Opening day symbolizes hope and renewal for baseball players and fans alike. But to Larry Bowa, the rookie manager of the Las Vegas Stars, opening day means something else--another round with the doubters, another war with his own frailties.
When the Stars open the Pacific Coast League season tonight against Portland on Cashman Field, it will be the first time since 1969 that Bowa has appeared in anything other than a big league uniform.
He put in 16 years with the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs and New York Mets, establishing a major league record for career fielding percentage by a shortstop, before the Padres hired him last fall to manage their Triple-A franchise here.
“It really set in the other day when I was watching the Padres and Dodgers season opener on TV,” Bowa said.
“Opening day was always special to me. I remembered my first opener in the majors. It was at old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. As they introduced the players, I was standing there thinking to myself how people said I was too emotional and too high strung, that I wasn’t a good hitter. Well, I beat the odds once, and maybe I’ll do it again.”
Bowa was far less certain of his future on his first opening day in professional baseball.
On that April day in 1965, he faced a pitcher named Nolan Ryan. This was in the Western Carolinas League, and Bowa was playing for the Phillies’ farm club in Spartanburg, S.C. Ryan was a member of the Mets’ Greenville, S.C., team.
“It was an earth-shattering experience,” Bowa said.
He struck out four times, and, after the game, he was so shaken he went to Manager Bob Wellman and said if this was the sort of pitching he was going to be seeing in pro ball, he was just overmatched.
Wellman, a little wiser than his rookie shortstop, recognized the Ryan fastball for what it would prove to be--one of the most devastating strikeout pitches in baseball history. He assured Bowa that not every pitcher would throw like Ryan, who went on to compile a 17-2 record with 272 strikeouts in 183 innings that summer. Bowa, meanwhile, hit .312 that year.
“I can laugh about it now, but at the time I had nothing to compare with Nolan, and it wasn’t funny at all,” Bowa said.
The introduction to Ryan served as a grim foreshadowing of a career that would be plagued by fear.
“Hey, I’ve struggled all the way,” Bowa said. “Nothing was easy for me in this game. I went through plenty of ups and downs. I could run and throw, but I really had to work for everything else, like becoming a pesky hitter.
“I never took anything for granted. I was always afraid of somebody taking my job if I was out of the lineup for any reason. That attitude worked like the dickens for me.”
Bowa had to work like the dickens to prove Phillies scout Phil Bockman hadn’t made a mistake by recommending Bowa. Once, with the scout watching, Bowa was ejected from both games of a doubleheader for arguing a called third strike and a bunt he thought he had beaten out.
If there’s one cornerstone of his philosophy, it’s that hard work overcomes almost any flaw. If any of his players make the mistake of skipping batting practice or cutting short their time to take ground balls or shag flies, they will be in for an earful from one of the most demanding people in baseball.
“There are just too damn many clock-punchers in this game nowadays,” Bowa said before a 9 a.m. workout earlier this week. “Hard workers are hard to come by.
“I never believed in taking shortcuts, but a lotta guys today, they do what you tell ‘em and nothing more. I like a guy who will show up early and take extra swings or grounders. This is just a different generation from when I broke in. Too much has been handed to these kids. I think I can change some of ‘em, but it will be tough, cause they’re hard-headed.”
As the Stars practiced in preparation for their opener, Bowa stood in the third base coaching box, shouting instructions and curt advice. To an outfielder who butchered a fly, he said: “We’ll give you the gold glove after we’re done!”
Pitcher Ed Wojna, who played under Manager Dick Williams for a short span last summer with the Padres, has escaped Bowa’s sarcasm for the moment. But Wojna, who is hoping to make it back to San Diego this year, is respectfully wary of his Triple-A manager.
“If you’re late or something, he’ll really get on you, but he seems fair,” Wojna said tentatively.
“I think he’ll be more communicative than Dick. He’s not a guy you can’t figure how to act around. Some managers you wonder if they’ll think you’re a jerk if you act a little boisterous. You freeze around some managers, but you don’t have to alter your personality around Larry . . . I want to also say I had no qualms with the way Williams handled me. He was fair.”
