CD's Connect the Dots... Autumn Years, Part Three
Larry Bowa sits in the dugout at Pro Player Stadium.

Posted Sep 13, 2004


When Larry Bowa first heard that the Philadelphia Phillies were in search of a manager to replace the departed Terry Francona after a dismal 2000 season, he could never have imagined that he would seriously be considered. After all, his relationship with many of the top Phillie brass was poor at best, and his previous managerial job with the San Diego Padres had ended abruptly. Yet, what Bowa could not have known was that he was about to enter his Autumn Years… as manager in Philadelphia.

Bowa’s Spring Years as a player for the Phillies were filled with seemingly endless hopes of success, both individually and team wise.  Performance wise, his years with the Phils were the heyday of his career, as he stamped himself as the greatest shortstop in Phillie history.

 

Team wise, the Bowa era coincided with the greatest Phillie teams in history, culminating in the teams only World Championship in 1980.  Yet, he left his Spring Years behind when he was traded to the Chicago Cubs after the 1981 season.

His Summer Years were varied and contrasting.  His individual skills as a player diminished with the Cubs, but he performed well enough to help transform a formerly dismal franchise into a team that came within one win of the 1984 World Series.

 

After concluding his career with the New York Mets in 1985, he went on to a coaching career that included a poor year and a half as manager of the Padres, a solid coaching job with the Phils, and a decent job as coach with the California Angels.

 

Yet when he was fired as coach of the Angels after the 1999 season, Bowa saw the Summer Years of his life end.  Clearly, he was at a crossroads, and though he wanted to manage again, he was not sure if and when that opportunity might arise.

What Bowa could not have imagined was that the Autumn Years would take him back to the site of his greatest professional successes, as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.   Make no mistake about it, the hiring of Bowa was not met with universal approval, either at the organization level or with the Phillie fans.

Certainly, Bill Giles would have to make peace with Bowa, as it was Giles who first incurred Bowa’s wrath by going back on a supposed contract extension promise.  When Bowa apologized to Giles this made the path to managerial helm much easier for the team.  Still, whispers abound everywhere that it was long time Phil, Darren Daulton, who was GM Ed Wade’s first choice, but he was convinced by Phillie advisor Dallas Green that Bowa was a better choice.

Most Phillie watchers believe that ultimately it was owner Dave Montgomery who cast the final vote, and the vote was for Bowa.  The die was now cast; it would be the irascible, temperamental, tightly wound Bowa who would lead the Phils in 2001.

 

Make no mistake; the Phils were definitely looking for someone of Bowa’s temperament to lead them after the player friendly Francona had allowed the ship to steer to far off course.  And certainly Bowa had the Philadelphia credentials for instant credibility with the fans, who remembered him for his enthusiasm and take no prisoners attitude as shortstop with the Phils.

In retrospect, perhaps this initial decision by Bowa to be such a tough taskmaster proved to be his ultimate undoing.  Certainly, his sharp tongue and tell it like it is attitude was a radical departure for such easy going players as Scott Rolen, Mike Lieberthal and Bobby Abreu and to be honest, the team responded in the early going.

In fact, the 2001 Phils reacted quickly to Bowa’s needles and stood at 35-18 and in first place by 8 games in late May of 2001.  Still, Bowa was slowly alienating the very players he needed the most.  He made an ill-advised comment one day to the press about how the “middle of the order is killing is.”

 

This comment seemed unnecessary for two reasons. Number one was that at the time of the comment, the Phils were playing well and leading the division comfortably. It seemed an ill-timed statement.  Worse yet was how it affected Rolen.  Batting in the middle of the order at the time was Abreu, Rolen and Pat Burrell.

While Abreu and Burrell laughed it off and basically ignored it, the sensitive and introspective Rolen took it very personally.  Many people still believe that Bowa lost Rolen forever with that statement, and history would seem to lend credence to this.  Although Rolen continued to play well, and was even voted to the All-Star team in 2002, he never again spoke of the Phils as his team.

Clearly, Bowa had created a gap between his star player and himself that would never be fixed.  As the Phillie lead dwindled, Bowa became more animated and the news media loved to forever show Bowa’s facial expressions on the television for the entire world to see.  It made for great theater, but bad public relations with the very players he was managing.

 

As the Phils lead slipped and they eventually fell behind the Atlanta Braves in the standings, Bowa’s moves came under closer scrutiny, especially his use of the bullpen.  It could not have helped that the pitcher’s perception of him was clouded by some ill-advised statements in Spring Training that were caught on tape.  Needless to say, they were not complimentary to pitchers in general, nor their manhood.

So, though Bowa eventually won the Manager of the Year honors in 2001 with a second place finish and an 86-76 record, many pundits were unimpressed, and remembered that after the 35-18 start, the Phils were a very pedestrian 51-57 to finish the year. Further clouding the issue was Rolen’s refusal to play in the final weekend series in Cincinnati.

Although Bowa tried to sugar coat this event, he could not avoid the fact that Rolen stated immediately after the season that he had no intention of signing a contract extension with the Phils, and instead would play out his option.  Most baseball insiders were convinced that Bowa was the reason that Rolen wanted to leave.

And leave he did, via a disastrous trade with the St. Louis Cardinals in July of 2002.  The Phils of 2002 were playing poorly, Rolen was unhappy, and it was a move that had to be made.  Traded for Placido Polonco, lefty Bud Smith and reliever Mike Timlin, the Phils clearly did not get equal value.

 

Ironically, the Phils post-Rolen 2002 played solid baseball, and it is this writer’s opinion that the best managing job Bowa did was during this stretch.  He allowed young Pat Burrell to blossom as the star of the team, coaxed solid years from Mike Lieberthal and Randy Wolf, and brought the Phils home at 80-81.  In fact, only a last inning loss to the Florida Marlins kept the ’02 Phils from finishing above .500.

