Nats laying foundations for success

Nats laying foundations for success

PHILADELPHIA -- Jim Bowden eased into a front-row seat at Citizens Bank Park, looked up at the giant video board overlooking left field and to say he was aglow is an understatement. Giddy works better.

The high-def screen kept telling all those who played hooky from work Thursday afternoon the surprising Washington Nationals began the day 3-0 and atop the NL East.

For most baseball graybeards, me included, a 3-0 start for the Nationals was surprising, an aberration of sorts considering they achieved it against two of the best teams in the division, Atlanta and Philadelphia.

But to the astute Bowden, one of the most capable general managers in the business and the architect of this young team, it's a positive hint of seasons to come.

Yet when the Nationals had the Phillies on the ropes Thursday with a 6-1 lead after five innings, Bowden wasn't about to gloat. In fact, he wasn't even talking about taking a 4-0 record to St. Louis.

It was a good thing because the Nationals coughed up their lead and eventually blew the game, 8-7, in 10 innings. Reliever Jesus Colome walked in the running run with the bases loaded.

Bowden is a realist. He also knows how to build a baseball team from the ground up, and after four games, it's obvious his plan is working in Washington. The Nationals opened their magnificent new ballpark on the Anacostia River waterfront Sunday night, a festive occasion with President Bush on hand.

Forget for a moment this fast start. The stadium will overshadow the team this first season, but the park will have a short shelf life as an attraction unless the Nationals become a serious contender.

I've seen worst-case scenarios in cities such as Detroit and Milwaukee where fans became ambivalent about their new stadiums because the teams stunk. Ultimately, baseball on the field is what sells tickets.

At best, it's a huge gamble for ownership.

With many sellouts expected this season and revenues increasing dramatically, team president Stan Kasten and Bowden could have spent millions, brought in a few expensive free agents to excite fans.

Instead, they're willing to be patient, build a strong foundation with good, young players and watch the organization prosper for years to come.

If it works, that's the correct way to go. Of course, if the plan fails, there will be a lot of empty seats in summers to come on South Capitol Street.

"Our goal No. 1 is to build the strongest player development and scouting departments in baseball," Bowden says as he watched a 6-1 lead slip away. "It's like building a skyscraper. You don't start with the penthouse, you start with the foundation. We're committed to that."

It's Bowden's objective "to hire the best scouts in the game and put our dollars in the player draft and in international baseball so that our farm system is the best in baseball."

The 3-1 start this season underlines progress in those areas.

"They're much better," says Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, whose daring baserunning -- he went from first to third on a bunt -- won Thursday's game when Jayson Werth drew the 10th-inning bases-loaded walk. "They've always been a thorn in our side. They play us tough."

Bowden is cautiously pleased.

"We're heading in that direction," he says. "Our draft last year was ranked best among the 30 teams. I see progress, and once we get that part of our plan set up and our young players develop at the big league level we'll look at free agents."

That's when you'll start shelling out the dollars?

"Yes," he says. "Once those young players are poised to win, we'll look at free agents. Hopefully, it will happen at the same time -- when the farm system is producing, the Major League team is developing, we add a couple of pieces and will contend for a long time.

"Let me make one thing clear: We don't want to win and then break down and lose. We want to sustain the winning. That's the goal. Starting pitching, defense up the middle and everyday two-way players like (third baseman) Ryan Zimmerman. We want makeup, we want character -- we want champions."

Kasten takes it a step further.

"I have to build a baseball team just like 29 other people do, but we have an additional responsibility," he says. "We're the only team in sport that represents the national pastime in the nation's capital. That's a serious responsibility and we accept it very seriously."

Zimmerman, one of the best young players in the Majors, says "there's a lot of energy on this team. Good things are happening, but I think we're also making them happen. Good karma."

The trait I like most about Bowden is that he's refuses to get too high, too low. He was obviously devastated by Thursday's jarring setback mostly because of how it evolved.

By the same token, he wasn't celebrating the 3-0 start and certainly not suggesting Nationals fans plan for a postseason in Washington in October.

"I've been doing this too long," he says. "I remember in 1995 [he was Cincinnati GM then] we were 1-and-8. They came to me and said this is a disaster, what do you think? I said, 'I think we're going to win the division; we're the best team in our division.' "

The Reds won the division that year and advanced to the League Championship Series before losing to Atlanta.

Pausing a moment, Bowden adds: "We play 162 games. It's a marathon and you must take it one game at a time. Is it good for our fans? Yes ... for them to see the improvements we've made. Getting off to a good start certainly helps because it also gives the players confidence that they can win against really good teams."

And for those paying customers, they have to know the Nationals are heading in the right direction. Which is what this season should be about.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.