By Pat Jordan
Buck Showalter called the night before I flew to Dallas a few months ago. He told me to bring a warm jacket, because it was cold in Dallas, and he offered to pick me up at the airport and drive me to my hotel. I told him thanks, but I had rented a car. "Who was that?" my wife Susan asked, after I had hung up the phone. I told her. "Oh, the control freak," she said. "Perfect. You two should get along famously."
The following afternoon, I was hopelessly lost on 635 East, hunched over, studying the big map of Dallas spread across the steering wheel. The road was under construction, one narrow lane, traffic backed up for miles, the exit signs unmarked. My cell phone rang. I picked up and said, "Not now, Susan, I'm lost in traffic." Showalter's voice answered, "I knew I should have picked you up. I've lived here for years, and I still can't find my way around Dallas. Use your GPS." I don't know how to use a GPS, I told him, and besides, I don't take directions from the disembodied voice of a strange woman who isn't actually in the car with me. "I don't know who this woman is!"
Showalter said, "I use my GPS all the time. I just turn when the woman's voice tells me to." Suddenly disillusioned, I blurted out, "Buck! How could you? You're supposed to be a control freak!" He moaned, cut to the quick.
Showalter hates to be called a control freak. He hates it because he doesn't consider himself a control freak, but mostly, he hates it because he can't control people calling him a control freak. To assuage his hurt feelings, I offered to call him one of the many other names people associate with him: passive-aggressive, taciturn, sarcastic, caustic, suspicious, paranoid, Machiavellian. He did not laugh.
Showalter, 57, is a Major League Baseball manager, formerly with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers, presently with the Orioles. He's famous for getting fired a lot, but not because he isn't a good manager. He's considered one of the best, twice voted Manager of the Year (1994 with the Yankees, 2004 with the Rangers). He has been called smart, cerebral, hardworking, obsessed with details and a master at controlling (there's that word again) the flow of a game. He's at his best with a team of youngsters he can whip into shape to play the game his way, along with veterans on the downswing of their careers who already play the game his way. He's a turnaround CEO. He has taken teams with a history of futility -- the 1992 Yankees, 1998 expansion Diamondbacks, 2003 Rangers and now the Orioles -- and turned them into contenders, then potential World Series teams. Of course, by the time his teams do make the World Series, Showalter is gone, replaced by a manager who is his polar opposite, laid back, almost somnambulant.
For the owners who hire him, Showalter is like a trophy wife. Desired at first blush, and for the same reasons divorced later. His meticulous attention to detail makes him incredibly attractive at the outset, but after three years, that same quality is viewed as obsessive micromanaging. It's the old proverb: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. This confuses Showalter. He didn't change! The way he is was what they wanted, and then it wasn't.
It is against Showalter's nature to let things slide. He insists that his players wear their socks a certain way. He prohibits fraternizing with the opposition. Showalter was furious when the scoreboard operator replayed his team's errors on the giant video board for all the fans to see, and he forbade the scorekeeper from ever replaying negative images of his team again. Showalter's rules seem numerous enough to rival the 6,200 pages of strictures in the Talmud. In fact, when the Diamondbacks fired Showalter after the 2000 season, his successor, Bob Brenly, held a team meeting during which he dramatically flung Showalter's massive bible of strictures into a wastebasket. He then produced his own book of rules, written on a cocktail napkin: Be on time, get the job done. It was great theater -- and like most Buck stories, apocryphal. Showalter's "bible" was actually the Diamondbacks' organizational handbook, something every team has.
Stories like that always stick to Showalter, because they sound like Buck stories. There really is something Talmudic about Showalter, with all those picayune strictures that threaten damnation. Don't this, don't that. It is rumored that Showalter once chastised a clubhouse attendant at a team meal, because he put a plastic ketchup bottle on the table instead of a glass one.
* * *
Buck was born William Nathaniel Showalter III in 1956. He was known as Nat until his minor league playing days, when his teammates noticed his penchant for lounging around the locker room "as nekkid as a picked bird," an old Southernism. Showalter was raised in Century, Fla., a tiny panhandle town of 1,600 on the border of Alabama, in the segregated South. He told me it was like growing up in Mayberry. Three doting sisters. The only town doctor made house calls. Sports. Church on Sunday, then the big family dinner. The old ladies sitting on their front porch, gossiping.
"Everyone knows your business," Showalter told me. "You drive in New York City, someone cuts you off, you give him the finger and never see him again. You do that to Mr. Johnson in Century, everybody finds out." Worst-case scenario, Showalter's father finds out. He had been a Little All-America football player at Milligan College in the mountains of Northeastern Tennessee, and he was Century's high school principal, a World War II hero with a Bronze Star. When Showalter reached high school, his father refused to drive him to school, and he also refused to let him ride his bike to school.
"I had to walk," Showalter said, "no matter how cold it was." When Showalter complained about his cold hands, his father gave him two hot potatoes to juggle on the way to school. "Oh, I couldn't do anything right for my father," Showalter said. "It was his job to say 'No' to me. Thank goodness I had a dad who really didn't care about being my pal. He wanted to be my father." Even when they did "fun" things together, Buck knew there would always be a lesson involved. When his father took him to Alabama football games, he told Buck to watch Bear Bryant on the sidelines during the game. Buck watched but didn't see Bear do much. He stood there like a cigar store Indian, in the heat of the game. Buck's father said, "When you see coaches doing a lot of coaching during a game, you know they haven't done their homework."