 

If Bowa seemed to be improving as manager during his Autumn Years, 2003 would be the ideal test.  Buoyed by the free agent acquisitions of such standouts as slugger Jim Thome and third baseman David Bell as well as the trade for top starter, Kevin Millwood, the Phils appeared ready for prime time.

In truth, the 2003 team should have been in the playoffs.  They were talented enough.  They had an enviable closing schedule.  They lead the wild card chase with but 8 games to play and seemed to have the momentum.  Yet, during those final 8 games, with everything on the line, the Phils lost 7 of these games, and most fans blamed Bowa.

Once again, the criticism of his use of his pitching staff, his misuse of the bullpen, his constant rearranging of the batting order, and his knack for constantly criticizing the team publicly were but a few of the critiques.  By the end of the season, this was a team in seeming disarray, and when Kevin Millwood tossed his glove into the stands angrily after a last game disaster, Bowa’s fate seemed sealed.

 

It did not help matters that his former ally, Jack McKeon, had not only taken his Florida Marlins past the Phils and into the playoffs, but he was publicly chiding Bowa as he was doing it.  He constantly reminded anyone who would listen that not only did he expect to overtake the Phils, but that it was Bowa’s style that would ultimately cost the Phils dearly.  He was correct.

 

To his credit, GM. Ed Wade quickly announced that not only would Bowa be back in 2004, but was given a contract extension.  Then Wade went into action to insure that Bowa would have every opportunity to make 2004 a winning one.

 

He brought in ace reliever Billy Wagner, traded for starter Eric Milton, resigned free agent Kevin Millwood and signed relievers Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez as free agents.  Added to these additions was the talents of holder players like Thome, Burrell, Lieberthal, Polonco, Abreu, Wolf, Padilla, Brett Myers and Jimmy Rollins, and the Phils were picked by many to win the entire National League in ’04.

Certainly, at worst, they were heavily favored to represent the NL East in the playoffs, and for a while it appeared as if they might.  At the All-Star break they led the league by a game, but were sputtering badly.  Injuries to such key performers as Wagner, Padilla and Millwood did not help matters, but in truth, Bowa seemed unable to learn from past mistakes.

His penchant for excuse making continued and although his personality mellowed somewhat, his managerial style was still uneven and inconsistent.  Young players like Myers and Marlon Byrd have regressed under Bowa, and with but a few weeks to go in the season, most experts think Bowa will be removed once the season ends.

In truth, Bowa seems resigned to his fate, and has shown almost no emotion lately, in direct contrast to his earlier public appearances.  He still professes a belief that he will be back in 2005, yet rumors of him reappearing as a coach with the New York Mets just won’t go away.

In the final irony of this story, the Phils are currently playing their best ball of the season as they attempt an unlikely run at a wild card birth. Even more ironic, the team has finally seemed to take on an identity of its own, after years of being lost in the shadows of Bowa’s personality. 

 

Though perhaps it will never be known for sure, a prevailing theory is that now that the long shadow of Larry Bowa is no longer blocking the sunlight of the Phillie players, they have become freer to express their individual talents, and in this freedom have bonded together as a team.

The signs are everywhere, from Pat Burrell delaying surgery to come back for a playoff push, to players like Billy Wagner, Randy Wolf, Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla working hard to return to action.

 

 It can be seen in the actions of an angry Bobby Abreu screaming about a third strike in a seemingly meaningless “who cares, we will probably lose two anyhow” doubleheader in Atlanta.

 

Abreu’s actions spoke volumes about his determination to the cause and though he may have lost the battle by being thrown out of the game, he may have won the war as the Phils rebounded to sweep the twin bill.  The same with Wagner displaying his anger and risking suspension to argue a call in a “seemingly meaningless late game with the Mets.”

Make no mistake about the late season version of the 2004 Phillies.  This team is slowly and oh so painfully developing an identity, and not since 1993 has the team had one.  In fact, almost every great Phillie team of the past 40 years, from the ’64 overachievers to the ’77 maulers, from the 1980 World Champs to the Wild Bunch of ’93, had an identity.

 

This identity may not get them to the playoffs in ’04 but it may well serve them well in the future, a future that is unlikely to include Manager Larry Bowa.  Only a playoff birth can save him, and the Phils are starting the race to late in the game, the distance is probably too far.

 

Yet, in the Autumn Years, Bowa may well look back on his final days as manager of the Phils with satisfaction.  In letting up, he may finally have let go.  In letting go, he may finally have allowed his team to hold on.  It is a lesson he may well take with him wherever he goes next.

 

The story of Larry Bowa began with a recap of a song written and sung long ago by Bobby Goldsboro called “Autumn of My Life.”  It is the story of a man who lives though an exciting and storied spring and summer years only to suffer pain and loss in autumn.

 

Though the losses were real, and very permanent, Goldsboro speaks of a contentment born of the realization that he has lived life full and learned much in these seasons.  This has allowed him to make peace with his past, and enjoy his present and the future.

 

This seems a story written for Larry Bowa.  Though his wondrous spring and summer years could never last forever, and the autumn years were filled with pain and disappointment, he has learned much and in his knowledge, is content and prepared… for the winter of his life.


Columnist’s Note: 
Please send any comments or suggestions to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond.  Thanks!  Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast


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CD's Connect the Dots... Autumn Years, Part Two
 -by FightinsFuture.com  Sep 6, 2004
CD's Connect the Dots... The Autumn Years
 -by FightinsFuture.com  Aug 30, 2004
Axe Falls; Phillies Fire Larry Bowa
 -by FightinsFuture.com  Oct 2, 2004

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