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Washington Nationals...Cincy East?


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Former Reds find new life in D.C.

By Kevin Kelly

Enquirer staff writer

VIERA, Fla. - The ESPN camera captured the four executives seated together behind home plate.

A Washington Nationals employee, watching the broadcast from the team's clubhouse Wednesday at Space Coast Stadium, noticed interim general manager Jim Bowden and three special assistants squinting in the afternoon sun and quickly grabbed something to soothe the glare.

Four fitted caps adorned with the team's script "W" soon were in the hands and then on the heads of Bowden, Barry Larkin, Jose Rijo and Bob Boone for all to see.

"This feels like home," Rijo said Thursday before the team's second Grapefruit League exhibition game. "I think it's as close as I'm going to get to feeling like I did in Cincinnati."

The new brain trust of this renamed and relocated franchise, which next month officially will return big-league baseball to the nation's capital after 34 years, is a cast familiar to Reds fans.

"I needed veteran help here, some really good baseball minds that I was familiar with," Bowden said. "All three have completely different job descriptions, but all three are winners and all three are champion-caliber human beings."

The group worked together in various roles with the Reds as recently as 2003.

Bowden was the general manager. Boone was the field manager. Larkin was the team's shortstop. Rijo was a veteran pitcher attempting a comeback from yet another elbow surgery.

Now they, along with manager Frank Robinson and seven others in Nationals camp with previous ties to the Reds, are trying to craft a winner from a team that lost 95 games last season.

"I think Jim bringing in people as quickly as he did, he really got the players' attention and certainly got the coaching staff's attention," said Robinson, 233-253 in three seasons as the team's manager. "He's a guy that, if he wants to do it, he can go get it done in a short period of time."

The league-owned Nationals, who remain in search of a permanent owner, hired Bowden away from a job as an ESPN analyst in early November.

He accepted the television gig shortly after the Reds fired him, Boone and two other coaches July 28, 2003. The firing ended Bowden's 11-year run as the Reds' general manager.

"I made a lot of mistakes in Cincinnati, as almost every GM in the game makes, and you have to learn from that," Bowden said. "I think being out of the game last year, doing television, allowed me to grow as an individual as well as professionally."

The same day the Nationals hired Bowden, he was on the phone chatting with Robinson about the manager's wants and the team's needs.

"I told him a third baseman, a shortstop and a right fielder," Robinson said. "We needed some pop in the lineup and a starting pitcher."

With $13 million to play with, the team made five player transactions, including a trade that brought former Reds slugger Jose Guillen to Washington from the Anaheim Angels, during Bowden's first month on the job.

Bowden later added veteran third baseman Vinny Castilla, who led the National League in RBI last season, and former Twins shortstop Cristian Guzman. Starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza signed a one-year contract in January.

"He has a reputation as a doer," Robinson said. "He got things done."

All the while Bowden was assembling a close-knit support staff.

Boone, a seven-time Gold Glove winner who managed the Reds from 2001-03, was the first special assistant hired by Bowden.

The close relationship between the two leads some to believe that Boone will succeed Robinson. That speculation affects Robinson little.

"Why should it?" Robinson said. "I think you can never have too many good baseball people around you. ... A strong and supportive cast around you just makes your staff better and make me better as a manager."

Rijo was hired Jan. 6 as was Jose Cardenal, a coach with the Reds for three seasons (1993, 2002-03), as a special adviser for the Nationals.

"I'll be here at the major-league level most of the time," said Rijo, who along with Cardenal has been in full uniform for several Nationals workouts this spring. "I'll be traveling with the team sometimes. I'll be in Washington most of the time. I'll also be at my academy in the Dominican (Republic)."

And then Larkin was hired.

The 12-time All-Star and 1995 NL MVP, who played his 19-year major-league career in Cincinnati, did not decide to retire and take the Washington job until the day before pitchers and catchers reported.

"We kept pursuing Barry as a backup (shortstop) because we really wanted his presence in the clubhouse," Bowden said. "Then we ended up doing even better. We got him as a special assistant.

"That (means) we get his presence in the clubhouse whenever we want."

Larkin is already involved with scouting potential draft picks and in the evaluation of other players.

"Jim and Frank both have been great," Larkin said during a visit to Reds camp Friday. "They've let me kind of ease into this thing. I've talked to them about some things, given them some ideas."

Among Robinson's short-term plans is to get Larkin in a Nationals uniform. Non-roster invitee and former Reds outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds said Thursday he is still willing to trade his No. 11 jersey should Larkin desire to play.

"(Larkin) just being here is a benefit," Robinson said. "What players get from him or take from him is up to the players. It's not something you can force on them.

There might come a day - in the next few months perhaps - when a new owner comes in and starts from scratch.

Seated on a balcony overlooking the Space Coast Stadium field Thursday morning, Bowden said that possibility isn't limiting him.

"Every year I was in Cincinnati, I treated it like I was going to be there a lifetime. That's how I'm treating this," he said. "We're building long-term. ... So whether I'm kept or not kept, when I pass the torch to the new owners, at least they'll know we went in the right direction and we helped out."

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