"You know, some people complain about growing up like I did," Showalter said. "But I always thought it was an advantage."
Showalter may remember his youth in Century as idyllic, like Mayberry, but Century was still the Deep South in the '60s, more like the fictional Maycomb in To Kill A Mockingbird, with his father as the town's Atticus Finch. "My father was ahead of his time when it came to race," Showalter told me. "He had relationships in the black neighborhood. My dad went on strike with the teachers, which was a no-no for principals back then," Showalter said. The family phone began ringing late at night. Gruff voices threatened William Nathaniel Showalter II. "A lot of prominent people in town warned him he'd never work again in the school system. And when they integrated the schools after the strike, they came to him on bended knee, because of his relationship with the black community and the mutual respect he had from their leaders 'across the pond.'"
So, one Sunday morning, Showalter's father took his wife, three daughters and son to the black church in town. They walked down the center aisle past disbelieving but appreciative eyes. His father had agreed to be principal of the newly integrated middle school. "I'll never forget that Sunday morning," Showalter said. "Walking down that aisle made me so proud of my father. He asked the preacher there to be his guidance counselor, Willie Carter ... What a friendship they had through the years. Very impactful for me."
Showalter also had the luxury of playing all the sports, all the time. By the time he was of college age, he was good enough to get a scholarship to Mississippi State University in baseball. He already knew that at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, he was too small to keep playing football. Showalter was always a realist. But his high school football experience taught him something valuable as a manager. "Guys who only played baseball all their lives, it's a red flag," he told me. "What'd they do the other seven months? I like a guy who got his nose bloodied in other sports."
As a lefty first baseman at MSU, Showalter set and still holds the school batting record, .459, which convinced the Yankees to draft him in the fifth round in 1977. He was a good fielder, a contact hitter with a career minor league average of .294, but without power. Worse, he had the bad luck to play at the same time as another first baseman, Don Mattingly, who would become a Yankees icon. After seven years in the minors, the Yankees told Showalter that they no longer considered him a prospect, the kiss of death for a player. But they did offer him a minor league coaching job, which Showalter, ever the realist, grabbed. He realized that his future with the Yankees was in the dugout.
All told, Showalter spent 18 years in the Yankee organization -- as a minor league player, minor league coach, minor league manager, major league coach, major league manager -- but not a minute as a major league player. Showalter liked being a company man. It was a noble aspiration in the South, where jobs were hard to come by and "service" was a way of life. It was a mark of loyalty and respect for something bigger than oneself. Yet Showalter always admired the Northeastern ethnic groups who were closer to their immigrant pasts, he said, because they had a common bond. "The Northeastern ethnic guys I had always seemed to have more passion than guys from elsewhere," he said. "I had no identity, but I wanted one. To be part of something, a common cause, a team."
Showalter's identity with the Yankees ended in 1995, when George Steinbrenner fired him. He had led the Yankees to two second-place finishes and one first-place finish in three years. He was 39, he said, "when I lost my naiveté."
* * *
The next morning, Showalter picked me up in his huge black Range Rover. (He was four minutes late, but I didn't have the heart to tell him.) He said he had the day planned for us. First, we'd have coffee at Barnes & Noble. "I love books," he said as he drove, like a kid straining to see over the steering wheel. "Then we'll go back to the house to meet Angela and the kids." His daughter, Allie, is a law student at SMU; his son, Nate IV, is an undergrad at TCU. "At 3 p.m., we'll go to the George W. Bush Presidential Center. I got you a ticket. Then after that, we'll all go out to dinner. Nothing fancy, just good food. It used to be a Houston's." (A reporter once asked Showalter to name his favorite restaurants in Dallas. Showalter said, "You mean ones that aren't drive-throughs?")
"What about your dogs?" I said. "That's why I'm here." He looked at me to see if I was kidding. I wasn't. A few months ago, I came across a photograph of Showalter and his dogs at a Baltimore Animal Rescue benefit at Camden Yards. All the players and coaches and Showalter brought their dogs for a photo shoot. There were photos of his smiling players hugging their dogs, their dogs licking their owners' faces, then romping on the field.
The photo of Showalter was taken in his office. He was sitting on a chair, holding a leash tethered to two of his four basset hounds. The dogs stared at the camera through wrinkled brows; droopy, bloodshot eyes; sagging jowls; long, floppy ears. The saddest-looking dogs on the planet, world-weary, they'd seen it all and were not impressed. Life was a struggle with their barrel-shaped bodies and stubby legs. Only a certain kind of man could be attracted to such depressing dogs. A man who took perverse pleasure in waking every morning to the miserable-looking faces of his beloved dogs, as if they verified a certain truth about the human (or canine) existence. In the photo, Showalter was sitting straight up on the edge of a chair, leaning forward, his blond hair now mostly silver, his skin still pink, his narrowed eyes staring at the camera suspiciously. He looked as dyspeptic as his dogs. He looked like he was trying to smile but couldn't. Or maybe he was trying hard not to smile; that's the question.
