Most baseball fans are familiar with the story of Buck Showalter, the rebuilder of scorched franchises who flame out before he can make that final push to lead them to the Promised Land. Much like Moses passing the torch to Joshua before he could reach paradise, Buck handed off the dynasty Yankees to Joe Torre and the built-from-the-ground-up Diamondbacks to Bob Brenly just in time for the teams to peak and win titles. After a somewhat disappointing run in Texas (zero playoff appearances, one Manager of the Year award), Showalter hung up his trademark windbreaker and headed north to the welcoming bosom of ESPN. In the summer of 2010, the long slumping Baltimore Orioles came calling, looking for Buck to rebuild their moribund franchise as he had done multiple times before. After studying the farm system and organization as a whole, Buck jumped at the chance, but the question remained: could Buck finally win the big one?
Born in Florida, Showalter would go on to be a standout on the diamond at Mississippi State University, where he set the single season batting average record. In 1977, Buck was drafted by the New York Yankees in the fifth round of the amateur draft. He spent parts of seven seasons toiling away in the minor leagues, posting solid numbers, but never advancing past AAA, partially due to the fact that he was blocked at first base by some dude named Don Mattingly. Showalter put the cleats away in 1983, opting to get into the coaching game instead. Two years later, he was named manager of the Class Low-A Oneonta Yankees. After two successful seasons, he was quickly promoted to A ball, coaching the Fort Lauderdale Yanks to a dominant season in 1987. In 1990, he was added to the big league club’s coaching staff, serving dutifully under both Bucky Dent and Stump Merrill. As usual with those Yankee teams, the coaching carousel spun furiously and in 1992, with George Steinbrenner on the sidelines serving a suspension, GM Stick Michael decided to focus on completely rebuilding the franchise and turned to the young Showalter to help him do just that. Together, Buck and Stick were successful in overhauling the farm system through savvy drafting and the main roster with strategic trades and free agent signings. The moves would pay off two years later.
On August 11, 1994, the Yankees sat in first place, 27 games over .500 and primed for their first playoff appearance in over ten years. However, the players strike struck and the season was cancelled, leaving Yankee fans with a serious infliction of playoff blue balls. By the time 1995 came around, anticipation in the Bronx was hot and heavy and many expected the team to pick up where they left off the August before. That didn’t quite happen. By the All Star Break, the Yankees were sitting .500, looking at a ten game hole in the division, sitting behind the first place Red Sox, second place Tigers and third place Orioles. With Steinbrenner back and looming over his shoulder, Buck righted the ship and navigated the Yankees to the very first Wild Card berth in AL history. After jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead over the AL West champion Mariners in the Divisional Series, the Yankees looked set up for a run of success and Buck was ready to assume his position on the mantle of great Yankee managers. However, something happened on that cross-country flight to the Pacific Northwest and by the time the sun set on the Kingdome that Sunday, October 8, 1995, the Yankees and Mariners sat tied at two games apiece and tied at four runs apiece as they hit extra innings. In the top of 11th, Randy Velarde singled home Pat Kelly to give the Yankees the lead, and having already watched closer John Wetteland blow Game 4, Buck decided to leave Jack McDowell in to close out the game. Blackjack failed. Edgar Martinez rapped a double, knocking in Joey Cora and Ken Griffey, Jr. to give Seattle the win and send the Yankees back to the Bronx shell-shocked. Despite the collapse, nobody thought Buck Showalter deserved to shoulder the blame. After all, Buck had rebuilt the franchise and returned the Yankees to their winning way. George Steinbrenner thought otherwise.
Shortly after the season, Steinbrenner let Buck walk away and instead decided to court Joe Torre, a player turned manager that had a career losing record behind the bench. After getting torched in the tabloids, Steinbrenner panicked and went to visit Buck, begging him to come back and offering to move Torre to the front office. Buck balked, knowing it wasn’t fair to Torre or himself. Steinbrenner stuck with Torre and the rest is history. Buck watched the team he built go on to win four of the next five World Series Championships, but instead of brooding he was already on to the next one, as Jay-Z may say.
In 1996, the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks brought Showalter into the fold, two years before they would even play their first game. Looking to take advantage of Buck’s player development acumen, Arizona made sure to lock him up and get him involved in the launch of the franchise. After an expected shaky first season, Buck shocked baseball by getting the Snakes to the NLCS after winning 100 games during the season thanks to some key free agent signings, including Randy Johnson, Steve Finley and Todd Stottlemyre. Arizona was riding high into 2000, but after a disappointing campaign, management wondered if the team architect was the man that could get them over the hump. They decided he wasn’t, and once again Buck watched another manager drag the team he built to that elusive World Series ring. It really didn’t seem fair at all when you consider how far the franchise had come under Buck’s watch. Was one down year really enough to flip the panic switch? Sadly, it was. And now Buck had a stigma. But he didn’t care. He just kept plugging away, and again, moved right along to the next gig.
