Saturday, February 6, 2010

11 Days Until Spring Training: Buck Showalter

When Buck Showalter was growing up in the 1960's in small town called Century on the panhandle of Florida, Little League games drew a crowd. The town had a beautiful, well-lit baseball field, so on countless summer nights hundreds of townspeople would gather to watch the kids play. Considering Buck's childhood home bordered on the field, perhaps it isn't much of a surprise that he took a liking to the game at a very young age. It also helped that, in addition to being the principal of the local high school, his father was also coach of its baseball team.

Buck took his smooth and level left handed swing to college at Mississippi State and was named an All-American in 1977. He batted .459 that year, splitting his time on defense between first base and the outfield. Despite having little to no power, he was drafted by the Yankees in the 5th round that year and assigned to A-ball in Fort Lauderdale.

As his college pedigree predicted, Showalter had the ability to hit for average and that skill carried him steadily through the Yankees' minor league ranks. Buck slapped his way to a .324 average at AA Nashville and led the Southern League in hits during the 1980 season which earned him a call up to AAA in 1981.

Unfortunately, Buck hit the wall in Columbus. He spent all of '82 back in Nashville, led the Southern League in hits for the second time and earned himself one final shot at AAA in 1983 where he struggled against superior pitching once again. Even if he had figured out International League pitching, Showalter's path to the Bronx would have been blocked by Don Mattingly.

He was briefly converted to a pitcher himself in an effort to salvage his playing career but it seemed as though Buck's life in baseball wasn't meant to take place on the field.

Having always displayed a natural baseball acumen, Showalter moving right into coaching after his playing career was over. He started off with the Yankees' New York Penn League team in Oneonta in 1985 and led the squad to a 106-41 record in his two years at the helm. That earned him a promotion to Fort Lauderdale where he presided over two consecutive winning squads.

His continuted success earned him a promotion to the Albany Colonie Yankees (AA) in 1989. It was that season in Albany that really jump-started his managerial career. His team went 97-46, he won Baseball America's Minor League Manager of the Year and was given the position of third base coach for the Yanks in 1990. Showalter replaced Stump Merrill as manager of the Big League club in 1992.

After going 76-86 in '92, Showalter guided the Yankees to a second place finish in 1993 with 88 wins. When the strike stopped the 1994 season, their winning percentage was even better (.619) and they were on pace to win over 100 games. Showalter was named AL Manager of the Year but they would have to wait a bit longer to break the Yanks' long playoff drought.

In the strike-shorted 1995 season, Showalter led the Yankees to their first postseason in 13 years. Although they lost to the Mariners in 5 games, it was clear that the organization was healthier that it had ever been. They had plenty of young talent on the team with much more waiting in the wings in the minors. However, this wasn't enough for George Steinbrenner. The Boss demanded that he fire two of his coaches after losing to the Mariners, but Showalter refused. Instead, he got the axe himself.

It didn't take long for Buck to land on his feet. He was quickly snatched up by the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks two years before they were scheduled to play a game. He was active in the construction of their roster and eventually served as their first manager. He led them to a 100 win season in 1999 and left after an 85 win campaign in 2000, just before the D-Backs unseated the Yanks in the 2001 World Series.

His last managerial tenure came in Texas from 2003-2006. He was 10 games under .500 during that stretch and was eventually replaced by Ron Washington. Since then, he has served as a senior advisor for the Indians and an analyst for ESPN.

Much of Showalter's success was attributable to a strong work ethic which, along with he stern demeanor, he was said to have inherited from his father. He worked so much that according to legend, he found himself inside a grocery store for the first time in 5 years during the 1994 strike.

Due to some unfortunate timing, Showalter never really got the credit he deserved for the role he played in turning the Yankees around. Had Steinbrenner not demanded that he unload two coaches after leading the team to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, Buck could very easily have been at the helm of the late 90's dynasty. He ducked out of Arizona just a bit too early as well.

Showalter has begun to make appearances at Old Timer's Day and was included in the video montage during the last game at the Old Yankee Stadium. Perhaps Buck will never receive the adulation that many contributors to the Yankees dynasty do, but fans who watched the team closely during the early 90's or understand the club's history know how much he meant to the franchise.


  1. I agree that Showalter doesn't get enough credit for his role in turning the club around in the early 90s. Some say his intense style had worn out, so maybe it was time for him to go when he did, but he doesn't get nearly enough credit for the makeover he and Gene Michael orchestrated in the early 90s.

    Also, it's virtually impossible to find an image of Showalter actually wearing #11. He always wore a warm up jacket during his tenure as manager. I think in his four seasons he might have worn a jersey a dozen times.

  2. Good stuff, Jay. I always really liked Showalter. He was excellent, no-nonsense, and bled the pinstripes. My friend Frank the Sage often recalls how Showalter helped usher out selfish underperformers such as Barfield and Hall, and also recalls an incident when, during an Old Timers' Day, those two players were apparently laughing at some old-timers. That set off Showalter, and soon Barfield and Hall were gone. Good riddance to them. Showalter was just the right guy at that time, when the Yanks were at a low point and often embarrassing on the field.