That's when I knew, I told Showalter, that I had to meet this guy. "But why me?" he protested. "I'm boring." He parked in front of Barnes & Noble, and we went inside. Showalter bought the coffee, and we sat at a table, surrounded by books. He began to talk, non-stop, nervously. He said there's a difference between a "control freak" and being alert. "When I'm walking in Detroit or New York, I'm looking down the alley, Who is that guy? My eyes flit everywhere, to avoid problems before they happen." He said that people who don't pay attention to details are lazy. "Details are an exhausting business," he added.
When he went to his first spring training as the O's manager, he had the outfield re-configured to resemble Camden Yards, so his fielders could learn to play the caroms off the walls. He reduced the size of the clubhouse in Baltimore, so his players couldn't hide from the media after a bad game. He expected his players to stand up and explain themselves like men. He adjusted his pitching rotation to the umpires' rotation, so his high-fastball pitcher would be throwing to an umpire who calls that pitch a strike. "I question everything," he said. "Never draft an 18-year-old with a full beard, [because] it means he's fully developed and won't grow anymore."
I asked him about the ketchup bottle. He shook his head: "Never happened." The scoreboard story? He owned up to that one. When I asked Showalter about his "no fraternizing" rule, he snapped, "They got 25 guys on our team to talk to! Tell me, they don't have one friend on our team, so they gotta suck face with the opposition shortstop during BP? I tell them, 'You think fraternizing's gonna get you your next job? You'll get your next job by doing a great job here, then everyone will want you. When I take a job, I bust my ass and see where it leads me.'"
Showalter may not want his players to fraternize with the opposition, but he wants them to study the opposition. "I tell my guys to watch the way Miguel Cabrera approaches hitting a baseball. They will not see another hitter like him in their lifetime. The difference between Cabrera and most hitters is, a guy throws him a great slider, he smiles, nods as if to say, 'That was a great pitch. Throw it again.' The other guys would say, 'Don't throw me that again.'" How does he tell his pitchers to pitch to Cabrera? He said that sometimes Cabrera can be too relaxed at the plate, "so I tell them, 'Don't wake this fucker up. And don't try to pitch around him to walk him by throwing pitches off the plate, because he can hit those pitches. Either intentionally walk him, or pitch to him to get him out.'"
Willie Randolph, a former Yankees coach, said that Showalter's problem was that he "wants to be involved in everything … You have to let some things go." With the expansion Diamondbacks, two years before they played their first game, Showalter was involved in all the team's details. The color of the uniforms. Marketing. Draft choices. He was so consumed with the team that he often slept in his office at the stadium. When Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo finally fired him after the 2000 season, he admitted that Showalter's demise was on his shoulders. "I did him a disservice, getting him involved too much," he said. Then he recommended Showalter as a manager to Tom Hicks, the owner of the Rangers. A New York beat writer once said of Showalter, "The guy has no off switch."
Showalter can be hard on his players. Gene Michael, the Yankees GM who hired Showalter as manager, once said that Showalter gave his players too much information. "I had to tell him sometimes to stop," said Michael. "He takes it too far, and they tune him out." At one point during his Yankees tenure, Showalter had a pitcher who always looked to the dugout to be yanked when he was in trouble. Showalter finally had had enough, so he hustled out to the mound and demanded that the pitcher learn "to be the big dick in the shower" -- or else. He always insisted that his pitchers take the mound with "presentation," as if they were "carrying the best stuff of their career, even if they weren't." When a hitter grounded to second base for a routine out and only jogged toward first, Showalter called him into his office after the game. He showed him a video of his sorry effort. Some players felt such treatment was demeaning. They were grown men, after all. Showalter agreed. He was showing them when they weren't acting like grown men.
One of Showalter's favorite players on the Orioles is Manny Machado, a 21-year-old All-Star who might be the next Miguel Cabrera. Yet he doesn't hesitate to criticize Machado for his youthful indiscretions. When Showalter walked into the clubhouse one day and saw Machado surrounded by an entourage at his locker, Showalter pulled him aside. He said, "These people someone you want to be in a foxhole with? They the people you want to say your eulogy?" Another time, Machado flipped his bat, arrogantly, after hitting a home run. When he reached the dugout, Showalter grabbed him. "You're putting your teammates in a bad position by making that pitcher mad." At the end of the season, Showalter said, Machado sought him out to say, "Thank you for everything."
"It's not like I'm chasing the players all over the street," said Showalter. "I don't want them to be boring. I want them to have their personality. If they want to dance in the clubhouse, go, dance. But think how your words and actions affect your teammates and fans." Showalter respects them both. When he has to cut a player, he makes a point of shaving that day. Some players, like Machado, "get" Showalter; some don't. Mark Teixeira, who played for Showalter in Texas, said, "He expects you to play hard and the right way." When the Diamondbacks reached the World Series the year after Showalter was fired, veteran infielder Jay Bell said, "There's no question Buck had a lot to do with what's going on here." Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said that when Showalter took over the O's, "He made everyone accountable for attention to details." On the other hand, when it was rumored at one point that Showalter would become the Royals manager, the team's star player stormed into the GM's office and told him, "If Buck's hired, I want out of here, and I know five other guys who will, too."
