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Bowa headed for flameout?

When the Phillies made the bold decision 34 months ago to hire Larry Bowa as their manager, they knew exactly who and exactly what they were getting.

And it sure wasn't Mister Rogers.

They weren't getting Joe Torre, from the Cool and Stoic School of Managing. They weren't getting Dusty Baker, from the Make the Players Happy School of Managing. They weren't getting Bobby Cox, from the Relentlessly Upbeat School of Managing.

No, the Phillies wanted fire. They wanted brimstone. They wanted a manager who would raise the bar and lower the boom -- no matter who liked it and who didn't.

"I said this at the press conference when we hired him, and I'll say it now," Phillies GM Ed Wade said. "We weren't looking for the watered-down version."

Well, it's nearly three years later. And Bowa's flame still scorches everyone and everything around him. But now, this team and this manager find themselves at a very different point in the life of the franchise. And it's time to start wondering whether it's the manager who could feel the heat.

Publicly and privately, Wade has given no indication that Bowa's job is in any danger if the 2003 Phillies don't make the playoffs. The GM gave Bowa a firm vote of confidence last weekend. On Wednesday, he told ESPN.com that what he issued was more than a vote of confidence: "It was fact."

"I take the same position now that I've taken all season," Wade said. "I think he's the right guy for our situation, the right guy to take us to the finish line and the right guy to lead us into the new ballpark (next year)."

But this week, a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer, over a piece by longtime columnist Bill Lyon, voiced a once-unthinkable sentiment in a city where Bowa would still start on any All-Icon Team:

"Bowa, Phillies are no longer a good match."

There was a time when firing Larry Bowa seemed just about impossible in Philadelphia. Impossible to justify. Impossible to sell to a community that always looked at this man as their kind of people.

But after the events of the last two weeks, it doesn't seem so impossible anymore.

  • Not after the Phillies turned the wild-card race into an eight-team steel-cage match by losing nine of 10 on a journey to Milwaukee, St. Louis and Montreal.

  • Not after Bowa angered two key players in one day on that trip -- by hooking Kevin Millwood 89 pitches and six innings into a start against the Brewers, then pinch-hitting for the seemingly rebounding Pat Burrell with the bases loaded.

  • Not after the ever-ticking keg of TNT inside the manager went off last Thursday after loss No. 9 in that string, resulting in a postgame eruption so loud that witnesses said it could be heard outside the clubhouse doors.

  • Not after Bowa's players responded with a we'll-show-him meeting of their own on the team bus to the airport.

  • Not after Burrell took an obvious detour to avoid the manager on his way back to the dugout following a homer Friday in New York, in the first game after all that.

  • Not after the Phillies then abruptly axed Burrell's pal, Tyler Houston -- following complaints to Wade by the coaching staff about his attitude -- even though Houston was leading the league in pinch-hitting (13-for-29, .438) at the time.

  • Not after Houston then went public with accusations that Bowa's players "couldn't care less" about him, that "everybody feels the same way" and that the players had decided in their meeting to "win for themselves" to counteract Bowa's "negativity."

  • Not after Bowa lashed back at Houston, calling him "a loser" and claiming that "15 guys (players) did back-flips after we released him."

  • Not after Bowa instructed reporters to confront players about whether Houston accurately reflected their views, after which even the always peace-loving Jim Thome tried to dodge the issue with a plea to "talk about the game."

  • Not after the previously unimaginable topic of the manager's job security became the subject of open public debate from Kensington to Kennett Square.

    Somehow, in the midst of all this insanity, the Phillies still found a way to win four out of five games. And they would have won all five if Jose Mesa could have held a two-run lead in the ninth inning against the Red Sox on Monday. But it was hard to tell, after all those subplots, if that revival was because of, or in spite of, the manager.

    "Let me say something," Phillies reliever Dan Plesac said. "It's not as bad as it looks from the outside. There have been some things that have gone on in the past week that would give people the perception that we're a time bomb waiting to explode. But we're far from that. There are enough veteran players here that we know what to focus on. We know how much Larry wants to win. And he knows how much we want to win."

    But privately, many players are sending a different message. They may disagree with the timing, the tone and even some of the details of Houston's description of life inside their clubhouse. But his account of their feeling toward Bowa and their response to his tirade has been corroborated by a multitude of sources.

    So here is the picture we would paint, based on numerous conversations over a period of several weeks -- dating back even to before the Road Trip From Hell:

  • Since as far back as April, many Phillies players have had a hard time accepting Bowa's expressive nature. Bowa has made a point lately of stressing how restrained he has been. But players say that even when he doesn't say what's on his mind, his body language often says it for him. And players continue to complain about his "negativity."

  • Players have been disturbed by what they perceive as Bowa's insinuations that, just because they may be losing, they don't care about winning as much as he does.

  • It wasn't last week's managerial tirade, in and of itself, that caused players to respond angrily with their own meeting. It was the fact that Bowa, according to a couple of accounts, got personal at times -- staring at some players, describing the behavior of others in unmistakable terms and giving them the impression he was ready to wash his hands of further attempts to salvage them.

