The man running the switchboard of trade central in the major leagues is perfect for the job. He is Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who, in two years, has gone from "Cold Pizza" to hot GM, the one with the most players to trade, the man who controls the market.
"Tell him to stay on hold, I'll be right there!'' Bowden yelled to his secretary, returned to the phone and told a writer, "Make it quick. I gotta go.''
Trade deadline time is Bowden's favorite time of year, especially this year. He already has made an eight-player trade with the Reds, acquiring outfielder Austin Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez in exchange primarily for two relievers, Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, and shortstop Royce Clayton. On a steamy Tuesday in Washington, he was working on another blockbuster for left fielder Alfonso Soriano, the best player on the market. Seven teams have interest in Soriano. Bowden raised the possibility of trading Soriano for two or three young players to help stock the farm system, then signing him as a free agent in the offseason.
But Bowden doesn't have only Soriano to deal. He has Livan Hernandez, perhaps the best starting pitcher available in a field woefully short of pitching. He also has second baseman Jose Vidro, outfielder Jose Guillen and pitchers Tony Armas Jr. and Ramon Ortiz to trade.
Everyone is available except for Kearns, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, closer Chad Cordero, first baseman Nick Johnson and catcher Brian Schneider. Bowden loves it, he loves being at the center of activity, at the big table, and he holds most of the chips.
"I look at every day of the year, all 365, equally,'' Bowden said. "I like to talk trades as much on December 25 and January 1 as I do during the trading deadline. I have tremendous passion for it.''
His goal was different than most kids. "I wanted to be a GM when I was 8 years old,'' Bowden said. "[In 1973, Red Sox GM] Dick O'Connell traded Reggie Smith, I didn't like the trade, and that's when I decided I wanted to be a GM. Back when I was a kid, I was playing APBA and Strat-O-Matic, making trades and setting rosters and doing statistical analysis. But kids today have all these cool video games, and they do everything for you.''
Bowden went to Rollins College in Florida, where he was a roommate with John Galbreath, a son of the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I majored in business communications, but I designed it for baseball,'' Bowden said. "During spring training, I went to the Pirates' facility every day. When I was in college, I was learning how to be a general manager from Pete Peterson, and other guys. I did player interviews. It was all planned.''
At the age of 31, Bowden was named general manager of the Reds, then the youngest GM in major league history. In 10˝ years in Cincinnati, he signed dozens of players off the waiver wire, he made a number of trades, including one for Ken Griffey Jr., and he discussed hundreds more. But after Bowden was fired in 2003, and after he worked at ESPN, most often on the show "Cold Pizza," the Nationals hired him on Nov. 2, 2004 to be the general manager when the franchise relocated from Montreal to Washington. It was considered a temporary position, but that didn't stop him from making trades and signing players.
When the Nationals were sold on May 3 to Ted Lerner, a local real estate mogul, it seemed that Bowden had little chance to be retained.
"Every person I talked to thought there was no chance,'' said a source close to the situation. And it didn't help that in April, Bowden was arrested and charged with DUI. And yet, in June, he was named the permanent GM. No contract details were announced, which is how Nationals president Stan Kasten does things: When Kasten was the president of the Braves, the length of GM John Schuerholz's contract wasn't made public. So, as long as Bowden does the job well, he will keep the job.
But how did he get the permanent job? Is he that good as a self-promoter? Is he that much of a politician? Is he that persuasive that he can make you believe whatever he wants? He is, says Kasten, "smart, forceful and resourceful,'' which is exactly the type of guy Kasten wanted. The Nationals have a tremendous amount of work to do to rebuild the team, rebuild the minor league system, get the franchise running properly, refurbish RFK Stadium and build a new stadium. They have no time for wasted steps and hesitant people. Bowden's detractors -- and there are many -- say he's too impulsive, too loud, too public and too abrasive, but even his critics can't question his intelligence and his energy.
"Jim Bowden is the guy who will call you at 1:30 in the morning and say 'I have the deal that will win the World Series for you,' '' said current ESPN analyst Steve Phillips, a former Mets GM. "And he'll say 'You gotta take it. Call me back.' ''
And now Bowden is in a position to help another team win the World Series in 2006. Need a pitcher? Come see Bowden. Need an impact offensive player? Come see Bowden. The Nationals are your one-stop shop to make the playoffs. Just bring talent, preferably prospects.
"I need to go,'' Bowden tells a writer. "Call me later.'' Two calls are not returned. It's safe to say, Jim Bowden is really busy these days.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.