The players who don't get Showalter want a manager who will leave them alone. They don't want some kindergarten teacher, some old biddy making them recite their ABCs. What could Showalter, a career minor leaguer, have to teach them? They're the ones with the talent. They know how to play the game. Well, maybe physically, but not always mentally. Showalter considers that his job to be teaching them the proper mindset to be good teammates. "The older I get, the more I learn not to make mistakes," Showalter said. He wants to pass that knowledge on. His reputation for not getting along with stars is undeserved -- he hasn't really managed a team of stars since 2000. Showalter has had merely decent teams that he has turned into very good teams, overachievers given their talent.
He got the best out of those clubs by hounding them to pay attention to details; that's the only way they could compete with star-laden teams. He built the 1993-95 Yankees into a World Series team with youngsters like Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, along with irascible veterans like Paul O'Neill and Wade Boggs. Then he was fired after 1995 and had to watch the mellow Joe Torre take over and win the 1996 World Series -- with Showalter's team. He did the same thing with the fledgling Diamondbacks in 2000. He helped build that team by acquiring free agents, not because they could help the Diamondbacks, but because they could be used as trade bait to get other players. He got an injured Curt Schilling in 2000 with the understanding that once he was healthy in 2001, he would join with Randy Johnson to make the Diamondbacks a powerhouse. Again, he was fired after the 2000 season and had to watch the inexperienced Bob Brenly take over and win the 2001 World Series, with Johnson and a healthy Schilling dominating the Yankees.
Showalter said it was hard to watch "other guys walk your daughter down the aisle. But maybe those guys were the right guys for those teams." He paused, then added, "Some managers play a good hand well, and some play a bad hand well." It's like running for president. The qualities a man needs to get elected -- charm, empathy -- don't have much to do with the cold, hard qualities a president needs to run the country. Which is why Showalter got his reputation as a turnaround CEO who couldn't deal with a wealth of riches. That's why, the rumor went, he sent Alex Rodriguez packing from his Rangers after 2003. Showalter had to be his team's only star. With A-Rod in 2003, the Rangers went 71-91; without him in 2004, they went 89-73, and Showalter was named Manager of the Year. Showalter said he had no problem with A-Rod, who called Showalter "a great baseball mind." Yet with A-Rod gone, Showalter said, "good stuff started happening with the Rangers. You can date it from our clearing the payroll of Alex."
Another thing Showalter harps on is that it's the players' job to respect their fans. Again, some get it, and some don't. To the players who don't get it, the fans' purpose is simply to worship them and pay their salaries. But Showalter is devoted to the fans, always recalling his years in the minor leagues as a player, coach and manager. Those parks are small, the fans close to the action. They can talk to the players in the on-deck circle, the manager standing in the dugout, the coach at third base. Those fans feel that they're part of the team, close to the players in a way that major league fans, at a distant remove, never are. When Showalter finally got to the majors, he brought with him his respect for the fans. When the Orioles were playing a meaningless game in Seattle one night, Showalter hounded his players to play hard, because "it's 12:30 at night back in Baltimore," he said. "Somebody's sitting in front of the TV, dying with everything you're doing. And you better take that seriously."
Back at Barnes & Noble, Showalter said, "So I respect the fans -- is there another way?" When he took over the O's, Showalter took his team to a theater and played them a film of the Orioles' highlights through the years, to show them the team's traditions. He also changed the Orioles' time for batting practice to coincide with the gates opening, so the fans could have something to enjoy watching before the game.
* * *
We drove to Showalter's house. He asked again, "Why me? I'm boring." Boring is not Showalter's problem. Suspicious is. He told me, "It's tough for me to talk to people who aren't players, because there are so many perceptions of me that aren't true. So I'm guarded. I don't reveal myself." It's the chicken and the egg. Does he become guarded because people don't understand him, or vice versa? "Between spring training games and the season, I have to talk to the media 200 times, for 30 minutes [each time]," he said. "I'm bound to say something stupid." When Showalter says "stupid," he really means "controversial." During our two days together, he told me that he was in favor of instant replay for baseball, because "the game today is too fast for the umpires. They make educated guesses."
He once said he'd like to see how smart the Yankees and the Red Sox were if they had Tampa Bay's payroll. Showalter admires how the Rays put together a team with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. He especially admires their manager, Joe Maddon, who as a minor league player "could play a little bit, like me, only as high as Triple-A." When Showalter was playing at Chattanooga one year, he faced lefty Mark Langston. "He threw me a slider I'd never seen before," said Showalter. "I called my father and said, 'Dad, don't sell the mules, I'll be home shortly.'" Self-deprecating stories like that are what other minor league managers like to hear. They consider guys like Showalter and Maddon their inspirations. If those two career minor leaguers can become big-league managers, then there's hope for them, too. Being a major league star, said Showalter, "may open the door for you to manage, but it's not enough just to throw your résumé on the table. Today's players don't care about a manager's playing résumé. They expect you to bring something else. Guys like me and Joe had to bring something teams couldn't get on every street corner."
As managers, Showalter and Maddon are a lot alike. They both work well with young players and veterans, and they've seldom had superstars. They tend to like their players, not only as players but also as men. They'll both say of a player, "He's a great teammate." Maddon is willing to innovate and take chances. Showalter is more old school; he prefers to perfect the established aspects of the game. Maddon is more amiable than Showalter, less dogmatic. Showalter can be amiable, too, but he doesn't reveal that side of himself as easily, and he has more sharp edges. He's more demanding than forgiving.
