BASEBALL PLAYOFFS : Reds’ Bowden Seeks Wins, Not Popularity


The anonymous calls came at all hours of the night. Unsigned letters were in the office mail.

They were death threats.

Jim Bowden of the Cincinnati Reds, the youngest general manager in baseball history, was warned two years ago that for firing Manager Tony Perez, he would be killed.

Bowden, 34, who still looks young enough to lead a fraternity initiation but has the Reds in the National League championship series against the Atlanta Braves, shifts uncomfortably at the reminder. He won’t divulge specifics, but yes, he was frightened.


“Professionally, I could deal with it,” Bowden said. “Personally, I was upset because it was really affecting my family. That’s where I drew the line.”

Bowden began accompanying his oldest son to school. His three young boys never were left alone when outside. His wife stayed at home, practically petrified.

Several of Bowden’s closest friends told him that perhaps he should quit. Leave Cincinnati, they said. Get out of the game. Life is too short for this.

“I couldn’t, I just couldn’t,” Bowden said quietly. “I knew if I quit, I was finished. I would never get another job in baseball.

“I knew in my heart I’d made the right move, and I knew if it didn’t work out, I was finished anyway. Guys like me don’t get a second chance.

“I wasn’t going to blow the first chance.”

Bowden stayed on the job despite the abuse. He was shunned by his players, ostracized by fellow general managers, berated by all of baseball.

Most of his peers resented him anyway for having been hired so young and with such little experience. Some found him arrogant.

“People were pretty upset with him,” all-star shortstop Barry Larkin said. “You’ve got to remember, Tony was a member of the Reds’ family. He was here during the Big Red Machine and all of the glory years, and then to fire him 44 games into the season?

“I wouldn’t want to have been in [Bowden’s] shoes. You should have seen this place.”

Signs flew overhead at Riverfront Stadium:

“Tony Forever, Bowden Never.”

“Keep Tony, Fire Bowden.”

“They Fired the Wrong Dog!”

The worst mistake, Bowden acknowledged, was that he telephoned Perez to fire him. Yet, he was convinced it was the right move.

Everyone tried to blame owner Marge Schott for the firing, but the move was strictly Bowden’s. Schott was serving a one-year suspension from baseball at the time and Bowden used the opportunity to do things his way. Schott wouldn’t have fired Perez, and certainly wouldn’t have hired Davey Johnson, who had been out of baseball for three years.

“We had to make a change,” Bowden said. “I knew it wasn’t going to work [with Perez]. Maybe in four or five years, but not now. I couldn’t wait.

“My feeling was that [Johnson] was a 90-game winner five times, won a championship, and he was blackballed for three years. We needed him.”

Johnson stepped in, but nothing changed. The death threats kept coming, the Reds kept losing, and baseball kept laughing.

But Bowden was not totally alone.

“I remember walking into an owners’ meeting in Denver,” he recalled. "[Chicago Cub President] Andy MacPhail sat me down and said, ‘I want to let you know that in baseball, everything can change. One year, you’re a hero, the next year, you’re a bum.’ ”

So today, the Reds are playing again for the National League pennant, although they are fighting enormous odds to reach the World Series. They trail Atlanta, two games to none, in this best-of-seven series, and must play the next three games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium beginning tonight against the Braves’ ace, Greg Maddux.

“To be honest, it’s an uncomfortable feeling,” Johnson said.

No National League team has ever lost the first two games at home in the league championship series and advanced to the World Series. Bowden smiles weakly at the Reds’ predicament.

But can Bowden ever be fazed? He got his first baseball job only because his college roommate was Squire Galbreath, son of then-Pittsburgh Pirate owner Dan Galbreath. He began his career in public relations, became the Reds’ farm director in 1991 and replaced Bob Quinn as general manager a year later.

He has been given no budget for advertising, has the lowest budget for scouting and development in baseball, and has been ordered to fire Johnson when the season ends and hire Ray Knight, the third-base coach, as manager. He also realizes that he can be fired at a moment’s notice.

That’s a bit of pressure.

But whereas the Braves have reached the championship series four times in the ‘90s with one of the richest and deepest farm systems in baseball, Bowden has brought the Reds back to respectability by becoming the Al Davis of baseball.

Got a player with a bad attitude? Bowden will take him. Got an injured player? Bowden will heal him. Got a pitcher with a lousy delivery? Bowden will get it fixed.

The Reds are a collection of vagabonds cast aside by other teams, ranging from Ron Gant to Pete Schourek to Benito Santiago.

On the Reds’ 25-man playoff roster are 21 players who were acquired by Bowden, two players who were drafted by him, Reggie Sanders and Jeff Branson, and one Bowden, then the farm director, strongly recommended getting in a trade with the New York Yankees, Hal Morris.

“The only guy I really had nothing to do with is Barry [Larkin],” Bowden said. “He was already here.”

Said infielder Mariano Duncan, who was acquired in August simply to keep him away from the Braves: “The man is a genius. Look at what he’s done around here. He’s got a bunch of guys who are hungry and has made this into the closest team I’ve ever been on.”

Certainly, as Atlanta Vice President John Schuerholz will attest, Bowden has made many of his peers look a little silly. He picked Schourek off the waiver wire for $20,000, then watched Schourek win 18 games this season. He took a gamble that Gant would be recovered from his motorcycle accident and Gant hit 29 homers and drove in 88 runs. Bowden picked up a troubled Santiago for $500,000, and Santiago again became one of the finest catchers in the league.

“He’s a lot smarter than I am,” Schuerholz said. “He’s taken a lot of gambles, and most of them have worked. No one will ever accuse Jim of not being aggressive.”

Bowden may be the National League’s executive of the year, but he still must fight his image. He comes across to his peers as aloof and arrogant, and many would love to see him fail. When the Reds made the playoffs, the only general manager from a non-playoff team who sent congratulations was David Dombrowski of the Florida Marlins.

But even if the Reds fail to win a game this series, his detractors must concede that he has been effective.

“I can’t stand the guy personally,” one National League general manager said. “I won’t even deal with him. But you know something? As much as I hate to say it, he’s done a great job. No one can argue with his success.”

Said Bowden: “Those who take cheap shots at me aren’t [top-] quality GMs. If they’re worrying about me, they’re not doing their own job. There’s nothing I can do about it, except maybe wait 25 years and gain their respect.”

Perhaps Bowden will gain his respect simply by proving he can work with Schott. If nothing else, he has proven he’s an adept salesman, persuading her to spend $38 million on the player payroll.

“This game is about perseverance,” he said. “That’s why the Braves are where they are. That’s where we want to be. And I guarantee, one day we will be.”