JOCKBEAT

The Buck Stops Here, Again

An Orioles fan looks at the Mets’ new “old school” skipper, Buck Showalter

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The interlocking “NY” on his cap looked familiar, but something was strikingly different. New Mets manager Buck Showalter and his wife, Angela, both wore the team’s royal blue to his introductory press conference in late December; Buck topped his blue satin shirt and black blazer with an orange-logo’d Mets cap. His entire ensemble was in stark contrast to the rigid and formal sans serif fonts and jailhouse pinstripes of the black and white Yankees gear he used to wear in the Bronx, where forgetting to shave has been considered a crime since 1973.

Buck is back in town, but this time it’s in the pastoral environs of Flushing Meadows, by the old World’s Fair grounds in Queens. It’s been a little more than a quarter-century since a still boyish, if not quite baby-faced, 36-year-old Buck was introduced as the Yankees’ new manager, in 1992. Older and wiser and hardened by 20 years of managing four teams across the big leagues, Showalter, 65, realizes that his return to the Big Apple comes with a “win now” mandate. “I understand the job description, the job description isn’t to be competitive or to win (80 or) more games than you lose, it’s to be the last team standing,” said Showalter at his introductory zoom-call press conference.

His Yankees teams finished fourth his first season, second the following year, and sat in first place at the abrupt conclusion to the strike-shortened, unfinished season of 1994, when he was later named Manager of the Year. In 1995, the Yankees reached the postseason for the first time in 14 years but lost the ALCS to the Seattle Mariners, and Showalter was unceremoniously relieved of his duties with a composite 313-268 (.539) record. His four years at the helm was the longest continuous occupation of the team’s managerial ejector seat in principal owner George Steinbrenner’s tyrannical 23-year reign up till that time (Joe Torre later broke that record). Showalter came within a year’s whiff of reaching the World Series, watching the team he helped mold reach the promised land without him, and saw Torre credited with creating the ensuing Yankees championship dynasty (1996–2000).

Showalter observed all this from the other side of the country, where he had already been hired as the manager of the National League’s Arizona Diamondbacks expansion team two years ahead of its first game. The fledgling expansion team did about as well as expected in its inaugural season, finishing dead last in the NL West with a 65-97 record, but exceeded expectations in 1999 with a 100-62 record, capturing the NL West division title with record expediency in just the team’s second season. The Diamondbacks lost the NLDS to the New York Mets and then slipped back into third place the following season with an 85-77 record. Showalter was dismissed at the end of the season, and once again his former team would win the World Series the following year.    

Showalter has been around long enough to be considered part of baseball’s old-boy network—his 3,069 games managed (and counting) rank 21st all-time in major league history. His 1,551 wins place him 24th, and only current Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker and former 26-year veteran skipper Gene Mauch have won more games in major league history without winning a World Series. Deservedly or not, this has become the book on Buck; he’s the right guy for guiding a young team or steering a wayward underachieving team back on track. The flip side to that coin is that he can’t get a team all the way there. Speaking of the book, when Bob Brenly was hired to replace Showalter as manager in Arizona, he carried a large book of decorum employed by his predecessor into the first full-team meeting of the spring training season, and proclaimed, “Those were the rules last year and these are the rules this year.” He then read from a cocktail napkin he pulled from his pocket: “Be on time and get the job done.”

Following his stint in Arizona, Showalter spent two years as an analyst for ESPN, where his knowledgeable insights essentially served as an audition for his next managerial job; he was hired by the Texas Rangers at the conclusion of the 2002 season. Showalter wasn’t given much of a team to work with, and his three-year stint in Texas was highlighted by his winning a second Manager of the Year award for an over-achieving third-place squad in 2004. A middling Rangers squad finished third in both of Showalter’s next two years as manager, and he was fired at the conclusion of 2006, posting a 319-320 record in four seasons. He spent the 2007 season as a senior advisor of baseball operations for the Central Division champion Cleveland Indians and returned to ESPN as an analyst for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

Showalter returned to the field midway through the 2010 season, commandeering a down-and-out Baltimore Orioles franchise to a strong 34-23 finish, but the Birds still landed in last place, 30 games behind the first-place Yankees. In his first full season in Baltimore, Showalter played the hand he was dealt to another cellar finish, but delivered a harbinger of things to come on the final day of the season in what just might be the most telling game of his nine-year tenure with the club. With the Orioles firmly entrenched in last place 28 games off the pace, the Boston Red Sox came to town needing a victory to secure a wild-card playoff berth.

