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ON BASEBALL

Gaining capital interest

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When this began, Jim Bowden said, ''I was staying in an interim hotel, with an interim car, in an interim job. And it's still interim on all three counts."

But while Bowden's role may indeed be temporary, he could not imagine being in a better place this Fourth of July than as part of the summer's best baseball tale -- the return of Major League Baseball to Washington, D.C., which has offered permanent refuge to the team formerly known as the Montreal Expos and reborn as the Washington Nationals.

Playing in a city whose baseball team, the Senators, once lived by the motto, ''First in war, first in peace, last in the American League," the Nationals are in first place in the National League East, despite a rare ninth-inning collapse yesterday in a 5-2 loss to the New York Mets before a holiday crowd of 44,331 in RFK Stadium, the largest crowd to see the Nats this season.

A team that still lacks full-time ownership and remains in essence a ward of MLB, with Bowden its caretaker general manager, has flourished since it was allowed to cease a nomad's existence. Instead of splitting ''home" games between Montreal and San Juan, it has set down roots in a town that had no team to call its own since 1971, when the Senators, then managed by Red Sox immortal Ted Williams, moved to Texas and became the Rangers.

''You know, sometimes you have a magical year," said Bowden, who traces his roots to Weston, Mass., and Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and was mourning the death yesterday of his 96-year-old aunt who lived in Millbury, Mass., Mildred Smith Bowden (''a great lady"), who died on the same date as two notable Washingtonians, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

''This is America's team being born. This is phenomenal. I knew it was going to be special on Opening Day, when a guy hits a ground ball to second, pushing a guy to third base, and the fans stood up and gave him a standing ovation. Because they get it. This is a highly intellectual crowd. Probably the most intelligent fans in the world are right here in Washington.

''Washington, D.C. Man, does that sound good. Baseball's back in the capital city."

With the Nationals, losers of 95 games in 2004, already having won 50 games and owning the best home record in baseball (29-11), Bowden's hyperventilation is understandable. Nine months ago, he was out of the game. Last weekend, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com noted, Bowden was attending a T-ball game on the White House lawn, and President Bush was introducing him as ''my good friend Jimmy Bowden."

Politics, of course, are never far from the field of play. Fred Malek, who was one of Bush's partners when he owned the Texas Rangers, belongs to a group of bidders for the team; Gen. Colin Powell belongs to the same group of bidders. Malek is also a former Nixon aide who was once ordered by President Nixon to investigate a possible ''Jewish cabal" in the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Last week, Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who chaired the Congressional committee that slapped baseball around during the steroid hearings, took aim at George Soros, the wealthy Democratic activist who spent millions trying to defeat Bush in the last election. Soros also was recently convicted of insider trading in France, a decision he is appealing.

''We finally got a winning team," Davis last week said of Soros. ''Now they're going to hand it over to a convicted felon who wants to legalize drugs and who lives in New York and spent $5 million trying to defeat the President? How's he going to get him out to the opening game? C'mon."

The one-time boy wonder GM of the Cincinnati Reds -- he was 31 when the Reds made him the youngest GM in baseball in 1992 -- Bowden had been fired in 2003 and was working as a commentator for ESPN when the Red Sox, the team he loved as a child, won the World Series last October.

''I was standing in St. Louis next to Peter Gammons, whose column I used to read every Sunday morning in Weston, and watched his eye ducts fill with tears when the Red Sox won," Bowden said. ''And when I saw Theo Epstein carry the World Series trophy on the field, that's when I really missed being in the game.

''I flew home the next day, landed in LA, ordered Mexican food with my fiancee, then talked to Bob DuPuy [CEO of MLB]. Four days later, I was general manager of the Nationals."

For some, including former Yankees GM Bob Watson, who was offered the position and turned it down, it was a dead-end job. Bowden was replacing Omar Minaya, who had run the Expos the previous three years before taking the Mets' GM job, and he figured to be GM only until the club was sold, which was expected to be only a matter of months. MLB had purchased the Expos from Jeffrey Loria back in 2001, as part of the machinations in which Loria purchased the Marlins from John W. Henry, freeing Henry to buy the Sox with Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino. MLB bought the club for $120 million; now, according to projections, it may cost $400 million or more to buy the team.

The most recent reported estimate of the team's sale by baseball commissioner Bud Selig is mid-August at the latest, but no one anticipated that in the interim -- there's that word again -- Bowden would assemble a team that was puttering around .500 in late May (24-25) before running off 26 wins in its next 33 games to open a 4 1/2-game lead in the East.

''We can't win every ballgame, although it may seem like that," said Frank Robinson, the 69-year-old Hall of Famer who manages this team, after the Nationals fell yesterday in a game decided by a tiebreaking, pinch single by Jose Offerman, the former Red Sox infielder, off Sun-Woo Kim, the former Sox reliever.

