chances are the new skipper is still out there somewhere. Before the franchise settled on Bowa, third base coach John Vukovich, Boone, Daulton, Rick Dempsey, Jeff Newman, Lloyd McClendon, Willie Randolph and Ruben Amaro Sr.
Wade said some of those fellows could find themselves on the list of interviewees again.
“We want to find someone who gives us the best opportunity to win, and it’s not comparing and contrasting one manager against another,” Wade said. “It’s about finding the right manager for our circumstances.”
To describe Bowa’s time as manager of the Phillies as “stormy” or “controversial” would be gross understatements. Along those lines, “harmonious” would not be a way to describe any team managed by Bowa. Oh sure, the players get along very well. In fact, Jimmy Rollins stated earlier this season that the 2004 club rates as the most cohesive group he’s been with.
So what’s the trouble? Take a big guess.
||Larry Bowa compiled a 337-308 record during his four seasons as the Phillies manager. (AP)
On several occasions over the past two seasons, the acrimony between the players and coaches has been so palatable that one could cut the tension in the air with a butter knife. And despite having a room full of some of the best character guys in sports, the Phillies clubhouse was often not a nice place to be.
Because he was the manager, Bowa is responsible for fostering that atmosphere.
Surely the players were put off by Bowa’s emotional style and life-or-death way he was perceived of handling every pitch of the game, but it went deeper than that. Players thought Bowa was conniving and undermining and always trying willing to put someone else down if it meant putting himself in a better light.
Former Phillies with other clubs either refused to speak about Bowa or they say that the current Phillies report no changes in Bowa’s demeanor despite reports of the contrary.
“I really believe that Larry tried to change. In fact, I know Larry tried to change,” Wade said. “We had that conversation about how he has tried to adjust and adapt to certain situations. I think he did his darndest to try and do that for us.”
But perception and reputation are hard to overcome. In 2003, Sports Illustrated printed a poll of players in which Bowa was rated as the worst manager.
Think that’s just the “spoiled” millionaire players who complain about Bowa? Guess again. Even old-school baseball lifers have certain perceptions of Bowa. One complained that Bowa was a “whiny [jerk] when he was a player and he’s a whiny [jerk] now.”
Often, players and coaches old and new want to talk about Bowa’s relationship with former Phillie Scott Rolen, who in a recent poll conducted by Peter Gammons of ESPN, was regarded as the most respected player in baseball.
The relationship between Bowa and Rolen certainly has been well documented in these parts, but the current players have been very quiet about their true feelings about their former skipper. On the way out, the players had nothing but kind words for Bowa.
“Ever since I got here, Larry has always treated me with respect,” said Jim Thome, before his voice trailed off and he walked away from a group of reporters.
Wade said he told the players to behave with a certain decorum in giving them the news.
“I spoke to [the players] about the importance for those who are back next year to understand to approach this in a professional manner, and to clearly recognize that we all take responsibility for what’s taken place here today,” Wade said. “I would certainly hope that the atmosphere we create in spring training will allow us to get to our ultimate goal, which is to win a championship. Our goal wasn’t to finish second. Our goal wasn’t to go through the things that we’ve gone through this year. Our responsibility is to create a different environment.”
Certainly such a statement wasn’t necessary with this bunch of Phillies. Actually, most were very contrite and felt as though they let Bowa down.
“It was just a pleasure to play for Bo and I enjoyed it. I hate to see it come to this,” Wagner said. “He’s a great man and we should feel a bit responsible for this.”
Said shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who spent a lot of time working with Bowa by virtue of being the team’s scrappy shortstop, “You expect to play for more than one manager over the course of your career, but he’s going to surface somewhere. It’s just unfortunate that it had to happen the way it did. I believe he is a good manager, you just have to accept him for who he is.”
Regardless of what is said of Bowa, no one can deny that he is a great baseball professional. Though the chances of him managing another team in the immediate future seem slim, there is no doubt that Bowa will be in a big league uniform — if he chooses to be — before spring training starts in February.
At the same time, Bowa gets to keep collecting a check from the Phillies. And if he is given credit for one thing, it is raising the level of expectation for the baseball team in Philadelphia. That’s good.
“Larry is not going to struggle to find a job,” Wade said, expressing a familiar sentiment. “Remember, he is under contract with us through 2005 and we will pay him through the life of his contract, but at the same time I expect him to be in uniform at the Major League level trying to help a team win next year.”
Chances are he’ll keep doing it his way, too.
E-mail John R. Finger