Bowa comes full circle in fourth act with Phillies
Bench coach glad to be back with team he previously played for, managed
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Billy Martin played for the Yankees and also managed the team five separate times. Six stints for the same organization. That just doesn't happen very often -- not in baseball, not in the business world, not anywhere.
Which only underscores the fact that Larry Bowa beginning his fourth separate term with the Phillies is a pretty remarkable feat in its own right. Player. Coach. Manager. Now, at 68, back again as manager Ryne Sandberg's bench coach. F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation that there are no second acts in American lives does not apply here. Clearly there's some sort of invisible magnetism that keeps drawing them together.
"I've thought about that. I think I'm very fortunate," Bowa said Monday before hitting ground balls on the half field at Bright House Field. "But this was where I was raised in baseball. They say everything comes full circle. This sort of puts a period at the end of the sentence. I'm back with the Phillies. I've never left Philadelphia. I've lived there since I played my first game [in 1970]. So this uniform is special to me."
Magnets, of course, can both attract and repel. And that's what makes his most recent comeback even more fascinating. Or as club president Dave Montgomery put it with a smile, "I think passion is what opens doors for Larry. And sometimes closes doors for Larry."
There's a certain cinematic quality to this saga. So let's present it with the help of a movie director's clapperboard.
Bowa and the Phillies: Scene 1, Take 1. Click!
The first split was the most traumatic and, in retrospect, his association with the club could have ended right there. It happened after the 1981 season. Bowa had been promised a contract extension by owner Ruly Carpenter. Before it could be signed, the team was sold to a syndicate headed by Bill Giles, who didn't feel obliged to honor the unwritten agreement. The spat became public. Bowa called Giles a liar. Giles fired back, then eventually traded Bowa and Sandberg, then an unproven prospect, to the Cubs for veteran shortstop Ivan DeJesus.
"Looking back, hindsight being 20-20, I knew I was getting closer to the end of my career and I wanted to get a nice contract," Bowa said. "I thought I deserved it. Bill was the [club president]. He's still here, and as far as I'm concerned, I consider him a good friend.
"Looking at it from the other side, if I was Bill, I might have said, 'Nah, I don't want him here.' There were a lot of bad things said, mostly on my part. As you get older, you realize, 'That was stupid.' Looking back at it, it could have been done differently on my part."
Then-general manager Lee Thomas wanted to bring Bowa back to be part of manager Nick Leyva's staff in 1989. Giles had to sign off on the decision and didn't hesitate.
"I don't hold grudges," Giles said. "He truly loves the Phillies. It just seemed to me when I got rid of him that it was the best thing, because it had become such a public brouhaha. And it was the right thing to bring him back."
Bowa and the Phillies: Scene 2, Take 1. Click!
Bowa coached for the next eight seasons under Leyva and Jim Fregosi. But when Terry Francona was hired in 1997, it was thought that it might be uncomfortable for the new guy to have a franchise icon figuratively looking over his shoulder.
"I understood that, no question," Bowa said. "That's just how organizations run. Managers like to bring in their people. It's a comfort zone. You're together from February to October, and [sometimes] you don't feel comfortable or maybe you don't know the guy."
Bowa and the Phillies: Scene 3, Take 1. Click!
He was hired to replace Francona for the 2001 season. Then-general manager Ed Wade thinks the fact that he had been part of the organization twice before was a plus.
"From the standpoint of people being familiar with him and his love of the Phillies and his knowledge of the game -- having the opportunity to have so many people in the organization who knew him from his previous stints probably made him more attractive to the Phillies than to the people who didn't know everything about him," Wade said.
Bowa admits that he was disturbed when he was let go with two games remaining in the 2004 season.
"My feelings were hurt, because I thought I did a good job of turning things around," he said. "That was a bad team. And I don't mean anything bad about Tito. They just didn't have the talent. Then you have to come in and change the whole culture of the clubhouse: 'This is not acceptable. You've got to start winning games.'
"And I thought I did a real good job. With the exception of the one year when we had a game we didn't play [and finished 80-81], I was over .500 every year. And it wasn't a great team, but you could see it was a team that was starting to get the message. I didn't think that was fair, but any manager who gets fired thinks it's unfair."
Bowa and the Phillies: Scene 4, Take 1. Click!
Bowa had a comfortable job at MLB Network that he enjoyed. But the chance to get back on the field, to work with Sandberg, proved to be irresistible. Still, Sandberg had to sell the Phillies on Bowa 4.0. Montgomery ticked off several reasons why the idea was green-lighted.
"I think, first of all, his passion for the game and his affinity for the club are clear," Montgomery said. "Yes, he finished his career somewhere else, but the reality was that he considers himself a Phillie. And, certainly, we do. He did manage at San Diego and he did coach in L.A. and New York. But if you add it up, his total time with us is pretty extraordinary.
"We've shown that the door is always open for Larry. Every time he left, there were still loads of people who respected him and were friends with him. I certainly think anybody that's known him has incredible respect for his knowledge of the game. That's legendary. For his age, he's remarkably current as far as knowing today's players. That's very unusual. Nobody eats, drinks and sleeps it more than Larry Bowa."
And, in the end, that deep affection runs both ways and explains why he returns to the Phillies as surely as a homing pigeon. In fact, Bowa will be forever grateful that the Phillies signed him in the first place. If they hadn't, none of the above may have occurred.
"They're the one team that gave me an opportunity," Bowa said. "Hey, there could have been a whole lot of teams that signed me. I didn't get drafted. I look back at that and realize this team took a chance on me. And who knows? If I didn't sign here, I probably wouldn't have played pro ball. So I owe a lot to the Phillies' organization. Everything that I have and everything that I've achieved, it was through the Phillies."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.