CD's Connect the Dots... Growing Pains

There are few things more difficult for an adolescent boy to admit than the bare truth that he is far from being an adult. Yet, the difference is so clear as to be transparent. Adolescent boys strut, adult males saunter. Adolescent boys talk, and then think. Adult males think, then often don't talk at all, letting their actions be their words. Finally, adolescent boys are brash and combative, adult males are assertive but wise.

The beauty of Larry Bowa has always been his unbridled enthusiasm for everything red and white. That Larry Bowa loves the PhiladelphiaPhillies with a passion second to none has never been in question.However, until recently, his ability to manage the Philadelphia Phillieshas been in question… for love without trust, passion without wisdom and enthusiasm without temperance. These are combinations that can be deadly for a man entrusted with the responsibilities of running a ballclub with 25 diverse individuals.

However, have you noticed lately that there have been changes, subtle at first, yet loud enough to be celebrated, which indicate that the Phils may, indeed, have found the right man when they hired Bowa back in the winter of 2000? To truly understand the man you must be willing to study his baseball roots with the Phillies.

Signed as an undrafted free agent by scout Eddie Bockman out of Sacramento, Bowa's chances of making it to the big league was always slim at best. Yet, no less an authority than Bockman swore that Bowa had the inner steel to make it past the myriad of barbed wires he would face as an undrafted player. Without going off tangent, a personal note needs interjecting here… I knew Eddie Bockman and a finer judge of talent would be hard to find. Indeed, it was probably his strong recommendation that kept Bowa on the radar screen in the first place. Needless to say, Bowa made it to the big league, as skinny a kid as you will ever see.

Manager Frank Luchessi worried that he wouldn't last a season...Bowa beat that by 16 seasons. Not only did he make it, but also starred. Oh! how he starred. There were few more welcome sights to a Phillie fan than a two-out ground ball to Bowa. I can honestly say that I loved every Phillie team Bowa ever played on, from 1970 through 1981 and I NEVER remember Bowa making an error on a game deciding play - it just didn't happen!

This fire, this burning desire to win is what made him the talent hewas. Truly, many still insist that Larry Bowa was not only the MVP ofthe Phillies in 1978, but of the entire National League. In a seasonwhen Schmidt, Luzinski and Carlton all faltered somewhat, Bowa was thetaskmaster, the steel, the concrete...the will of that team. Forget his.294 average, forget his Gold Glove, forget his 192 hits. It was him who ignited a team that seemed still in shock over their sudden exitfrom the playoffs in 1977. Only he seemed able to rise above thestorm. Yes, dear friends, Larry Bowa brought fire to the Phils and Cubs as a player.

Yet, more than fire is needed to succeed as a major league manager. One needs a combination of fire AND ice. Fire to create an atmosphere of passion and concern for winning, and yet combined with the ice to appear rational and in control. Bowa always had the one, and is slowly discovering the other. Make no mistake about it, the jury is still out, the embers in his very depths can still be flamed by the smallest injustice to his Phils. However, he is maturing before our very eyes, from adolescent to adult, and the maturation is visible everywhere.

One of Bowa's biggest faults was his very public way of criticizing his players. He now does this privately and quietly. His facial expressions when a Phillie would make a mistake are legendary, TV crews would wait with baited breathe for a chance to see his contortions in the dugout. He now covers his emotions, hiding in the privacy of the clubhouse walls, out of sight of peering cameras. He always seemed agitated and ill at ease; he now appears calm and self-assured… a man at peace with his inner demons. Young players always seemed but a mistake away from Bowa's wrath, he now goes out of his way to praise a Brett Myers, Brandon Duckworth or Marlon Byrd for the smallest good deed. This is working wonders on these players, not surprisingly all are contributing to the rise of the Phillies.

Another noticeable difference in Bowa is his game day managing. He no longer waits for the thunder to appear, he now forces the action. Bunts,steals and hit and runs are now becoming daily occurrences. A primeexample is Placido Polanco, no speedster he, but a man of uncommonintelligence and timing. Polanco has been allowed to run from the leadoff spot and recently stole his ninth base of the season. Bobby Abreu,Jimmy Rollins and Byrd are all running with more reckless abandon, evenNick Punto was brought in to pinch run and immediately stole second base.

Bowa's growing maturity is also seen in his use of the bullpen. It is no small coincidence that the Phils have one of the deepest bullpens in the league. He has turned them over to pitching coach extraordinaire Joe Kerrigan and allowed him almost free reign of the staff. As a result, Terry Adams, Rheal Cormier, Dan Plesac and Turk Wendell are all having wonderful seasons, and are not likely to wear out as the Dog Days of August approach.

Bowa's work with the starters has also been exemplary, the roles are clearly defined and respected. Kevin Millwood is the unquestioned ace of the staff and pitches every fifth day, rain or shine. Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla fall next in line, in accordance with their ability and length of service with the club. Finally, the youngsters, Myers and Duckworth round out a deep and talented staff...and all understand their roles perfectly.

In reading this story one should not perceive that Bowa was a manwithout great strengths, nothing could be further from the truth. One must acknowledge that Bowa is unafraid to be surrounded by assertive coaches, Kerrigan and John Vukovich. Both are not, nor have ever been, yes men. Yet Bowa allows them almost total control of their responsibilities.

Another admirable Bowa trait is his unquestioned loyalty to his players, once he feels they have earned this loyalty. From Jose Mesa to Pat Burrell, from Marlon Byrd to David Bell, from Brett Myers to Vicente Padilla, all may very well owe their future successes to the reality that Bowa kept his head and wits about him in regards to these players when everyone around him was losing theirs! These players are now ready to defend Bowa, just as he so vehemently – and always - defended them.

One last example of Larry Bowa's maturation occurred just this past week. About two years ago next month, the Phils' Scott Rolen was in a dreadful slump and was very publicly reprimanded by former Bowa manager, and now advisor to the Phils, Dallas Green. The criticism embarrassed and angered Rolen. Many are convinced that this incident and Bowa's seeming ambivalence to respond eventually caused the irreconcilable differences, which led to Rolen's departure. Fast-forward to June 2003 and the same struggles by current Phillie slugger Pat Burrell. Another Bowa friend and former great, Mike Schmidt, made a very public and critical observation about Burrell's struggles. This time, instead of remaining silent, Bowa immediately came to Burrell's defense and chastised his buddy, Mike Schmidt. As quickly as this public criticism surfaced, it died just as fast - thanks to Bowa's swift and smart handling.

Yes, friends, Larry Bowa is growing into the job. The growth is undoubtedly painful and at times slow - but apparent, nevertheless. The fact remains that despite the tirades, criticisms, and the facial expressions... Larry Bowa has been a consistent winner as manager of the Phillies, no mean feat for a team that has made losing an art form.

The fire still burns but is kept at a smoldering level. The will to win is still strong, but tempered by the inevitability of an occasional loss. Truly, Larry Bowa is growing into the job, and taking the steps necessary to shift from adolescence to adulthood. And if you look a little closer, observe the steps Bowa now takes, you will notice one significant change.....he now saunters instead of a strut!

Columnist's Note: Please send your comments or questions on CtD articles to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD


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