The partnership between manager Frank Robinson and GM Jim Bowden has been a winning combination.

For Washington, opposites attract

Baseball Week

June 12, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN STAFF

THEIR REPUTATIONS couldn't have been more different.

One was a brash Boy Wonder with the proclivity to trade his own mother if it meant filling a middle-infield void.

The other was an old-school loyalist with a reputed disdain for any modern ballplayer who couldn't match his work ethic and God-given talent, which meant about 99 percent of all major leaguers.

That was a decade and several jobs ago.

Now, Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson, who turns 70 in August, is more relaxed, more accepting, more grandfatherly.

And now, Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, 44, wouldn't pull the trigger on a deal involving family unless he got a middle infielder and some bullpen help in return.

These two proud men are still opposites in many ways, but now they are partners. And what an unlikely and impressive partnership it has been so far.

"The key is Frank knows how to handle the players between the white lines. And Bowden has enough guts to go out and try to plug in the gaps the team feels it needs. And that is a good combination," said Nationals hitting coach Tom McCraw. "It's all about winning, and they like to win."

Everyone likes to win. But the Nationals are doing it. Those nomadic Montreal Expos with shiny new uniforms are winning with a disabled list the size of a hoops roster. They are winning in June, when flukes are supposed to swim downstream. And they are winning without an owner, still acting as a ward of Major League Baseball until the team is officially sold. Robinson, Bowden and team president Tony Tavares are steering this first-place ship without any idea if they have a future with the organization.

"We are not looking at it like it's an interim position, we are not acting like, `Oh what is going to happen tomorrow?'" Bowden said. "Instead, we are doing the more professional thing ... We want to do the best thing for this franchise long term for as long as we are in these positions."

Robinson's used to this uncertainty; it's his fourth year managing this franchise. Bowden says a cloudy future isn't new for him, either. Remember, his tenure as Cincinnati Reds GM was during the turbulent reign of Marge Schott.

"There was a time when I was on an hour-to-hour contract, I could go at any time," Bowden said. "Then I had a time with her where I had a five-year contract. And I prided myself that every day I gave the same performance whether I was signed for one hour or for five years. Every day you got the same effort from me."

He didn't expect to see the summer in Washington, but that didn't stop him from making a splash this winter, signing free agents Vinny Castilla, Cristian Guzman and Esteban Loaiza and trading for enigmatic outfielder Jose Guillen.

With the exception of Guzman, who hasn't hit a lick, every significant Bowden move has turned golden -- especially acquiring Guillen.

"I give a lot of credit to [Bowden] and to Frank. Those two guys, I think, are a big part of the reason we are where we are," said Guillen, who has emerged as a team leader. "Some of the players, they don't like Frank, they don't get this and that. But Frank, to me, is one of the biggest factors that this team is better."

Although Robinson is more approachable now than he was years ago, he's still tough. He still stresses fundamentals and fines those who aren't on board. Within the last week, Guillen (missing a sign) and Brad Wilkerson (failing to run hard) were fined.

"I love it. He's making a point to all the players," Guillen said. "You have to come out and be ready to play every day."

The season's most notable indiscretion -- pitcher Tomo Ohka turning his back on Robinson during a pitching change last week -- was answered by a $1,000 fine levied the next day. By Friday, Bowden had dealt Ohka to Milwaukee for infielder Junior Spivey.

The trade was twofold: It further demonstrated Bowden had his manager's back while adding someone to help temporarily replace Jose Vidro. On the same day, Bowden claimed pitcher Ryan Drese off waivers from Texas, essentially filling Ohka's role.

Bowden is always tinkering. Robinson is always instructing. That combination has made the first two months in Washington unforgettable. And even if the magic wears off, the message to new ownership remains: Don't cancel this odd couple.

EXTRA BASES

Say what?

"It's a Catch-22. Who do you root for? Your blood? Or whoever's name is at the bottom of that check?"

Chicago Cubs third base coach Chris Speier, whose team faced Toronto last week. Speier's 31-year-old son, Justin, is a reliever for the Blue Jays.

Who's he?

Aaron Hill, a 23-year-old infielder with the Blue Jays. A 2003 first-round draft pick (13th overall) out of LSU, Hill was considered Toronto's shortstop of the future but was recalled from Triple-A to play third base May 19 when Corey Koskie was disabled with a broken thumb. Hill had multiple hits in seven of his first 13 games and was batting .338 with an .877 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) through his first 19 games.

Numbing number 13

That's how many former World Series matchups will be featured in interleague play from this weekend through next weekend. The oldest October Classic reunion has the Pirates and Red Sox playing in a clash of 1903 World Series participants. The 1984 World Series, between the Padres and Tigers, is the most recent one with its teams playing this week. And teams that have made up five of the most notable World Series face off: Red Sox-Cubs (1918), Indians-Giants (1954), Pirates-Yankees (1960), Orioles-Reds (1970) and Reds-Red Sox (1975).

What's up?

Interleague play continues and perhaps the most intriguing series is one between two of the unlikeliest playoff contenders. The old Washington Senators and the current team in the Nation's Capital meet in Arlington, Texas, for three games starting Friday. The Rangers, who moved from D.C. to Texas after the 1971 season, and the new Nationals are two of baseball's most surprising and exciting teams so far.

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