Tuesday, April 02, 2002

2002: Can Bowa Do It Again?!? by Josh Rutledge

His players may have hated his guts, but it’s hard to find fault with Larry Bowa’s 2001 managerial performance.

Bowa’s the kind of manager you either love or hate. Definitely count me amongst those who love him. Last year he inherited one of professional sports’ most notorious chronic losers (for those of you keeping score at home, 13 sub-.500 seasons in 14 years is pretty darn notorious!) and somehow managed to guide the Philadelphia Phillies to a totally unexpected 86-76 record, good for second-place in the NL East. In doing so, he surprised the vast majority of the world-at-large. And NO one was more surprised than I, a long-suffering Phillies fan well used to seeing my team battling it out for fifth place every single summer.

All season long, the routine remained the same. I’d look at the standings with utter disbelief. It didn’t seem possible that MY Phils were really giving the Evil Ones (a.k.a. The Atlanta Braves) a run for their money in the NL East! Day after day I’d anticipate the inevitable collapse. It all seemed too good to be true. Far too good. Things were bound to crumble. They just didn’t have the HORSES, right? But as it turned out, there was NO collapse. Up until the final week of the 2001 campaign, the Phils were in the thick of it. Bowa’s boys had proven me wrong the old-fashioned way: by WINNING! The intense skipper tinkered with a player nucleus relatively unchanged from its dismal 2000 state and assembled a team that refused to die—a scrappy, hard-nosed, determined squad that always seemed to come through in the clutch.

Under Bowa’s direction, Jimmy Rollins overachieved his way into rookie-of-the-year contention. The manager’s brilliant fiddling with a suspect pitching staff was tantamount to getting blood from a stone. Seemingly washed-up closer Jose Mesa pitched like the second coming of Rollie Fingers. The team found ways to win the kinds of close games it usually lost the previous season. Bowa took home the NL’s Manager of the Year prize, and it was hard to find a person willing to deny that he was truly worthy of the honor.

But behind the scenes, there were rumors of trouble. Bowa, it was said, was an out-of-control hothead. He was too hard on his troops. The players couldn’t stand him. He was a jerk, a taskmaster, a sadist, and a fascist dictator. Questions quickly arose about the hottest manager in the game. Did he go overboard in the intensity department? Did he really NEED to be so critical? Was he working for Satan? Was he the Bobby Knight of baseball?

Call me a harsh realist, but perhaps the Phillies really DID need a guy like Bowa at the helm of their ship. Perhaps they had needed that for YEARS. Previous skipper Terry Francona was a popular “players’ manager,” but he was never able to do what his successor did last year—win ballgames!

Granted, the credit for the 2001 Phillies’ success must go to the players first and foremost. They were the ones out there winning the games. But that doesn’t make Bowa’s achievements any less remarkable. He lit a fire. He stirred things up. He was willing to go through a wall to find an edge on the competition. And although the Phils’ front office did very little to upgrade the team’s roster over the 2000-2001 off-season, new skipper Bowa made do with what he had and ALMOST conquered the NL East. He did so without a bona fide leadoff man, without a bona fide clean-up hitter, and with only a couple of dependable starting pitchers. It was a good year.

But in 2002, things will be very different. Saint Larry has lifted the Phils out of the gutter, and now they will be EXPECTED to contend. Second-place won’t seem like a prize this time around. If Bowa wants to win ANOTHER Manager of the Year award, he’ll at least need to get his men into the playoffs. And that won’t be easy. The Phils’ brass has once again done very little in the off-season to beef up its on-the-field arsenal. Meanwhile, the Mets have added Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn (among others!). The Evil Ones have brought in Gary Sheffield. And the Marlins—who are rich in young pitching—are due for a breakout year. If things go very, very WRONG, a fourth-place finish could be a distinct possibility for the 2002 Phillies.

Still, something tells me that things WON’T go very, very wrong for Bowa’s Phils. Jimmy Rollins might prove that his terrific rookie year was no fluke. Newcomer Terry Adams and talented young hurler Brandon Duckworth might stabilize the starting rotation. Hot-shot prospect Marlon Byrd might make the jump from AAA and finally give the team the centerfield dynamo it’s been needing for a couple of years. Catcher Mike Lieberthal might come back all the way from last year’s season-ending knee injury. Jose Mesa might save another 42 games. Scott Rolen (playing hard for the free agent jackpot!), Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell might continue to put up all-star numbers. It could happen. All of it.

Sure, an awful lot COULD go wrong. But an awful lot could go right, too. And perhaps the most impressive thing about Bowa’s 2001 Phils was that they made a believer out of cynical, pessimistic ME. For the first time in ages, I enter a baseball season NOT expecting disaster for the Phillies. My heart always hopes they’ve got a chance, but now my head agrees. The competition will be fierce, but do you think I’m going to bet against Bowa’s chances AGAIN?! I’ve already learned my lesson.

Josh Rutledge’s Major League Predictions: 2002

1.      The Yankees will win another division crown, but the upstart Oakland A’s will win the pennant on the strength of supreme pitching. Carlos Pena is no Jason Giambi, but he’ll do.
2.      NL MVP: Vladimir Guerrero; AL MVP: Troy Glaus.
3.      NL Cy Young: Kerry Wood; AL Cy Young: Barry Zito.
4.      Brad Penny will win 20, and the young Marlins will make a run at the NL East title.
5.      Tino Martinez will be at least a slight bust, but the St. Louis Cardinals will still win the NL Central.
6.      AL Rookie of the Year: Mike Cuddyer; NL Rookie of the Year: Josh Beckett.
7.      The Twins will make the playoffs.
8.      The wildcard Astros will win the NL pennant.
9.      The Tigers will shock the world by winning at least 70 games. 
10.     The Padres will lead the National League in errors and still win the NL West.

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