It certainly wasn’t the biggest news pertaining to the Phillies last week, but shortly after the official announcement that Matt Klentak was onboard as the team’s new general manager, word came from south Philadelphia that bench coach Larry Bowa would return in 2016.
What little reaction this generated was, of course, negative. To many fans, Bowa embodies a legacy of baseball stupidity that was once almost universal in the game, and persisted with our favorite team much longer than it should have. Where data should be determinative in making decisions, Bowa goes with his gut; where a player-friendly approach might yield best results, the foul-mouthed senior citizen will call a guy out for lack of effort or deficiency of character. He’s a walking joke, but devoid of humor value.
Putting aside that it’s difficult to know how a guy really acts within the famously insulated environment that is a major league clubhouse, this is at least somewhat fair. Bowa’s no blank slate: he played in Philadelphia for more than a decade, coached for eight years after that in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and managed the team from 2001-2004. He wasn’t a shrinking violet in any of those roles, nor as a commentator on the MLB Network before his friend Ryne Sandberg lured him back into uniform two years ago. Ask Scott Rolen, or any number of .GIFs.
Even so, I’m going on record that I’m mildly glad Bowa’s coming back. The reasons why have to do with the team’s history, its current spot in the competitive cycle, and the massive changes that are otherwise rippling through this organization.
With respect to the history, Bowa not only represents a link to the franchise’s first glory era from the mid-1970s to the early ‘80s, but he was also on hand as manager for the prelude to the second one. Later mainstays of the World F. Champions like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Pat Burrell cut their teeth during his tenure, and I don’t think it’s absurd to say that some of their intensity, preparation, and willingness to play through pain could be ascribed to the hardass at the end of the bench. And while Burrell clearly had a problem with Bowa (even though he seems to be over it enough to bust some chops), Rollins mostly loved the guy, and vice versa.
This brings me to the second point. Aside from the outbursts, what Bowa’s known for is emphasis on fundamentals. I’d suggest that with a very young team set to take the field in 2016, this isn’t an awful thing. Jimmy Rollins sometimes got into trouble with Bowa’s successor, Charlie Manuel, for seeming effort level at the plate and on the base paths. His defense was never an issue, and it probably helped that his first real big league manager was the guy he eventually displaced as the greatest shortstop to don a Phillies uniform. I doubt it was much fun in 2001 and 2002 when Bowa was constantly up his ass about positioning and technique. But it worked. I wouldn’t want Larry Bowa coaching (much less managing) a collection of 30 year-old veteran stars. With 23 year olds who aren’t ready to win yet but might be good enough later on? Under the supervision of a manager, Pete Mackanin, who seems appropriately focused on development rather than killing the team to win 77 games rather than 72? Sure.
Finally, there’s his role as a constant element in an environment heavily marked by change. If you feel that Phillies history over the last half century includes some positives—both in terms of those two flags waving in center field and some aspects of the "family culture" maintained by ownership—it’s not so bad to have a guy on hand who’s seen most or all of that. None of three most important leaders below ownership level—Andy MacPhail, Klentak and Mackanin—are Phillies lifers. Having Bowa as the elder statesman and a keeper of the organizational legacy feels a little weird, in that people in that role usually are a bit more genteel. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.