Padre with a Passion

His young team's struggles have forced manager Larry Bowa to temper his fury with patience
May 03, 1987

Sheena Bowa watched with some amusement as her husband, Larry, comforted their not-quite-four-year-old daughter, Tori, after the child had fallen from a chair in the family's San Diego home. Neither Tori nor her father had had a particularly good day. Bowa's team, the San Diego Padres, had just blown a game to the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-2, partly because of a misjudged fly ball and a misplayed bunt. It was the Padres' 10th loss in the first 12 games, and the manager, a man not known for his forbearance, had been grousing over the sloppy defeat up to the moment of his daughter's tumble.

Tori, for her part, had attended the game with her mother and had remarked midway through it, "This is the boringest afternoon I've ever spent." She had done little to improve her father's mood afterward by informing him, "Daddy, you got a lousy team." But after the fall, Bowa was at the youngster's side, caressing the tears away.

"Just look at him," Mrs. Bowa said, smiling at the tender scene. "Here's a man so competitive I won't even play tennis with him. He even aired me out while I was taking a lesson. I asked him why, and he said, 'Because you were laughing, not taking it seriously.' But look at him now with Tori. The patience of Job."

Actually, during the first two weeks of the season, Bowa's infamous disposition remained surprisingly stable as the Padres got off to a start that would have tried the patience of the old Biblical whipping boy. But suffering in silence is not Bowa's style, and last weekend after punching just five singles in a 4-2 loss to the Dodgers, the Padres discovered their manager's limits. "We have people who are scared to swing the bat and [who] look for walks," he screamed. "These guys don't know how to win. We've got too many people who are playing for themselves, and people who worry about themselves are losers. L-O-S-E-R-S."

At the end of last week the Padres were 5-15 and averaging only 2.6 runs a game. "You don't win that way unless Mike Scott is pitching for you," Bowa wisely observes. "When you're not hitting, every mistake you make is blatant."

And the young Padres have made some beauties. In a 3-2 loss to the Giants on April 14 (one of six to San Francisco this young season), Bowa called for a pitchout in the first inning with Chili Davis on first base. It was a smart play that should have worked because Davis was breaking for second. But Padre pitcher Ed Wojna threw too close to the hitter, Jeffrey Leonard, who reached out and popped a single to rightfield. Davis went to third on the play and scored on a wild pitch by the rattled Wojna, who, with 131 days of major league service entering the season, qualifies as an old-timer on this fuzzy-cheeked team.

Four days later, in the seventh inning against the Dodgers, Padre reliever Craig Lefferts threw a wild pitch to the first batter he faced, allowing the tying run to score. In that same game, leftfielder John Kruk let a Steve Sax liner sail over his head for a two-base error, and reliever Lance McCullers missed a golden chance to throw a runner out at third when he couldn't get a bunted ball out of his glove in time. Runners scored on both boo-boos. And in that same week, rookie second baseman Joey Cora twice tried to bunt for base hits with two strikes against him. He ran into the ball the first time and bunted foul the second. Two automatic outs.

On April 13, in the team's home opener, Marvell Wynne, Tony Gwynn and Kruk led off the bottom half of the first inning with consecutive home runs, the first time that had been done in big league history. The Padres still lost to the Giants 13-6, and a disputed play during the game gave San Diego fans a fitting introduction to their team's new field boss. Second base umpire Bob Engel allowed the Giants a double play, even though shortstop Matt Williams had thrown the ball away. Engel ruled that San Diego's Tim Flannery had gone out of the base path to break up the play. That brought a raging Bowa out of the dugout; the crowd was stunned by the ferocity of his protest.

The San Diego Union reported the next day that "he jerked head and body violently, following Engel all around the second base area, throwing down his cap and screaming for all he was worth, and remaining on the field, arguing, for more than two minutes after Engel had ejected him."