Wojna said Bowa strikes him as the sort of guy who, as a player, sat on the bench thinking about the moves he would make if he were managing.
“Some guys just sit there and their minds are blank,” Wojna said. “Not Larry. I think he is ready to manage. He played so long, he knows the intricacies, like how to read an opposing pitcher and steal the second baseman’s signs.
“He may not know everything about pitching, but I’ve heard it all anyway: throw strikes, don’t nibble, be aggressive.”
There is certainly nothing passive in Bowa’s makeup. He turned down a $285,000 offer from the Mets to play one more year and accepted a $28,000 managerial offer from the Stars. He was interviewed extensively by Jack McKeon, San Diego’s general manager, and Padre minor league director Tom Romenesko before they extended the job offer.
“Tom told me I reminded him of himself,” Bowa said.
“I’m pretty comfortable with my knowledge of this game. I’ll be going on gut feeling sometimes--like when to pull a pitcher--and I’m going to make my mistakes.
“One thing I am definitely going to do is communicate with people. I think some of that has been missing in baseball in recent years.”
He means, if a player is slumping, Bowa will sit down and offer encouragement. He says a player who is on a roll knows he’s going well and needs less advice.
“I’m in a learning process--learning about people,” Bowa said. “I know I have to adjust for each guy, scream at some, talk low to others.”
“I know these kids are going to test me. That’s natural with any new manager, or any new boss for that matter. They’ll find out, though, that if they’re late, it’ll cost ‘em. And if they skip pregame work, they won’t be in the lineup. I’ve seen it all and I know if a guy is cheating me. I’ll take my chances with guys who will dive for a ground ball and go from first to third on a single to right.”
Bowa wants players with the same grit that kept him in the majors for 17 years, during which he appeared in 2,247 games, the most ever by a National League shortstop. His career fielding average of .980 is the highest of any shortstop in major league history.
Bowa, whose father was a capable Triple-A player in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization, grew up in Sacramento.
“I learned in Little League from dad that a game is only nine innings and you’ve got it bust the whole nine,” he said. “That’s always been embedded in my mind, and that’s why it bothers me that so many players today project a don’t-care attitude.
“Deep down, I think most players care, but they think it’s wrong to show it. Hey, this game is for little boys, so why not show you care?”
If anything, Bowa cared too much. His emotions were always so close to the surface, it was difficult for him to keep from boiling over.
“Well, I kept cool all spring,” he said. “I haven’t really snapped yet.
“I don’t think my players here are going to fear me. Respect, yes. I spent a long time in the big leagues, and I think that warrants respect.”
Bowa, who thought the cards were always stacked against him because of his limited gifts, envisioned himself as a manager from his first days in the big leagues.
Even though he is a volatile personality, he seems to realize the value of patience in a game that stretches over six months and 162 games.
“My first manager, Frank Lucchesi, taught me about patience,” Bowa said. “I was hitting about .180 in June of my rookie year. Frank called me aside and told me no matter what I hit, I was his shortstop.
“For a guy to put his job on the line and say he believes in you, I figured I should believe, too. I wound up hitting .250 that year.”
Patience has its limits, however, and Bowa thinks it’s past time to crack down on baseball’s drug abusers.
“The only way is to scare guys,” he said. “If you suspend him for a year or take 10% of his salary, you have impact. The hammer needs to come down. Too many of these guys are spoiled, and you don’t get their attention by slapping their wrists.”
Bowa, who shapes up as a rather stern taskmaster, doesn’t seem to be disillusioned about beginning his career in the minors instead of the majors. Several of his contemporaries, including Pete Rose and Lou Piniella, never had to manage in the minors.
“That’s pretty rare,” Bowa said. “I think this is a super opportunity. I’ll know when I’m ready to move up. I won’t spend 10 years in the minors. I’ll pay my dues, then if I don’t get a job, I’ll go into something else.”
The reality of playing before 500 fans and earning a comparatively small salary doesn’t upset Bowa.
“It’s not hard for me to remember what it was like playing in the minors,” he said. “I can live like I did in 1968. I haven’t put myself on a pedestal. I won’t have to give myself a pep talk to get fired up for this job. It’s in my nature.”