After taking a much needed break from coaching, Showalter spent two years building up credibility in at the sports desk as an analyst for ESPN. In October 2002, opportunity came knocking in the form of the stumbling Texas Rangers. After a decent run of success in the mid-90s, the Rangers had bottomed out and were looking to reset things. Buck had a shaky first year, finishing 20 games under .500. That offseason, the Rangers dealt away superstar Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees, bringing back Alfonso Soriano. While it looked like a white flag move, Texas rallied to a 17-9 start in 2004. However, the team ebbed and flowed and while stocked with young talent, they seemingly lacked the firepower for a serious run at the title. Despite all of that, the team sat just two games out of first with ten to go. Unfortunately, they slumped down the stretch and would finish in third place (just three games out of first) and miss the playoffs yet again. Despite that, Showalter took home his second Manager of the Year trophy. The 2005 season went much worse, with on and off the field trouble, including injuries and suspensions. The Rangers could never really get going. After a terrible 1-12 stretch in August, the team was buried for good. Looking for a bounce back season, Buck came into 2006 optimistic, but the team only managed to post 80 wins, with another third place finish. Four years on the outside of the playoff picture was enough for Texas management and Buck was again fired. However, this time there was no near World Series miss and many wondered if the Showalter Show was played out. Was Buck’s intense style and reputation now hurting him? As Buck retreated to ESPN, many wondered if he would ever manage again.
After nearly three years had passed and it seemed like he was in the booth for good, Buck’s name began to pop up alongside a handful of managerial openings. All of a sudden it seemed like he had his pick of the litter, so he began analyzing which franchise was best suited for his contributions. And on July 29, 2010, Buck Showalter was named manager of the moribund Baltimore Orioles. It seemed like an odd choice on the surface, as the Orioles hadn’t sniffed the playoffs since 1997 and had been a mismanaged train wreck since then. Despite a gorgeous ballpark in a beautiful downtown harbor setting, the Orioles struggled to draw free both free agents and fans and was unable to put a winning product on the field. The team was a pitiful 32-73 when Buck took over, but by returning to a focus on fundamentals and an infusion of younger players that Buck wanted to analyze, the O’s finished the campaign with a 34-23 record and looked primed to break out. Maybe Buck would finally build a team and be able to stick around to see the payoff.
Despite the strong finish to 2010, 2011 was a nightmare season that saw the team bottom out and finish 69-93 and in fourth place. Perhaps it was a necessary evil on the path to rebuilding, but the whispers fired up again, wondering if Buck’s act was already wearing thin. After the season, the team hired Dan Duquette as VP of Baseball Operations. Duquette was the unheralded architect of the 2004 World Series Boston Red Sox team, but much like Buck, he was run out of town before the brass ring could be reached. With similar experiences and mindsets, Duquette and Showalter were dead set on turning Baltimore into a successful franchise and a free agent destination. With a handful of shrewd moves, capped by signing Chunichi Dragon LHP Wei-Yin Chin, the Orioles were optimistic heading into 2012. And that optimism was warranted as the Orioles experienced their best season since the end of the millennium.
Armed with a loose clubhouse, an astute manager, a competent GM and a confident, balanced team comprised of veterans and youth, the Orioles would post an amazing 29-9 record in one-run games. Paired with a 16-2 record in extra-inning games, a 74-0 (!) record when leading after seven innings and a Buck infused chip on their shoulder, the Orioles would finish in second place in AL East and earn a Wild Card berth. It was their first playoff appearance in 15 years and Camden Yards was alive again. After knocking off the Rangers in the play-in game, the Orioles were set for a Divisional Round tussle with…the Yankees, who else? Buck’s Birds had played his former team tough all year and the Bombers seemed ripe for a potential upset based on a home run dominant offense that had struggled in recent playoff campaigns. The Orioles took the Yankees to the limit, but could not overcome a locked in CC Sabathia in Game Five. Despite the loss, things were looking up in Baltimore and expectations would remain high for 2013. Fans and analysts debated if Baltimore could replicate its absurd record in close games and also pointed to a starting rotation filled with holes and questions. However, with the Yankees and Red Sox seemingly at their weakest state since the mid-90s and a Rays team that couldn’t hit its way out of a paper bag, the Orioles and Blue Jays looked like the class of the AL East by the time spring training rolled around.
The 2013 season has been an interesting one in the AL East. The Red Sox have shocked baseball and are sitting in first place as we near the All Star Break. The injury riddled and power sapped Yankees are hanging around as well, as are the Rays, who never seem to go away, regardless of talent. The Jays were a horror show early on, but have rallied. Through all this, Buck’s Birds just keep on keeping on, hitting home runs, winning close games and playing loose and free. As we hit the Mid-Summer Classic, Baltimore sits right in the middle of the playoff race, showing that they were not a one season wonder and still making their AL East brethren miserable. During a late June sweep of the Yankees, Camden Yards was filled with rowdy fans, proud of their resurgent Orioles.
So, here we are. Three years into his newest stint and Buck is still going strong. Once again, he is rebuilding a franchise from the bottom up. If you listen to analysts and anecdotes, Buck has mellowed and changed his attitude. Instead of grinding and wearing his players down, Buck has kept his young team loose and energetic and instilling a feeling of entitlement, showing them that they belong with the big boys. Despite all the recent success, there is one question that will always linger in the air above the Baltimore clubhouse: can Buck actually seal the deal? Something tells me that we may finally get to find out. For the sake of his legacy, I hope we do.