Bowa said later he was "amazed that anybody should be amazed by my intensity." Besides, it was not so much his histrionics that earned him Engel's displeasure, he said, as his flip suggestion that it would be a feather in Engel's cap to be the first umpire to give him the heave-ho this season. Bowa has lost count of the times he was given the thumb as a player, but through 16 years with the Phillies, Cubs and, briefly, the Mets, he was a crabby nuisance who was the scourge of opponents, umpires, sportswriters and even inanimate objects in ballparks.

Bowa was a wall-banger, a toilet-smasher, a telephone-yanker, a light-bulb-buster. Once after a particularly frustrating time at bat in Houston, he took his otherwise ineffectual Louisville Slugger and blasted every light fixture in the tunnel from the dugout to the Astrodome visitors' clubhouse. His grumbling teammates were forced to grope their way in semidarkness.

Last year Bowa seemed to be in customary high dudgeon when, in his first job as a manager, he took Las Vegas, San Diego's Triple A farm team, to the Pacific Coast League pennant. In April umpire Pam Postema tossed him out of three games in one week. Padre general manager Jack McKeon called him after that and. says Bowa, told him "to lighten up a little. And for the rest of the season I was good. I didn't get tossed again until the league playoffs." In October the Padres hired him as manager to succeed the quiet and scholarly Steve Boros.

Bowa inherited a team that had traded away veteran power hitters Kevin McReynolds and Terry Kennedy in the off-season. Go with the youngsters, Bowa was ordered, and light a fire under them. McKeon protests that it is not a rebuilding year so much as it is "a period of adjustment." But semantics notwithstanding, Bowa has had rookies playing regularly at catcher (Benito Santiago), second base (Cora) and centerfield (Stan Jefferson, when healthy). That's inexperience down the middle, where teams must be strong to win. There were 11 Padres in the dugout Opening Day who were not there a year ago.

Of course, there are some veterans. Gwynn, the rightfielder, is a bona fide superstar, and first baseman Steve Garvey and reliever Goose Gossage used to be. But Garvey was hitting .182 through Sunday, and to add injury to insult, he was hit on the chin by a fastball thrown by the Giants' Kelly Downs on April 15. Bowa is convinced that the 38-year-old Garv will soon be stinging line drives again, but may rest him frequently. Gossage, suffering from a pulled muscle in his rib cage, didn't pitch at all in April. He was joined on the disabled list the second week of the season by Jefferson, a speedy leadoff hitter Bowa had counted on as the catalyst of his offense, until a sprained ankle hobbled him.

Given this bleak situation, Bowa-watchers everywhere have been forecasting stormy weather. But he is earning high marks from such near-contemporaries as Garvey for his surprising restraint. "A manager has to be as much a psychologist as a theorist these days," says Garvey, "and Larry has communicated very well with his players. He's been good at being patient." Bowa says he learned at Las Vegas that "you can't treat everybody the same. Some guys need stroking, some need to be jumped on. But if you jump on some too early you'll lose them, and you'll lose others if you don't jump on them at all."

His experience with the Padres this year has given him, he says, "a sense of dèjà vu. I've been down this road before." He certainly has. The Phillies team he joined in 1970 as a 24-year-old shortstop was also rebuilding. Bowa had worked his way to the big leagues after four years in the minors. But he had few credentials apart from a willingness to work hard and an aggressive nature. He hadn't even made his McClatchy High School team in Sacramento. At 5'6", 120 pounds, he was considered too puny. But, he says, "I persevered."

At Sacramento City College, Bowa became an all-conference shortstop, and the Phillies gave him $2,000 to sign. "Basically," says Bowa, "they liked my attitude and desire, but they were thinking of me as somebody who wouldn't get beyond Double A, a guy they could use to stock their minor league clubs."

Bowa was up to 150 pounds by then, and. if nothing else, he had a sound fundamental knowledge of the game. His father, Paul, and uncle Frank had both been minor league infielders. "I knew the game," says Bowa. "To this day, it baffles me why guys can't bunt. I could do that in Little League. My father always told me that if you can't learn anything else, learn how to bunt properly." His dad also set before him the rigors of the minor leagues, and the big break that might never come. "Dad," the young Bowa told him, "I'll make it."

