One could not help but compare Baker and McKeon to our very own Larry Bowa and his Type A personality of leadership. The author does not write this article, as a "Fire Bowa" column, it is quite obvious that General Manager Ed Wade has made his decision that Bowa is the man in 2004. Yet this writer does hope that Bowa is intelligent enough to continue to learn his craft from his peers, both of who have had infinitely much more success than he, though not always with simply better talent.
There are few sports more physically and emotionally demanding than baseball. Football is a brutal game, but is played only once a week, and strong emotions are not only important, but also encouraged. Basketball is a game played among the greatest and most skilled athletes in the world, yet a schedule with more than three games a week in very rare.
Baseball, in comparison, is a game that involves talent, intellect, tenacity, and the ability to keep your emotions in check. There is perhaps no team sport that so demands an even and balanced temperament to play the game well. A hitter with too much emotion is a sitting duck for a well-thrown curveball or slider. A pitcher, too tightly wound, is just as likely to throw a wild pitch to the screen, as he is a perfect fastball on the black of the plate.
Think of some of the greatest baseball players and they are the epitome of "cool". Pitcher Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves could lullaby a baby to sleep with his demeanor on the mound. Barry Bonds rarely shows emotion, as he stands at the plate, ready to devastate any pitch close enough to reach his thunderous lumber.
It is this writer's opinion that although it is true that the players do play the game, it is the manager who sets the tone by his conduct and ability to encourage, cajole and in some occasions demand a certain performance from his team. Watching the Cubs and Marlins, it was quite apparent that they have become the mirror images of their managers. The Cubs, led by Baker, play with a confident swagger that tells the opponent, "it doesn't matter how long it takes, we are going to beat you!"
The Marlins, managed by the grandfatherlier figure of McKeon, play with the attitude of, "we may make mistakes, but they will be aggressive ones and eventually we will wear you down." Neither team seems concerned about making mistakes, indeed the Cubs propensity for striking out with runners in scoring position were very reminiscent of a certain team that spent their summer nights playing at the Vet.
Yet, optimistic, positive forces in the dugout lead them and this allowed them to overcome their youth, their mistakes and their superior opponents in a way that was impossible to dismiss. One can only hope that Larry Bowa is a work in progress because it is quite apparent that the style on display for the past three years will not work for a fourth.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I loved Larry Bowa as a player! I still recall the many times he literally willed the 1978 Phils to victory with his inspired play. He is fondly remembered for starting the five-run eighth inning rally against Nolan Ryan in Game Five of the 1980 NL Championship Series. I still say his theft of second base, when trailing 4-0 in Game One of the 1980 World Series was the single most important play in that series!
Any argument about the merits of Bowa the player will have this writer defiantly on his side, and there is no person alive who loves the Phillies more than Bowa. Nevertheless, this is no longer enough, for when the 2004 version of the Philadelphia Phillies take the field at Citizens Bank Park, this organization must put to bed forever their affinity with anything related to 1980!
This does not mean that those players should not be cherished, nor that teams impact minimized. It does mean that a former 1980 hero like Larry Bowa, as manager, or Greg Gross, as hitting coach, or Dallas Green, as special assistant, must earn their spurs in 2004 and not live off their past successes in 1980. This must be the year that Bowa graduates from Baseball College with a full-fledged degree in people skills. He must find a way to combine his undying thirst for victory with an even-handed approach to players and their daily frailties.
Larry Bowa was hired as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2001 to give the players a genuine attitude adjustment, and he succeeded in this a long time ago. The days are long past when a three-game series with the Phils was a guaranteed two wins. The Phils are now a viable force in the National League with heady stars like Jim Thome, Pat Burrell and Mike Lieberthal. They are now a team with young hurlers like randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers, and more on the way.
It would be journalistic folly to underestimate Bowa's contribution to this turnaround. He made winning important again, and for that a willing Philly forum of fans is forever grateful! But now, it is time for the same man who caused an attitude adjustment in his players to transform himself via the same metamorphosis. Bowa must find a way to allow his players to relax and enjoy a six-month marathon while still understanding the importance of winning every game.
It can be done! Dusty Baker took a team that lost 95 games in 2002 and is now four wins from the World Series. Jack McKeon took a team that was ten games under .500 in May and convinced them that they were not only good… but also the best! Yes, it is a fact that since mid-May the Marlins have had the best record in baseball! Yes, my friends, that is correct. Not the Yankees, not the Giants, not the Braves… but the Florida Marlins.
It started with attitude, and that attitude started with the manager. Indeed, after watching the Cubs and their two wunderkinds, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, a Phils fans could not help but think of the not too distant future.
The Phils currently have two young hurlers in their farm system, Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels who could soon emulate the success of Mssrs. Wood and Prior. How will they be handled is a question every Phils executive must be asking themselves. Will they be handled in a positive, hand-clapping encouraging fashion as Baker has done in Chicago?
Or will Floyd and Hamels be forced to view every mistake with a Bowa scowl or visible tantrum? Of this are pennants won and lost. Of this is the legacy that Bowa could leave. The Philadelphia Phillies are primed to enter a new era, one that promises much success if the proper leadership is displayed. Players like Burrell, Abreu, Rollins, Utley and Byrd are young and not yet in their prime. Pitchers like Wolf, Padilla and Myers will soon be joined by talented newcomers like Floyd, Hamels, Taylor Buchholtz, Ryan Madson and Elizardo Ramirez.
The saying "to whom much is given, much is expected," is certainly applicable to Bowa now. The choice is his. Through the admirable patience of GM Wade, Bowa has been given another year to prove that he is the choice to take the Phils to the next level. His comments that "I will not change," need to be given careful scrutiny over the winter if for no other reason than it was the same Larry Bowa who chastised Manager Danny Ozark back in 1977 when Ozark made the same comment.
It occurred after an Ozark gaffe in the ‘77 playoffs against the Dodgers allowed a certain Phils win to evaporate into a devastating loss, a loss that ultimately cost Ozark his job. Nevertheless, after the playoff series, Ozark was asked if he would do anything differently and he replied, "nothing." He would manage exactly the same in the future. An enraged young shortstop named Larry Bowa took Ozark to task for this comment saying in effect, he had better do something differently, what he is doing now certainly isn't working!
Let us hope that he reflects on that comment this winter and emerges in 2004 as a kinder, gentler, smarter Larry Bowa. A Bowa who can encourage while enraging. A Bowa who can be timid while being tempestuous. A Bowa who can be mild while being manic.
It is possible to change, and change is often for the good. In the case of Larry Bowa, an attitude adjustment change may not just be good for the soul, but for his chances of guiding the Phils to the heights that he, as well as his many fans, hope that they should attain.
Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD from the Left Coast.