Showalter and Maddon are different in one other, fundamental way: Maddon is trusting with reporters. He isn't afraid to reveal himself, and he isn't afraid of being laughed at. To lighten the drudgery of team travel, Maddon instituted theme road trips. His players had to dress as a cowboy, a nerd, an infant. David Price, Maddon's 6-foot-6 pitcher, once got off a team plane wearing footie pajamas. "I'd love to have thought of that," said Showalter. "But Joe ruined it for me. I'd just be a copycat." Maddon and his Rays have also ruined any idea that Showalter may have had of bemoaning the Yankees and Red Sox's $150-200 million payrolls, compared to his $90 million payroll. "How can I complain?" Showalter said. "Joe's payroll is $60 million, and he's competitive."
Last season, Showalter was reprimanded by Major League Baseball for a loose lip. When MLB was preparing to give A-Rod a lengthy suspension for PEDs, Showalter told the press that commissioner Bud Selig was doing the Yankees a favor. "If Bud lets [the Yankees] get away with that, they're under the luxury tax. If they can reset, they can spend again," using the tens of millions they'd save on luxury-tax penalties to restock the team. Sure enough, after MLB suspended Rodriguez for the 2014 season, the Yankees almost immediately signed Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract. "I may be paranoid," Showalter said, as he pulled up in front of his house, "but I'm paranoid about the right things." He's also paranoid because, even though he's a control freak, he admits that he can't keep his mouth shut when he should. Two or three times during my stay in Dallas, Showalter told me hysterical stories about people in the Orioles organization and then pleaded with me not to repeat them. "I'll get fired," he moaned.
Showalter lives in a dust-gray house, built in the stone commonly used for big, vaguely Elizabethan homes in Dallas. His neighbors' homes are similar. Electronically controlled driveway gate, a small circular drive, a small yard. It's an expensive house, but not that expensive, not like the mansions in nearby Highland Park. Showalter usually rents a house in the city where he's managing, a habit he acquired in his Yankees days. When Steinbrenner asked him why he didn't buy a house, Showalter said, "Because I work for you." One night when Showalter was managing the Yankees, Steinbrenner called the dugout during a game, furious. "Their pitcher's cheating," Steinbrenner roared. "He's scuffing the ball. Tell the umpire." Showalter said, "I know, but our guy's scuffing the ball, too. And he's cheating better than their guy."
Showalter got out of the SUV, looked at his big house and said, "You know, I can go into Target and buy anything I want. That's enough for me. I can't believe how I've fooled them all these years. It's sinful I make a million dollars." Was he afraid of losing those big salaries? "I approached every job as if it was my last. And this one is my last roundup. If they get tired of my shtick, they can just let me know. I'll pack my bags -- 'Thank you very much' -- and be out the door."
He opened the door and went inside. I followed him and was mobbed immediately by his four miserable-looking basset hounds. They snorfled, grunted and slobbered on me, wagging their sausage-like tails, and put their paws on my arm for me to pet them. When I stood up, I said to Showalter, "What a great welcome. The trip was worth it." Showalter said, "Isn't it ironic, how close we get to things that don't talk." He once paid $8,000 for a new hip for one of his dogs. Now I understood why he had such loving dogs, despite their sad-sack demeanor. They were like him, in his mind's eye: misunderstood, misperceived; happy, not sour. But they weren't afraid to reveal their true selves, an area in which Showalter struggles.
He had told me, "I get emotional when the players leave at the end of the season. I tell them I'll miss them, but I don't know if they believe it." He tells them he'll miss them, in that clipped way of his, then goes into his office and shuts his door, so no one will see his eyes well up. Like Bear Bryant, Showalter is so stoic in the dugout during a game, no matter how meaningful it is, that he is perceived as a cold, calculating man, without emotion. When his Yankees lost the Division Series to Seattle in an extra-innings rubber match in 1995, Showalter answered all the reporters' questions coolly, then went into his office, closed the door and sobbed. Showalter, it seems, is a closet romantic.
He introduced me to Angela in the kitchen. She was perfectly made up, a slight blonde in her 50s who looks younger. Angela was the kind of woman who takes great pains to look her best, not for others, but for herself. She shook my hand and gave me an appraising look. I asked her how she liked living with a control freak. Buck groaned. Angela said, "He's not the controlling one in this house. I am." I asked her if her husband ever smiled. Without expression she said, "He does when I come into a room."
Buck and I talked college football. Angela watched. I told Buck I was shocked that Alabama lost their last game to Oklahoma. He said he wasn't. "I picked Oklahoma," he said. "The Alabama kids had nothing to play for after losing to Auburn, and having won two previous national championships. You gotta remember, those kids aren't professionals."
Then he led me through the house toward his office. He pointed out that his walls were not adorned with any baseball mementoes, no photographs of himself in uniform or posing with a president. He was proud of that. His small office didn't have many baseball photographs either. It just had a lot of books, photos of his family at different stages of their lives, one of a much younger Showalter with corn silk-colored hair. He pointed out his big white chalkboard with a list of all his Orioles players on it. "When I have nothing to do," he said, "I just stare at that board all day" -- like a writer staring at his blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration.