Boston broke out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the third inning. The Orioles scored two runs in the bottom of the frame to take the lead. The Red Sox scored single runs in the fourth and the fifth and held a 3-2 lead when rain delayed play in the seventh inning. The Red Sox had entered the final day of the regular season tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League’s wild-card playoff berth. Meanwhile, the first-place Yankees had moved out to a 7-0 lead after five innings, but during the rain delay in Baltimore, the Rays rallied for six runs in the eighth inning and tied the game on a solo home run with two outs in the ninth. When play resumed in Baltimore, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon struck out the first two Orioles batters in the bottom of the ninth. With nothing left to lose, the Orioles rallied on a pair of doubles by Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold and a slushy bloop single by Robert Andino for a walk-off Orioles win that ignited a playoff-game-like celebration to which some members of the Red Sox organization took offense.

“I don’t take any joy in somebody else’s failures or the pain of losing. [But] we’d had our nose bloodied a lot and [were] laughed at while you’re bleeding, so to speak,” said Showalter, reminiscing for the Boston Globe 10 years later. “I was there to do what was best for the Baltimore Orioles and if it hurt some feelings along [the way], well, we had been a doormat there for quite a while.” After a season and a half with Showalter in command, the Orioles players seemed to have bought into his system on the final day of that 2011 season. Despite finishing in last place again, the Orioles compiled a 15-13 record in September and the mood seemed to carry over into the 2012 season. “We needed that propulsion that, yeah, we can compete with these guys, and we’re tired of getting rubbed on our face,” said Showalter, adding that the game marked a turning point for some of the Orioles’ veteran players, who used it as a springboard into the team’s run of success over the next five seasons. “We gained an identity.”

Here in Baltimore, it felt immediately different from a fan’s perspective as well, after that last day of the 2011 season and right from the start in front of a sell-out crowd on Opening Day 2012. The Orioles swept the Minnesota Twins in the first three games at home and remained at or near first place for the duration of the season. Attendance jumped from 1.7 million in 2011 to 2.1 million in 2012. As an adopted, long-suffering Orioles fan (the team adopted me when I moved to Baltimore from Arizona in 1999, I have the papers; I was a season-ticket holder during Buck and the Diamondbacks’ first season, in 1998), I had not witnessed a winning season since arriving in town and attending dozens of games every season. The atmosphere was decidedly different.

At the outset of the 2012 season, the team planned to honor the six Orioles players enshrined at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, with bronze statues placed in a courtyard beyond left field. At the urging of manager Showalter, current Orioles players were encouraged to attend these ceremonies, and the success of the former Orioles legends, all of whom were on hand for the unveiling of their statues, seemed to rub off on the current players.

In my 14 seasons as an Orioles fan to date, I had found Oriole Park, at Camden Yards, to be a fun and enjoyable place, despite all the losing, and certainly among the most aesthetically pleasing ballparks in the country. But a new air of seriousness seemed to permeate the proceedings in 2012. As the season progressed, I arrived at the ballpark expecting the Orioles to win. One game resonates in my memory: On September 6, 2012, the Orioles unveiled their statue of Cal Ripken Jr. on the 17th anniversary of his breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak, before an evening game with the visiting Yankees. The teams were tied for first place.

Orioles fans are known for their habit of exclaiming “O!” during the last verse of the “Star-Spangled Banner” before each game. On this occasion, I was entering the ballpark with my friend and neighbor Damien, who happens to be a Yankees fan, while the song was being played. When the fans released their obligatory “O!” I felt the foundation of the ballpark quake. I looked at Damien and said, “That’s the loudest I’ve ever heard it. Are we at a college football game?” The Orioles responded to the roar by scoring four runs in the bottom of the first inning, three of them coming on a home run by catcher Matt Wieters. Each team scored in the bottom of the fourth inning. The Orioles added another run in the sixth and held a 6-1 lead entering the eighth inning. The Yankees exploded for five runs in the top of the eighth to tie the game. Orioles center fielder Adam Jones led off the bottom of the eighth with a solo home run, regaining the lead for Baltimore. Wieters followed with a single and first baseman Mark Reynolds blasted a two-run homer, followed by another home run off the bat of DH Chris Davis. Relief pitcher Jim Johnson set the Yankees down in the bottom of the ninth, and the Orioles were in first place when everyone woke up on September 7.

Two nights later, from a perch above the center-field wall, I could hear Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis’s hand being broken on a pitch from Yankees hurler C.C. Sabathia, one of his heavy sinkers that might as well have been a bowling ball. I was despondent at the impact it might have on the Orioles’ fortunes. Markakis was the team’s most consistent hitter, and I’m still certain that the Orioles would ultimately have fared better without losing him for the rest of the season. (I might never have been so emotionally invested in an individual baseball team than I was with the 2012 Orioles, with a possible exception for the 1973 New York Mets in the formative years of my fandom as a 9-year-old kid growing up on Long Island.)