It didn't look as if he would that first year in Philly. "I was hitting about a buck-twenty [.120] in June when our manager, Frank Lucchesi [in his first big league job], came up to me and said he didn't care what I hit, I was his shortstop. He had managed me in Double A and Triple A, and I was, I guess, his big experiment. I know that without Lucchesi, I probably never would have played in the big leagues."

Shortly after receiving this vote of confidence, Bowa found himself in one of those situations that can make or break a rookie. "We were in Montreal, and they purposely walked the hitter ahead of me to load the bases and get to me. Bill Stoneman was the pitcher, if I remember correctly. A righthander. I was a switch-hitter, and batting lefty I hit a triple to right center. When I reached third, I was so pumped up I just shouted, 'Yeah, you can play!' Then I looked into the dugout and there was Lucchesi, just as pumped up as I."

Bowa hit .250 that first season and played more games at shortstop than anyone else in the league. He lasted another 15 seasons and set the league record for most games played at his position—2,222. Only Luis Aparicio, with 2.581 games in the American League, spent more time at short. Bowa holds the major league record for career fielding percentage by a shortstop (.980) and has the highest percentage for a season (.991 in 1979). He holds National League records for fewest errors in a season by a shortstop playing 150 games or more (nine in 1972) and for most years leading the league in fielding percentage (six). His lifetime batting average was .260, but in the 1980 World Series, won by the Phillies, he hit .375. "I was," he says, "a pesky hitter."

Bowa could have played for yet another world champion last year. He was still under contract to the Mets, who had signed him as a free agent at the end of the '85 season and wanted him as a utility infielder in '86. Bowa, then 40, didn't like the idea. "I'd always been an everyday player," he says. "Anything else wouldn't have been me." So he accepted McKeon's offer to manage Las Vegas and immediately won the pennant.

It is being said all over again that he won't make it. He didn't manage long enough in the minors. His temper will do him in. But nothing gives Bowa greater pleasure than proving his detractors wrong. "It's a motivating factor for me to read that Larry Bowa can't do this or can't do that," he says. "I like being the underdog. It makes you dig deeper within yourself. It's true I've always had a bad temper. But it's much more controllable now. I'm not one to hold a grudge and keep a player in my doghouse. Anyway, it seems I'm always having to prove myself in some way. Now I have to prove I can manage. I will. I'll persevere."

Bowa knows he's still learning on the job. He can be a stickler about players showing up late or missing signs—he fined Gwynn $100 for missing a hit-and-run sign on April 16 even though Gwynn got his fifth hit of the day on that at bat—but he is proving to be flexible. He was wrong, he now admits, about Jefferson, a player of great ability and seemingly equal fragility. Bowa was annoyed in spring training because the talented young centerfielder was missing too many games with seemingly minor injuries. He openly questioned the rookie's dedication. Then, in the first week of the season, a deeply concerned Jefferson came to Bowa's hotel room in San Francisco. Bowa was surprised and touched by what he had to say.

"He actually came in to apologize to me for being so low-keyed," Bowa recalls. "He told me that despite the way it looked, he really did want to play every day. He said he was anxious to prove that he could do it even though his ankle was hurting. And I know now that he was hurting. I realized as we talked that though some players" actions and mannerisms might not suggest they're giving one hundred percent, they actually are and you should recognize it. I knew right then, talking to him, that he was a gamer. So I told him, 'Stan, what you need is a little of me in you.' Then I laughed and said, 'And what I need is a little of you in me.' He said, 'Yes, that would be a good combination.' You know, I think we're gonna be all right, after all."

Not right away, of course. But, then, Bowa knows all about perseverance.

PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERBowa says his temper is under control, but others, notably the umps, still hear his roar. PHOTOANDY HAYTProving that Padre foes also goof, Dodger Mike Scioscia was caught straying off first. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONThe infielder-turned-skipper can see himself in rookie Cora's double play acrobatics. PHOTOANDY HAYTAt home, Mr. Tough Guy is a pushover for Sheena and daughter Tori.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)