Showalter's modest success with the Orioles so far has been a marvel. I told him he had turned a lousy club into a good club with "smoke and mirrors." He gave me his very thin smile but volunteered nothing. He had lost two starting pitchers and his closer Jim Johnson in the offseason, and his remaining starters are middle-of-the-rotation pitchers. Machado and shortstop J.J. Hardy are Gold Glovers. Chris Davis and Adam Jones are respected power hitters (though Davis has just gone on the disabled list). Nick Markakis is a solid outfielder who hits for average, and Matt Wieters is an excellent catcher with power. But in the American league East, Showalter's pitching can't compare to that of the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.
I pointed out the photo of him as a much younger Buck, with Angela and Nate. "He was in third grade then," Showalter said. "We were living in Florida, where we had a house on the water." During a hurricane that year, Buck was walking his oldest dog, Sader, on the dock when Sader fell in the churning water. Buck jumped in to save him and began sinking in the muck. "The water was maybe five feet," said Buck, " but I thought, what a way to go. I tried to push Sader up onto the dock but he was too heavy. Angela came running down the dock, screaming, 'Push him up to me!' I said, 'What about me?' She said, 'I'm pulling up Sader first.' So, I'm pushing up this 80-pound dog while I'm sinking into the muck and his balls are flapping in my face and Angela's pulling him up."
Nate met us outside, and we all got into the Range Rover, Nate and Angela in back, for the ride to the Bush museum. Angela said, "Speaking of being in charge, Buck, here's your new insurance card for the year." She handed it up to Buck, with a small sideways glance at me. As we drove through Highland Park and all the mansions, Nate, a shy young man, was silent while his mother pointed out to me the homes of famous people. "That one belongs to the guy who paid off John Edwards' mistress," she said. "And that one belongs to Tom Hicks."
Hicks was the owner of the Rangers who fired her husband, two years after he was named Manager of the Year. After what would be Showalter's last season with the Rangers in 2006, Hicks invited Buck and Angela to his home for dinner. Jon Daniels, the team's young GM, was there, too. After dinner, Daniels told Buck that the team wanted "to go in a different direction," a circuitous way of telling Showalter that he was fired. "Now, Angela knew I was the one who recommended Daniels for the job," said Buck. He looked across at me with the slimmest smile. "So she asks Jon if she could talk to him outside. I heard them … talking … and then Angela came back in and told me she felt better now." Buck laughed.
To keep his hand in the game until the Orioles' gig popped up in 2010, Showalter became a baseball analyst for ESPN -- retribution for all his years of mistrusting the media. What did he learn about sports journalism while at ESPN? "Well, the first thing I learned was that I couldn't talk on-air like I did to the players," he said. When an umpire called a perfect strike a ball, Showalter piped up, "That pitch was right down the cock." Behind the cameras, producers started waving their hands, shaking their heads, mouthing a silent no, no, no. Showalter was well respected by his ESPN co-workers and viewers. "He's as entertaining a personality as I ever worked with," Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech said. "I found him to be incredibly engaging, able to laugh at himself."
"ESPN verified what I thought about journalists," Showalter said. "They wanted controversy. They wanted me to criticize the manager for not bunting. I told them I'm not gonna do that. I don't know all the things that went into his decision-making. Maybe his dog died that morning. I'll tell you the options he had, but not why he chose the one he did." Showalter learned that, for journalists, they are the story in sports. But for Showalter, who has spent his adult life in baseball, "The game is the story."
Showalter's daughter Allie, the law student, met us inside the Bush museum. She greeted me the way her mother had: a handshake, no smile. Allie was small, like her mother, and circumspect, but more severe. And like her mother, she was very protective of her father. Before she got married recently, Showalter pulled his future son-in-law aside and said, "You do realize my daughter is a load."
As we walked past the exhibits of Bush 43's presidency, Angela told me that all the living presidents were at the inaugural opening of this memorial. I mentioned one of the presidents. Showalter piped up, "That's debatable whether he was a real president." Then he said, "But don't use that." As we passed exhibits, Showalter said, "President Bush once said that you know the moment you're the president when somebody in a cabinet meeting says, What do we do now, Mr. President? Nothing prepares you for that."
Buck and Allie walked up ahead with Nate, while Angela and I trailed behind. I asked her if Buck brings his team's losses home after a game. She said, "No. Not even when he lost a hundred games with Arizona. He keeps his emotions in check. But if his team loses, I leave the newspaper in the driveway in the morning. We read it when it's good, not when it's bad." Unlike most baseball wives, Angela doesn't complain about her husband's long absences during the season. When it's February and cold in Dallas, she said, and she sees "that look" in her husband's eyes, "I know he's already in spring training, so I tell him, 'Go already.'"
Angela was 20 when she met Buck, then a minor league player, in Nashville, Tenn. She worked during the summer, selling programs at the ballpark. When Buck saw her, "He called me over," she said. "He asked for a program. I said, 'It's two dollars.' He said, 'But I'm a player.' I said, 'I have to pay for it if you don't.' I made him pay.
"He said he'd come over to me only because he wanted to know all his teammates," Angela said. Smooth line, I said. She smiled. "I was totally oblivious to the ballplayer thing," she said, "until we married three years later." As a minor leaguer's wife, Angela said, she learned that it was best for wives to go through the whole minor league experience, so that they'd appreciate what they'd have in the big leagues someday. "Life was a lot simpler then," she said. "Now we long for those days. I know we've been blessed, but baseball is not about the money. It's about giving the fans and the owner their money's worth."
