Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 12, 2010

Showalter Takes On Mission Impossible

Ten days ago the woeful Baltimore Orioles introduced Buck Showalter as their new manager. Dave Trembley, the O’s skipper since the middle of the 2007 season was sacked in early June, replaced on an interim basis by third base coach Juan Samuel. Showalter, who most recently was an analyst for ESPN, strikes me as a reasonable and intelligent man. As a three-time major league manager, he has a history of turning teams around, an overall winning record and two playoff appearances. Which of course leaves me wondering, what the hell was Buck thinking?

As a player, Showalter never made it to the bigs, spending seven years in the Yankees’ farm system. His major league aspirations were no doubt hurt by the fact that he was a first baseman. When Showalter was in his prime in the minors, Donnie Baseball (Don Mattingly to non-Yankee fans) was just starting to earn the undying love of the Bronx faithful.

Still, Showalter hit .294 with 336 RBI’s in his minor league career, and clearly learned a lot about organizing and leading a team. Given his first managerial chance with the Yankees single-A affiliate at the tender age of 29, he had immediate success and moved quickly up through the multiple levels of the minors. By the 1992 season, at just age 36, he was wearing pinstripes in the Bronx as a big league manager.

In four years with the Bombers, Showalter’s Yankees won the division in the strike-shortened 1994 season. The AL Manager of the Year Award was his reward. The following year the Yankees won the Wild Card, advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 1981. But despite that success, and a winning record of 313-268, those were the days of George Steinbrenner at his bombastic, domineering height. By the time 1996 rolled around, some former catcher named Torre was the Yankees manager. But there is no denying that Showalter had a lot to do with shaping the team that went on to win that year’s World Series.

After the Yankees, Showalter basically repeated his performance with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. Named manager well before the team ever took the field so he could play a role in shaping the roster, Showalter led the D’backs into the playoffs in 1999, just their second year in existence. Once again, a fractious relationship with the ownership led to his dismissal a year later; and once again the team he left behind went on to win the World Series in the first year after his firing.

After a brief stint at ESPN Showalter’s next managerial post was in Arlington, Texas. While he did improve the Rangers performance, in four seasons he failed for the first time to take his team to the post-season, and also failed to post an overall winning record, finishing at 319-329 when he was fired following the 2006 campaign.

And now he has left a perfectly good gig back at ESPN to take over the helm of the Orioles, the team with the worst record in baseball. At the time the hiring was announced, Showalter said, “My job with ESPN allowed me to follow this organization closely over the last several years, and although the current record may seem to indicate otherwise, I see enormous potential with this club.” He also called Baltimore “a tremendous baseball town with passion and pride in its club.”

Of course, a newly hired field manager is hardly going to call a team’s situation hopeless, or criticize the local fans. But the reality is that since the Birds’ last playoff appearance in 1997, they have not had a winning season, averaging more than 90 losses a year. Earlier this year, all of 9,129 of their passionate and proud fans came out for a game against the Rays, setting the mark for the lowest attendance ever at Camden Yards. At the time of Showalter’s hiring, they were on pace to lose a phenomenal 113 games in 2010.

There is no denying that his tenure as the Orioles’ manager has gotten off to a great start. Going into tonight’s game at Cleveland, the O’s are 8-1 under their new leader. But this is hardly the first time that a managerial shakeup has produced some immediate and dramatic improvement. Sustaining that progress is the far harder challenge. In Baltimore that seems especially true; for Showalter will have none of the tools he had at his three previous stops.

In New York he had the enormously deep pockets of the Yankees and the Steinbrenner imperative to win every year. In Arizona he had two years to prepare before the expansion Diamondbacks actually took the field; and, in the 1999 playoff season, the presence on the mound of Randy Johnson in his prime. In Texas he had the relatively open checkbook, albeit with a less than sound sense of the game, of owner Tom Hicks. That produced an infield quartet in 2004 three of whose members went to the All-Star game. It says everything about that infield to know that the one member who was not an All-Star was first baseman Mark Teixeira.

In Baltimore Buck Showalter has Peter Angelos, the 81-year old attorney who has owned the Orioles since 1993. Last year a Sports Illustrated article rating MLB owners described Angelos as “one of the five worst.” My own opinion is that SI was extremely charitable. The miserly Angelos simply will not give his front office the resources to field a competitive team. Last year only three AL franchises had a lower team payroll than the Orioles. Predictably, year after year of putting an inferior product on the field has led to steadily declining attendance at the lovely ballpark that gave birth to a generation of fan-friendly retro stadiums. The Orioles averaged almost 46,000 per game in 1997, their last playoff year. Last year they averaged half that number. And of course fewer fans in the stands mean less revenue which causes Angelos to tighten the purse strings even further. And so the cycle continues.

Meanwhile the Orioles play in the AL East, probably the toughest division in the Great Game. It’s home to the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, the teams that have represented the AL in the last three World Series. Every time those three powerhouses breathe, they suck most of the oxygen right out of the room. Showalter might well see enormous potential in the Baltimore squad; and the O’s have been so far down for so long that a good manager, which he certainly is, has to help some. But Buck Showalter has built his name as a manager by taking unlikely teams on playoff runs. It’s hard to see how his decision to take on the Baltimore job is going to enhance that reputation.

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Responses

  1. Nice analysis of the man, and of the current situation he finds himself in. I, too, like Showalter and hope he does well. It is truly shameful what has happened in Baltimore over the past dozen years. I know he has his work cut out for him, but I think he can make this team at least competitive in a couple of years.
    Nice post, Bill


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