The Orioles and Yankees continued to slug it out for the duration of the 2012 season, with the Yankees finishing two games on top. Showalter’s Orioles captured one of the two AL wild-card berths and met the Yankees in the American League Division Series after defeating the Texas Rangers in the wild-card play-in game. In the most significant game played by the Orioles in 16 years, Baltimore took the Bronx Bombers to the limit before falling 3-1 in the deciding fifth game of the series.

Perhaps the most damaging blow had landed in Game Three at Yankee Stadium. I was again there with my friend and Yankees fan rival Damien when the Orioles took a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning only to see it squandered by relief pitcher Johnson, who surrendered a game-tying solo blast to Raul Ibanez in the bottom of the ninth inning. Ibanez’s solo blast three innings later in the bottom of the 12th won the game.

Hindsight being 20/20 (and it may be a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking), but I recall questioning Showalter’s decision to bring in Johnson, considering his weak performances down the stretch. Plus, in the first game of the series Johnson was tagged for five runs in the ninth inning while only recording one out. The Orioles lost 7-2 at home. But as the saying goes, “You dance with the one that brought you,” and Johnson had saved an AL-leading 51 games in 2012.

The Orioles continued to dance with Showalter as well. The team slipped to a third-place finish in 2013 but captured its first AL East division title in 31 years the following season, and Showalter was named 2014 AL Manager of the Year. The Orioles swept the favored Detroit Tigers in the ALDS, knocking out Tigers starting pitchers Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and David Price in succession. (Trailing 6-4 in the eighth inning of the second game of the series, pinch hitter Delmon Young hit a bases-loaded, bases-clearing double to give the Orioles a 7-6 lead that made us fans in attendance wonder if the ballpark would come crashing down from the maniacal reaction of the fans.)

It wasn’t Buck’s fault when the Orioles were swept by a more energized Kansas City Royals in the ALCS. But it was Buck’s fault two years later when he notoriously left the league’s best reliever and Cy Young Award candidate Zach Britton in the bullpen during the final innings of the 2016 AL wild-card play-in game. Instead, he brought in inconsistent starting pitcher Ubaldo Jiminez in the 11th inning of a 2-2 tied ballgame. While Britton sat in the bullpen, Jiminez surrendered three runs without recording an out, and the Orioles season was over. It remains a decision that most Orioles fans have yet to forgive him for making, and the turning point at which Showalter had overstayed his welcome, even though from 2012 to 2016 his Orioles led the American League in victories.

Buck hung around for two more abysmal years before departing after the 2018 season as the second-winningest manager in franchise history, posting a 669-84 record (.494) in his nine seasons with Baltimore. His 20-year-career major league record stands at 1,551-1,517, a .506 winning percentage.

When Showalter’s name was first bandied about regarding the Mets managerial job, one of his best and favorite former Orioles players, All-Star, Gold Glove center fielder Adam Jones, chimed in with a rousing endorsement. “I think this would be great,” Jones posted on Twitter, referencing an article in the New York Post in support of Showalter’s candidacy. “Also, folks don’t have any idea of the real impact he can make on a ball club. And I’m not just talking players. The Franchise. He made everyone better and accountable! But someone who won’t read will have the most to say. I hope they get him!” he tweeted.

Showalter had been among the first possibilities mentioned when the Mets position became vacant, and when the announcement was finally made it seemed all but inevitable. He had the early endorsement of the club’s deep-pockets owner, Steve Cohen, and the team’s most high-profile free-agent acquisition pitcher, Max Scherzer. Together with Jacob deGrom, barring any unforeseen incidents, the pair could be the most formidable 1-2 tandem in the major leagues, which has visions of a World Series dancing in Mets’ fans’ heads.

Sometime soon, Buck will be wearing one of his signature bullpen warm-up jackets, a blue and orange Mets one. For years he has had his garments tailor-made to distinguish himself from his players, à la old-time Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack in his dapper three-piece “I am definitely not a player” suits. Showalter has signed a three-year contract with the Mets, but he knows the pressure is on for him and the team to succeed right away. Showalter is the fifth man to manage both the Mets and the Yankees, joining original 1962 Mets manager Casey Stengel, as well as Yogi Berra,  Torre, and Dallas Green. His sights are set on nothing less than winning his first World Series—as he says, “It’s not something that is going to define my life, but I can tell you this: It does wake me up every day now. Obviously, winning the World Series is what Billy and Sandy and Steve asked me. Why would I want to do this again? We want to be the last team standing.”

The Yankees are scheduled to meet the Mets at Citi Field on July 26 and 27 and at Yankee Stadium on August 22 and 23. And for Buck, it will be like Yogi said: “Déjà vu all over again.”  ❖

Baltimore-based Charlie Vascellaro is a frequent speaker on the academic baseball conference circuit and the author of a biography of Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.

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