We all stopped before an exhibit of President Bush's trip to Asia. Showalter said that a Japanese baseball executive once told him that this was their secret: "You Americans invent things. We perfect them." Showalter said, "It's true, even in baseball. Their uniforms, bats, gloves are all better than ours." Then he added, "Do you know, Japanese umpires don't rub up the balls before a game like ours do, so pitchers won't grip a slippery new ball? Sometimes our clubhouse guys rub them up, and guys will pay them to rub them darker or lighter. But the Japanese balls are all the same white color. You know why? Because they invented some white tacky substance that they put on the balls before they go into boxes. Now all their balls can be seen in a game. Why can't we figure that out?"
* * *
We drove through the SMU campus on our way to the restaurant. Showalter wanted me to see the chapel where Allie was married. "Turn right here," said Angela in the backseat. Buck turned right. Nate was still quiet. Angela and Buck were worried that maybe he'd had an argument with his girlfriend. I asked Buck about Allie's wedding. It cost him $300,000, in addition to the $120,000 college tuition he paid for his son and daughter. "Why so much?" I said. Showalter said, "This is Texas, the land of the big wedding. I told my players at the end of the season, 'We gotta pick it up, guys, and make the playoffs. I need that playoff money for the wedding.'" Angela said, "Turn right here." Buck turned right. Before the wedding, Buck would fly back to Dallas from Baltimore on off-days to take dance lessons with Allie. "I wasn't gonna embarrass my daughter," he said. "Slow down," said Angela. "It's over there." Buck slowed the big SUV, and we all stared at the big chapel where Allie got married, by the same minister who officiated at President Bush's inauguration.
We sat at a round table in the corner of the restaurant, Angela, Buck and I. Nate was on his cell phone outside. Angela and Buck looked at each other like worried parents. Nate was smiling when he finally came in and joined us. He sat down and started talking. He told me that he wanted to get into baseball someday, in some front office capacity. Buck said, "Nathan knows as much about our minor league system as anybody." Nate said, "After every Orioles home game, Dad and I listen to a CD of that night's minor league games in the car." He said he was privy to a lot of inside information about Orioles' trades, which he had to keep to himself until the trade was completed. "I knew when A-Rod was going to be traded three weeks before it happened at Texas," he said. "But I kept quiet."
The waiter came to take our drink orders. I ordered a glass of bourbon, no ice. When the waiter left, Showalter peppered me with questions. Why bourbon? Why no ice? Why that brand? How long have you been drinking bourbon? I laughed and said, "Buck, I ask the questions." He said, "But I'm curious. I want to know."
When our drinks came, my bourbon was in a glass with ice. I said nothing. Angela looked at my drink and said, "I thought you told him no ice?" I said it was no problem, but that wasn't enough for her. She called the waiter back, reached across the table, took my drink out of my hand, and handed it to the waiter. "He ordered no ice," she said. I wondered if all wives of control freaks become control freaks themselves one day. Or maybe they were always control freaks, and that's why their control-freak husbands married them.
After dinner, Buck dropped Angela and Nate at the house and drove me to my hotel. Before I got out of the car I said, "Tomorrow morning at 11, here." Buck looked defeated. He said, "I thought we were done." I said, "You're not getting off that easy. I have more questions." He said, "But I have to get a haircut tomorrow." His shoulders sagged. He said, "Awright. Eleven."
The following morning, Showalter and I sat on a sofa in the hotel lobby and talked. I asked him if he, as a career minor leaguer, felt insecure when he took over as manager of the Yankees, with all their storied traditions, in 1992. "Of course it affected my attitude as a manager," he said. "I still wear that, but it's not a chip on my shoulder. It's a driving force." He said that it really hit him that he had fulfilled a dream, becoming the Yankees manager, at an old-timers game: "Mickey Mantle came into my office and asked if he could dress there. Too many people were bothering him in the clubhouse. I watched him dress into his uniform, my childhood hero, and I thought, this is pretty cool." Then he told me a sad story about Mantle. "But don't use that," he said.
The one advantage Showalter had in his first year as the Yankees manager was that Steinbrenner's hot breath was not on the back of his neck. Michael, the GM, had hired Showalter for his work ethic and baseball knowledge. Steinbrenner had no involvement in his hiring, having been suspended from baseball for hiring a sleazy investigator to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. "That allowed me to go through growing pains with the young players," said Showalter. "If Mr. Steinbrenner had been there, and we didn't win quick …"
After a 76-86 record in Showalter's first year, he turned the team around the following season with an 88-74 mark, thanks to his emerging youngsters and veterans like O'Neill. Showalter admired O'Neill's fiery emotionalism and hard, selfless play, but he had to treat him with kid gloves to keep him under control. O'Neill, a lefty, couldn't hit lefty pitchers, so Showalter platooned him initially, starting him only against righties. "I wanted him to get the fans on his side first," said Showalter, "but oh, my God, Paul went apeshit!" Showalter told O'Neill that once he built his average up against righties, he'd ease him into the lineup against lefties gradually. O'Neill would have none of it. "When a lefty was pitching against us," Showalter said, "and I saw Paul shagging flies during [batting practice], I'd go into the outfield to tell him. He'd see me coming in leftfield and start moving toward center. The closer I got, the faster he walked away. I had to chase him all over the field while he was mumbling to coaches, 'What's that stumpy little S.O.B. want to talk to me about now?'"