(Indeed, there were enough players on both sides to hold a Sox alumni game. Cliff Floyd played left field, Brian Daubach pinch hit and whiffed, while Pedro Martinez, who pitches today, and Doug Mientkiewicz, who is on the disabled list, sat on the Mets' bench. For the Nats, Carlos Baerga played first base and made a nice over-the-shoulder basket catch of a pop fly, while Wilfredo Cordero, just recently off the disabled list, sat on the bench with former Sox prospect Tony Blanco, while Hector Carrasco sat in the bullpen after having pitched each of the last four days.)

Until yesterday's loss, the Nationals had won six in a row and 11 of 12, and it's the way they've been winning that has RFK literally shaking to its foundation. Lately, the only defeat the Nats have suffered has been off the field; thieves broke into the players' parking lot while the team was away, broke into 11 vehicles, and stole the car belonging to outfielder Marlon Byrd.

''They only went into the American-made cars," said outfielder Brad Wilkerson, who drives an import. ''I was lucky."

Typical of their on-field play was Sunday's game in Chicago, where the Nationals had a two-run lead in the ninth and lost it, took a two-run lead in the 11th and lost that, too, then won in the 12th, 5-4, on a home run by catcher Brian Schneider. It was the Nationals' first three-game sweep on the road this season. It also improved their record in one-run games to a stunning 22-7, the best in baseball, including their last 12 games decided by a run.

''Unbelievable, no?" said Baerga, resurrected at age 36 by the Nationals after Arizona released him at the end of last season. ''Our confidence is so high. It's still early, we have to keep going out there every day, but everybody has stepped up to do the job. Someone gets hurt, someone else does the job."

It's easier to be confident when your closer is having the kind of season enjoyed by Chad Cordero, a southern Californian who is just two years removed from Cal State-Fullerton and whose father drives a Wonder Bread truck. Cordero, who along with staff ace Liván Hernández (12-2) was named to the All-Star team, leads the majors with 29 saves.

''He's not afraid, man," said Wilfredo Cordero (no relation), who is on his third go-round with the Expos/Nationals and says he is living a life much more settled than his tumultuous existence in Boston, when a domestic-violence incident involving his then-wife led to his departure from the Sox. Cordero is now remarried to a Miami-based psychologist, and his wife, Lisa, six weeks ago gave birth to the couple's first child, a boy, Brian Santos.

Chad Cordero tied a major league record with 15 saves in June and had a string of 26 saves broken Sunday when Aramis Ramírez of the Cubs hit a tying two-run home run in the ninth.

''We all knew he was going to be an impact closer, but none of us knew that he'd have a Eric Gagne, Trevor Hoffman type year," Bowden said. ''He's having a breakout year. You have to have that when you win."

Bowden, who averaged 10 trades a year when he was with the Reds, has wheeled and dealed from the time he took over the team, including a trade with the Angels for José Guillén, the outfielder who ended last season in disgrace when he challenged manager Mike Scioscia, was suspended for the last week of the season, and was left off the postseason roster. Guillén's absence was keenly felt when the Angels were swept in three straight by the Sox in the first round of the playoffs.

Last month, in perhaps the Nationals' most dramatic game of the season, Guillén hit a big home run against the Angels atter Robinson had galvanized the club by exposing Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly with pine tar in his glove. When Scioscia got in Robinson's face and threatened to ''undress" all the Nationals' pitchers, Robinson stormed after the Angels manager and both benches emptied.

The fire, it's clear, still burns in F. Robby.

''He's getting younger," Bowden says of his manager. ''I've never believed in a number as your age. This guy has had a rebirth. He's having fun. He's leading this team. He's manager of the year, that's what he is.

''Look at the way the players respect him. Look at what happened in Anaheim, how these players had his back and vice versa."

The backbone of this team is its pitching and defense, which dovetails nicely with the fact that the spacious dimensions of RFK Stadium are as favorable to pitchers as those of Coors Field are to hitters.

''At the end of the day, that's why we're winning," Bowden said. ''This is the best defensive team in the league, and the pitching staff is way underrated. We've got five quality starters every single night. We've got four guys in the back end with ERAs that are ridiculously low because they're ridiculously good with nasty stuff. And we catch the ball.

''We also have depth. We've got 10 guys on the DL? That's OK, we'll get another piece. We've built up enough depth here, we can withstand injuries. We have veterans and we have youth. We're the most diversified team in the league."

And now they have Washington, and Washington has the Nationals. A rebirth for a town, and a team. For players such as Wilkerson, who used to play before thousands of empty seats in Montreal, that has made a big difference.

''It gets pretty crazy out there," Wilkerson said, saying he can feel the reverberations on the field when the stands shake. ''It helps out a lot. It brings a different energy level than what we've ever known."

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