Saturday, August 30, 2003

Must Bo Go?

The rumblings about Larry Bowa's fate are beginning to get a little louder. Bill Conlin started the whispering a couple of weeks ago, but with the Phillies' 2-9 (so far) road trip, the voices are coming into greater clarity. After all, the Marlins have slumped at the same time, and going merely .500 on the trip -- an entirely reasonable prospect, given three games against the Brewers -- would have left the Phils with a five- or six-game lead in the wild-card race. But the team's puzzlingly lackluster and uninspired play, at a time of year when they should be thrashing and tearing every inning, has focused greater attention on Bowa's shortcomings as a manager.

The thinking goes: He can't connect with a generation of players who don't approach the daily grind of the season with the same consuming passion he did as a shortstop. He has no clue about handling his pitchers, and seems not to care. (Bowa's early hook of Kevin Millwood a few weeks back helped to spur rumors that Millwood would seek to sign elsewhere once his contract expires, at the end of this season; he has denied the rumors.) He fails to use the Phillies' speed effectively.

More: Bobby Abreu stole a meaningless ninth-inning base -- giving the Cardinals an open first base, to which they happily sent Jim Thome, taking the bat out of his hands -- and faced no sanction at all for his ill-advised play. Bowa stuck with out machines Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, and David Bell way too long. Rollins's presence at the top of the lineup for so many weeks -- and, specifically, his woeful inability to reach base consistently -- crippled the offense by robbing big guns Abreu and Thome of RBI opportunities, while Burrell will likely finish the season hitting around .200. And Bell was off all season after getting nicked in spring training and trying to play through it; he may not play again until Citizens Bank Park is overcharging me for beer.

Some of these criticisms are fair; others wouldn't matter if the Phillies had been able to drive some runners home with men on base. Regardless, perception is reality, and what people are starting to say is that Larry Bowa may not be the long-term answer at the Phils' helm.

Dissecting the team's slump, Paul Hagen wrote in yesterday's Daily News that Bowa and general manager Ed Wade have been at odds over how much to rely on young players. Bowa loves veterans, while Wade has been pushing guys like Marlon Byrd and Chase Utley. Both men have emphatically denied any rift, and Wade yesterday loudly affirmed his support for Bowa.

Yet the voices get louder.'s current power rankings column puts the Phillies in the middle of the pack and says it's time to jettison Bowa. Locally, Phil Sheridan, in today's Inky, notes that players' dissatisfaction with Bowa extends well beyond any clubhouse tirades. Enough of his former charges have grumbled about "a steady erosion" of professional respect, Sheridan writes, "that there must be something to it." With Bobby Knight-style iron-fisted leadership fast fading in favor of "managing egos," Sheridan concludes: "It is fair to wonder how long Bowa's flint-and-steel approach can work. The way things have gone the last two weeks, it's fair to wonder whether it's working even now."

Bowa complains, somewhat rightly, that when things were going well he didn't seem like such a bad manager. And yet it's been obvious almost since the beginning of the season that the Phillies either have underachieved or were never quite as good as we were led to believe. Yes, the team is in the thick of a playoff race, as we hoped they'd be at the end of August, but all year long the Phils have seemed play below their capabilities. Simply put, it feels as if they should have won more games than they have.

As Conlin noted in his piece, the clock ticks on a manager the day he's hired. It's the nature of the beast. Bowa was a spectacular failure in his first big league managing gig, with the Padres, and had to wait many years before being given another chance. He claimed to have heard all the voices telling him to calm down and to realize that today's players can't be bullied. And yet. . . .

Fiery managers can still succeed. Lou Piniella won a lot of games in Seattle, even after the departure of Alex Rodriguez, while throwing bases and scowling through entire seasons. But he knew when to tone it down. Bowa never appeared to have learned that lesson, and while he may have been the right guy to blast the Terry Francona-enabled lethargy out of the Phillies three years ago, today he looks to me like the wrong guy for the job.


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