Steinbrenner had been reinstated by the time the Yankees played Seattle in the '95 Division Series. He immediately began looking for an excuse to get rid of his no-name minor league manager, in favor of someone with major league experience both playing and managing -- in his mind, a "real" major league manager. When the Yankees lost that series, Steinbrenner had his excuse. He offered Showalter a new contract on the condition that Steinbrenner would fire all his coaches and hire his own choices. "But loyalty was important to me," said Showalter. "I wanted coaches I could trust, not ones I didn't know." So he made Steinbrenner a counteroffer, at which point Steinbrenner announced to the press that Showalter had resigned from the Yankees, which was news to Showalter. "I thought we were negotiating," Showalter said.
Shortly afterward, Steinbrenner hired Joe Torre, who had been a 18-year major leaguer with nine All-Star selections and an MVP when he retired in 1977 and became the Mets manager. From 1977 to 1995, Torre managed and was fired from three teams before he landed the Yankees job. Torre was of the Jeffersonian model of managers: "Those managers are best who manage least." The New York tabloids called him "Clueless Joe." The Cardinals had just fired Torre, feeling that he did little but watch his team play. The following year, Torre's Yankees won the first of their four World Series, with Showalter's team.
When I asked Showalter about "Clueless Joe," he defended the man who had stolen his hard work and glory. "More managers over-manage," he said, "when they should under-manage." He said that Steinbrenner, after getting pilloried in the press for hiring Torre, tried to hire Showalter back. Before Torre even got to his first spring training with the Yankees, Steinbrenner flew to Showalter's house in Pensacola, Fla. Showalter was traveling when he got Angela's call: "You're not going to believe who's here. Mr. Steinbrenner. I'm afraid to cook for him, because if he gets sick [and dies], I'll be blamed for it."
When Showalter arrived home, Steinbrenner told him he could have his job back, with his own coaches. Showalter said, "But what about Torre?" Steinbrenner said, "Don't worry about him. I'll make him club president." Showalter told Steinbrenner that he'd reached a gentlemen's agreement with Jerry Colangelo to manage his expansion Arizona club when it began play in '98.
Steinbrenner said, "Did you sign anything?"
Showalter said, "No. But I shook his hand."
"I'll take care of it."
Yet Showalter walked away from his dream job, in the only organization he had ever known. Was that hard to do? "It broke my heart," he said. "Did you ever get fired?" he asked me. I nodded. He said, "What for?" I said, for mouthing off to my bosses. Showalter grinned and said, "No, that's not what you did. You just defined reality to them." But even to this day, Showalter cannot shake his old company man attitude toward a boss. He told me, "This man allowed me to support my family for 19 years. I'll never forget that. I knew what the job description was when I took it. Then why bitch about him? I learned some important things about managing from him."
Most organizations place little emphasis on trying to win meaningless minor league games. They believe that if you develop a young player's skills in the minors, he can be taught to play with a winning mentality in the majors. Steinbrenner felt that the opposite was true, that winning in the minors develops a player's psyche. "He was right," said Showalter. "You learn how to win in the minors. One year, all six Yankee minor league teams got championship rings. Do you know, the first thing Steinbrenner did every morning was check the minors' box scores, to see who lost three in a row?"
One other thing Showalter learned from Steinbrenner, he said, was that "a manager has a short shelf life. We're just ships in the night who pass by players, who aren't gonna mourn us when we're gone." I asked Showalter how he would know that it was time to leave the game. He said, "Jim Leyland told me, 'I knew my candle was starting to flicker when the losses didn't hurt as much as they used to.'"
His new boss Peter Angelos, the Orioles' 84-year-old owner, has the same type of reputation as Steinbrenner, hot-tempered and quick to pull the trigger on his managers. Angelos fired two managers during the same season when he eventually hired Showalter. Showalter inherited a club with a 32-73 record, and he guided it to a 34-23 record over the final stretch, the second-best record in baseball during that span. Showalter said that Angelos has mellowed with age, distancing himself more from the club. "I didn't get the same guy the other managers got," said Showalter, adding that Angelos didn't get the same Showalter that other owners did, either.
We went outside, and he got into his SUV. "How long do you think I'll be with the Orioles?" he asked. "Do you think Mr. Angelos would fire me?" I told him I couldn't answer that one. He drove off.
When I got home the next night, Showalter had emailed me. He wanted to make sure that I had gotten home OK. I emailed him back, "Got up at 3 a.m. and drove 20 minutes to the airport so I wouldn't miss a 9:30 a.m. flight. Top that one."
Showalter emailed me right back. He said he was still laughing at my email. "Three a.m.!" he wrote. "Remember, we are not paranoid, just overly alert." Then he wrote that he had bought a bottle of my favorite bourbon -- "pint size, to sip on" -- just to see for himself why I liked it. He added: "Curious George, I am, I am …"
* * *
Pat Jordan is a freelance writer living in Abbeville, S.C. He is the author of A False Spring and 10 other books, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper's, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, GQ, Rolling Stone, Men's Journal and many others.