The bucks stop on Jim Bowden's desk. All 1.4 million of them.
When that bill comes due, will the Nationals' general manager pay with his job?
For the moment, Bowden appears to have been the primary sucker in one of the most embarrassing scams ever used to defraud a baseball team.
What is certain already is that a Nats franchise that shoots itself in the foot every time it gets a new pair of shoes has taken another painful public pratfall.
Get a new city-built ballpark; don't pay the rent. Get a coveted No. 1 draft pick; don't sign him. Promise a better team to inaugurate a new park; lose 102 games. Expect sellouts in Southeast Washington; average 12,000 empty seats. Sign slugger Adam Dunn; have a scandal explode the next week.
Now we have the mysterious case of what President Stan Kasten called the "player to be named later." It would be farce if it weren't so mortifying.
Three years ago, Bowden was perhaps the game's most gullible executive, a bumptious hustler so eager to impress his new bosses, the Lerners, that he talked them and Kasten into signing a 16-year-old Dominican named Esmailyn González, who now turns out to have been a 20-year-old named Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo.
The only thing the Nats seem to have gotten right was their shortstop's ironic nickname: "Smiley." Now, Alvarez needs a new moniker: the Real A-Fraud.
"Could he be A-Rod's cousin, too?" one Nat asked.
Bleak humor about the Nats now bounces all around baseball. But this case, as Kasten says ominously, "will have big repercussions." At one level, the FBI and Major League Baseball, both of which are investigating broad allegations of kickbacks to street agents and other improprieties in the Dominican Republic, will sort out the villains. The White Sox already have fired personnel because of the scandal.
However, whether or not anybody in the Nats' front office comes up dirty, heads will probably roll. At least one executive, José Rijo, the team's Dominican head honcho, will almost certainly be fired. The bigger question is whether Bowden, the head dupe in this $1.4 million scam, may be shown the door, too.
Right now, the heat is rising. A central figure in the fraud is Smiley's street agent Basilio Vizcaino, who is a lifelong friend of Rijo. Rijo, in turn, has been close to Bowden for 17 years. Did a chain of scoundrels in the Dominican fool Rijo who, in turn, sold a bill of goods to Bowden who, then, made the pitch to the Lerners and Kasten soon after they'd bought the team, but long before they were up to speed?
Bowden says so. He points out that other clubs, including the Texas Rangers, also were fooled and that the Rangers offered Smiley a $700,00 deal.
However, Bowden has other problems. What sets the Nats apart was how totally they were duped. According to multiple sources, they were told that they were being "outbid" by some team that was offering $1.6 million or $1.8 million; they believed the false intelligence and raised their offer from $1.2 million.
For this snafu alone Rijo should be fired. The "outbid" tale either came from him or should have been vetted by him. Rijo is on the payroll because he's supposed to know everything that happens in the Dominican. As a former World Series MVP who earned more than $30 million in his playing career, he's a prosperous national hero. It's his job, especially considering his relationship with Vizcaino, to get the straight dope for the Nats. Instead, he's dumb or dirty. We'll find out which when investigations conclude.
Often, in a crisis, a team circles the wagons. But sometimes, it gets out the team bus -- and drives it over somebody. On Wednesday, Kasten squarely placed primary responsibility for Smiley at Bowden's feet. Will Bowden join Rijo under the bus? He's certainly vulnerable.
Bowden's fortunes, so high after he helped prep the Nats for sale with a pennant-chase 81-81 season in '05, have been a roller coaster ever since. After fielding the worst team in baseball last season, then seeing a hot farm system turn cold, Bowden's signing of Dunn last week and his earlier trade for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham may not be enough to save him.
Watch the standings. The case for canning Bowden is now sufficient, but not conclusive. But wins may yet save him. As long as Bowden comes out of the Smiley case looking like a sucker, but not a flimflam man, then promising young players with his stamp on them -- like Lastings Milledge, Jesús Flores, John Lannan and Elijah Dukes -- may yet vindicate him.
"I'm extremely angry, just as mad as everybody else," Bowden said yesterday. "None of us knew. We were all fooled, including MLB [which vets date of birth and identities in the Dominican]. And our team was defrauded."
Others were fooled. But it was Bowden's job to sign off on whether Smiley was worth $1.4 million. No matter who fooled whom, when you double the next highest bid, you look like the pigeon in the poker game.
When the Nationals first reported to Viera, Fla., in the spring of '05, Bowden and Manager Frank Robinson posed for a picture, standing behind a draped table. Bowden, shorter than the Hall of Famer, was suddenly taller than Robinson. I looked under the table. Bowden was standing on his tiptoes.
That's how desperately Bowden wanted to make a good impression, how much he wanted to keep the GM job. It beat ESPN's "Cold Pizza," his previous gig after being fired as Reds GM. Bowden cultivated the Lerner family, who wouldn't be awarded the team for another year, especially Mark Lerner, who wanted to learn the game from an insider.
Since the Nats came to town, I've been of two minds about Bowden. On even-numbered days, I think he's a smart, screwy, funny workaholic who had a sleazy rep in Cincinnati but is just the kind of hustler a team needs in the early years of its construction. Given few resources, he often milked them well. And his mistakes cost peanuts. In a GM world now full of Ivy Leaguers, he's just as smart if not as bookish. Besides, I like scoundrels. Always have.
However, on odd-numbered days, I just say: "How on earth can the Lerners and Kasten have Jim Bowden as their GM? This is the oddest marriage in baseball."
In coming weeks and months, we'll find out how the pecking order and the allegiances inside Nationals Park really work. In assistant GM Mike Rizzo, the Nats have an obvious successor in waiting. How tight is Bowden's friendship with Mark Lerner? How highly does Kasten, who always praises Bowden, really value his GM?
We're going to find out how the people who run the Nats really feel about Bowden and whether they truly want him around for the next stage of their development.
Because if, deep down, they want him gone, they've got more cover, and cause, than they need.