  • While a number of players disagreed with Burrell's "disrespectful" snub of Bowa following his home run, they confirmed that there was heated discussion during the players' meeting of ways to "ignore" the manager to make it clear they were playing for themselves, not him.

    A lot of this is nothing new, of course. Bowa has never been regarded -- nor even billed himself -- as the warmest, fuzziest manager in the land.

    He "won" that recent Sports Illustrated poll as baseball's "worst" manager, although that clearly should have translated as "manager we'd least want to play for." And since his first season in the Phillies' dugout, we've been hearing this same song, from many voices.

    But this time, there's a difference. Unlike that group Bowa inherited in 2001 -- composed mostly of young players who had never played for a team with a winning record -- this team has a clubhouse full of his kind of players.

    It was no accident the Phillies went out this winter and brought in Thome, Millwood and David Bell. These were the type of players Bowa has campaigned heavily for from the beginning -- veterans who had been around, who had won and who could serve as the kind of clubhouse leaders a manager can't ever be.

    Of the 27 players on Bowa's Aug. 31 roster or disabled list, 16 weren't on his original opening-day roster in 2001, 20 have played on teams with winning records and 11 have appeared in at least one postseason series. So if this group of players is really as unhappy with him as his previous teams, that wouldn't seem to bode well for his managerial security.

    But both Bowa and Wade dispute this portrayal.

    After Monday's game, Bowa said he'd met with a number of players, "and there's no problem." And Wade said Wednesday that "people are overstating the magnitude of the unhappiness."

    "Every manager has a right to have a clubhouse meeting," Wade said. "And what's happened since then has been overblown."

    In some ways, it probably has. In-house soap operas almost always look crazier from the outside than they do to the people living them. What has actually been hardest for these players since this story blew up is figuring out what they're supposed to say about it.

    "I think mostly, the players are tired of answering questions about it," said Mike Lieberthal, a player who has defended Bowa publicly and pronounced himself "unaffected" by the manager's inimitable style. "Nobody wants to throw anybody else under the bus. Whoever's right and whoever's wrong, nobody wants to say who's right or wrong, because we're still playing for Larry Bowa and we're still in the wild-card race. So nobody wants to say anything that makes it look like we're taking one side or the other."

    Oh, yeah. The wild-card race. Despite their staggering ups and downs, the Phillies have held at least a share of that wild-card lead for all but two days since June 29. It's the second time in three years under Bowa they've gone into September with something to play for -- after having a winning record in only two of the previous 17 seasons.

    So if you judge this manager just by wins and losses, it would seem bizarre for anyone to be discussing whether to fire him. But when this season is over, Phillies management has serious questions to ponder:

  • If they don't make the playoffs, with a cast that people around baseball describe as the most well-rounded and talented of all the wild-card wannabes, they will need to decide if this team's streakiness has anything to do with the manager's volatility.

  • Given the long-term financial commitments to most of the key players for the next three to five years, if that group expresses any significant unhappiness with the manager, would it make sense to keep him?

  • As they face the critical job of trying to re-sign Millwood after he files for free agency, they need to get to the bottom of persistent rumblings (which Millwood has denied) that he doesn't want to return if Bowa does.

  • And they need to ask if Bowa's popularity makes him, in many ways, unfireable -- even now.

    "Larry wasn't hired to be propped up as a symbol of past glory here," Wade said. "He was hired because we thought he'd be a good manager. ... His popularity is a residual benefit that we've been able to take advantage of in a lot of ways. But he's here because we think he's the right man to manage our ball club."

    In last week's Philadelphia Daily News, highly respected baseball columnist Paul Hagen suggested that Bowa's relationship had become strained with more than simply his players. The manager, he wrote, also had distanced himself from the GM.

    A few days earlier, Bowa had insisted to a group of writers that his team shouldn't be considered the favorite in the wild-card race -- "not when we're playing two kids (center fielder Marlon Byrd and second baseman Chase Utley) up the middle." That sounded, among other things, like a second-guess of Wade for not filling his team's holes with more veterans at the trading deadline.

    But Wade vehemently disputes that conclusion.

    "One of the beauties of communicating directly with Larry every day is that I don't need to draw inferences -- from anything," the GM said. "I know how he feels about the guys on this club. He knows how I feel. ... Everybody wants to draw conclusions. But I was surprised to see anyone draw the conclusion that Bo and I had a rift on this issue, because that's not accurate. Larry and I haven't had a single disagreement."

    If this season ends with the Phillies making their first postseason appearance since Joe Carter's home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, it's a good bet this whole debate will be moot. As consistently as Wade has defended the manager, it may be just a big blowtorch of hot air, anyway.

    But regardless, it's suddenly an issue on a whole lot of minds. And it's going to hover there for the next three weeks -- if not beyond.

    "We can talk about all this stuff," Wade said. "But the bottom line still comes down to his effectiveness as a manager, and his ability to get us to the finish line."

    For any manager, that's the way it ought to be. And for this manager, that's the way it ought to be. If he wins, how he does it is just part of the show. But if he doesn't, it's everyone's right to ask: Why not?

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.