A Tribute To Larry Bowa: The Manager Who Saved the Philadelphia Phillies

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A Tribute To Larry Bowa: The Manager Who Saved the Philadelphia Phillies
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Just 10 short years ago, professional baseball in Philadelphia was dead.

Totally, undisputedly, dead.

I was a sixth-grader at the time, back in 2000, and nobody at Elkins Park Middle School in the Montgomery County Philly suburbs even wanted to talk about our city’s ball team.

No one. Wanna talk about Pokemon? Sure. The Harry Potter books? Of course. The Fightin Phils? No way.

The Phillies were nobodys. They were losers.

They were losers until Larry Bowa became the Phillies 49th manager in team history on November 1, 2000.

Now to the present: The 64-year-old Bowa has returned to Philadelphia this week as the Dodgers third base coach. Back in the ‘70’s, Bowa made a name for himself as the Phillies’ terrific shortstop. But 20 years later, he also oversaw the Phils’dramatic turn-around at the start of the new millennium.

Larry’s only previous managerial experience came with San Diego, where he was fired midway through 1988 after just one-and-a-half unsuccessful seasons.

Twelve years later in Philadelphia Bowa inherited a Phillies team, a franchise, in total disarray.

Rebuilding wouldn’t be easy.

Losing had become habitual. From 1987 through 2000, the Phillies had suffered through 13 losing seasons in 14 years. 1993, as great as it was, was simply lightening in a bottle (Bowa was actually the Phils’ third base coach that year).

The 2000 Phillies had the worst record in MLB. It was a brutal year. As a young fan still trying to establish some kind of a love for Phillies baseball, I couldn’t take too many more seasons like 2000.

In 2001, the culture of Phils baseball started to change.

In his time as Phillies’ manager, Larry repeatedly admitted that he wasn’t as outwardly confrontational or emotional as he had been in his initial managerial stint with San Diego. But Bowa still had more than enough passion as the Phils’ skipper.     

Larry didn’t tolerate the complacency that sometimes sets in within the clubhouse of a struggling team. He had learned to handle losing, but he would never, ever learn to settle for it.

Under Bowa, the Phillies weren’t going to be the doormats of MLB any longer. Bad baseball in Philadelphia wasn’t to be expected, or accepted, the way it had been since the Simpsons became America’s most famous animated family in the late 1980s.    

On paper, the 2001 Phillies who finished 86-76 and came within two games of winning the division weren’t significantly better than the 2000 Phillies who finished 65-97. The Phils’ payroll was actually $3.5 million less in 2001 than it had been in 2000.

Clearly, the Phillies players took to Bowa’s intense, hands-on style of coaching much more than they had former manager Terry Francona’s mild-mannered laid-back approach. 

Sure, Bowa rubbed a few players the wrong way in 2001, namely star third baseman Scott Rolen, but the majority of Larry’s players seemed to respond to him.

Back to the present—In case you haven’t heard, these 2010 Phillies are in a pennant race and have a dynamic three-man rotation of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt.

The 2001 Phillies went deep into a pennant race too, equipped with a “Big Three” starting rotation of Robert Person, Randy Wolf, and Omar Daal.

It wasn’t quite the same back then.

Bowa was named NL Manager of the Year in 2001, an honor well deserved. 

Overall, the Phillies had a mid-level payroll during Bowa’s four-year reign, and the Phillies won 86 games three times in a season.

But by September 2004, it was clearly time for Larry to go. Another promising season would end just short of the playoffs, and it seemed that the Phillies players were no longer inspired by Bowa’s intensity and passion. Finally, Larry was fired on the second-to-last day of the ’04 season.

Bowa had taken the Phillies as far as he could. And that was far enough. Thanks to a beautiful new ballpark that helped to keep the stadium turnstiles in motion and a roster loaded with young talent, the road was fully paved for the Phillies to achieve much bigger, better things in the years ahead.

The Phillies 2008 roster featured just six players who were around at the end of Bowa’s tenure, but all six played major roles in the Phillies' World Series championship that season (Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Brett Myers, and Ryan Madson).

Larry Bowa wasn’t just the Gold Glove shortstop who helped the Phillies win their first, long-awaited World Championship in 1980, but also the manager who steered the franchise toward its second title in 2008.

Charlie Manuel was at the helm when these ultra-talented Phillies made it back to the summit of the baseball world, and he deserves credit for that. But no one should forget that it was Larry Bowa who got the long-time moribund Phillies finally pointed in the right direction and helped make Philadelphia a baseball town once again.

Phillies Four Seasons Under Larry Bowa:

Year    Record       NL East           Payroll

2001    86- 76       Second           $38, 563, 833

2002    80- 81       Third              $49, 304, 999

2003    86- 76       Third              $63, 260, 000

2004    86- 76       Second           $89, 119, 167

TOT.    338-309

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