Larry Bowa: "I Still Hate To Lose"

With all of the talk about whether or not Larry Bowa should be out of a job I thought it would be interesting to review the book a writer friend of his wrote about him earlier this year. The book offers great insight into Bowa's personality and outlook on baseball, managing and playing and lets you in on many great stories from his days as a young player to his days on the 1980 World Series winning Phillies and continues through his tumultuous career as a major league manager.

For the Bowa bashers this might seem like overkill. For people who are more supportive it might interest you to read this book; but for anyone who loves baseball it is a story of an underdog who achieved and provides many interesting stories about the game.

The key to Larry Bowa's passionate personality as a manager becomes so much clearer when you remember that this was a guy who was not picked in the first or even the last round. He was offered a contract for very little money by a Philadelphia scout and took it simply because he said, "All I wanted to do was to play ball. That's all I wanted to do for as long as I can remember."

When author Barry Bloom talks about Larry's late father Paul, the "genesis" of Larry Bowa's temperament is fully understood, as Paul's temper as a minor league baseball player and manager was identical to Larry's. Paul was never able to realize his dream of becoming a major league player, but lived and breathed baseball all of his life and followed his son's career faithfully. During his days at Sacramento College his mother found it unbearable to listen to Larry's vulgar tongue while playing and wanted to be seated far back from the field so she didn't have to hear his "gutter mouth". The man who would eventually sign him to a contract for 2,000 dollars once came to see the young shortstop play for Sacramento College but Larry was ejected in the first inning of both games in a double header.

It is clear early on in the book that nothing mattered more to this kid than the game of baseball and when it comes down to it he truly learned from example from his inspiration and greatest influence, his father Paul. Billy Demars, an old baseball man and batting coach is cited as the person who made Larry into a hitter, something that would require a lot of patience on Demars' part. Frank Luchesi a longtime manager and coach and scout was the man that gave Bowa a real shot though and believed Bowa would succeed. "The reason I stuck with him is that I knew what was inside of him. I knew he had guts."

The stories of Mike Schmidt and Bowa's relationship while playing for the Phillies, comes off as a kind of sibling rivalry. Add to that the fact that Schmidt had designs on becoming shortstop and told Larry so. But having had to find confidence simply by not giving up throughout his life, Bowa had developed a tenacity that would challenge whatever plans the organization or Schmidt had and Bowa made that clear. They also had very different approaches to the game: Bowa was always more emotional (some things simply never change) while Schmidt was more laid back, something that used to get under Bowa's skin. What is most stirring, however is Bowa's recollections of the 1980 World Series and that Broad Street parade. Of old people crying and the noise being deafening. Though Larry would continue his baseball playing career it would all end in heartbreaking fashion for the kid that wanted nothing more in life than to play the game.

It was Jack McKeon, manager of the Florida Marlins that would recommend Larry Bowa for a managerial job in San Diego, which would begin an interesting bond between the two baseball veterans. It was of course also Trader Jack who would replace Bowa when the Padres were failing miserably in the 1988 season. In all fairness though, Bowa was working with a tough group that would prove to be endlessly problematic. It seems that San Diego, however, was an incredible learning experience for Bowa and the firing seems to have been a blessing in the end.

In 1988 Bowa would return to the Phillies organization as third base coach under manager Lee Elia who would then be replaced by Jim Fregosi. Fregosi would recall Bowa as being as ornery as ever, saying he called more private meetings with Bowa than with any player on the team. But he was reunited with old friend John Vukovich who had also grown up in Sacramento where the two of them played American Legion ball together. You get the sense also that Bowa was able to perhaps handle his emotions a little better as a coach rather than with the pressure that managing brings. "When you're a coach you're involved in one area…when you're a manager and you lose, it goes right from your head to your toes. It rips your insides out". So that's what we're witnessing when he is losing control in the dugout.

The book also recalls the Phillies of 1993 and Bowa is supportive of vilified Mitch Williams. "Without Mitch Williams we don't get to the playoffs and World Series," recalls Bowa. Bowa also clearly felt in sync with the kind of team Macho Row was. "The guys on that team loved to play and they loved the game."

But it would be Phillies General Manager Ed Wade who would bring in the Philly favorite as manager of the Phillies in November of 2001 after deliberations that Bloom says really hinged on a past feud with Bill Giles, the Phillies president. The feud is one that dates back to Bowa's playing days in Philadelphia and was the major factor in whether or not Bowa would be hired. Darren Daulton was the other candidate for the job and although anyone who has read my writing knows I wouldn't have minded that for personal reasons, the baseball lover in me would say that bringing Bowa in as manager is what gave life to the Phillies and the fans of the team again. Bowa was that connection to the past that is so revered in Philadelphia, to a golden year that people cannot forget and have not been able to experience since. "Larry put us back in touch with fans that had checked out on following the Phillies," said GM Ed Wade. Though he would go on to win manager of the year in 2001 being the manager of the Phillies early on was no picnic. Scott Rolen, now the Cardinals All Star third baseman, was unhappy before Bowa even got there and really sounds like a whiny pain. "I don't like to talk on the telephone to anybody at any time. If anybody called my cell phone they'd get a voicemail. And I hate voicemail"…and so on and so forth but you get the annoying idea. Bloom really details all of the drama of the Rolen situation well and I ended up getting an even more interesting perspective on that infamous conflict. Though he has had his problems with some of the players during his tenure, catcher Mike Lieberthal and starting pitcher Randy Wolf are both quoted as saying some very positive things about Bowa's ability and dedication as a manager. Though Lieberthal isn't specific he mentions "One or two other guys who really brought the other guys on the team down", and that Larry's disposition changed once they were "extinguished" and how that helped the team to get energized again, " He showed how excited he was", Leiberthal said.

Say what you will about Larry Bowa and his behavior and decisions as manager of the Phillies, but this book reminds you of what he has accomplished and how the essence of those accomplishments is what is most impressive. He wasn't expected to go as far as he did and what got him there is that aggressive, relentless love of winning that so many now seem to criticize him for. The Phillies came back under his tenure and no one should forget that. John Kruk perhaps pays the greatest tribute to Bowa's talent when he recalls playing for him while in his rookie year with the San Diego Padres (a lot of people also forget that Kruk actually did play for Bowa as a manager, while Kruk was a member of the Padres. "He taught me more about baseball than anyone else, any other coach or manager I've ever had." What is clear is that Bowa is perceived as a complicated man, a moody kind of guy who can let his emotions get the best of him and that he is the first to admit that. But the book also makes you understand what an incredible success story Larry Bowa's baseball career is and how deeply he loves this game.

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