Maybe William Nathaniel Showalter III was a lookout in the crow’s nest of a three-masted schooner in a previous life. Or a Las Vegas oddsmaker. You know. Somone trained to always look ahead, whose present is firmly rooted in tomorrow.
We all know being forward thinking is a necessity for all major league baseball managers. Let the boys gloat about yesterday’s home run or grumble about yesterday’s 0-for-4 and that’s how bad things start.
It’s just that if any manager had a right to linger at the grave of the strike-aborted 1994 season, to still be screaming bloody murder at the unfairness of it all, it is Buck Showalter of the New York Yankees.
“I try not to look back too much,” said Showalter, who arrives in Bangor today to speak at Thursday night’s University of Maine Baseball Hot Stove Banquet at the Bangor Civic Center. “It’s been a strange and frustrating situation since August. I’m disappointed at what happened to us, but that’s over.”
What happened, of course, was the derailment of the Yankees’ likely run to their first American League East title in 13 years. On Aug. 12, when the strike hit, New York was cruising at 70-43, comfortably leading second-place Baltimore by 6 1/2 games. Showalter was cooking.
In three seasons, this 38-year-old career minor league player had taken the pinstripes from fourth to second to first. The team had gone from playing .469 ball to .543 to .619. These were Billy Martin-type results, the stuff of tabloid heroes and talk show heaven. Then it all came screeching to a halt.
Who could blame Showalter if he had spent the past five months locked in a darkened room watching tapes of Paul O’Neill and Don Mattingly hitting and Jimmy Key and Melido Perez pitching? Actually, he’s done a lot of that. But only in preparation for the upcoming season.
“I’m trying to, as they say in grammar school, use my time wisely,” Showalter said from his home in Florida. “I’ve made schedules for spring training. I’ve got a Plan A and a Plan B, trying to cover all the possible scenarios. We’re making personnel decisions and constantly evaluating other possibilities for the club.”
Showalter admits there’s an element of whistling past the empty ballpark to all this. With spring training only five weeks away, there is still no sign of a break in the labor deadlock. Will the strike be settled? Will replacement players cross the picket line? Will there be a ’95 season at all?
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. Hopefully, it won’t come to the point where players cross. That would be the ugliest situation imaginable,” Showalter said, suddenly sounding tired.
He is walking a tightrope and he knows it. By definition, managers are buffers between today’s millionaire players and billionaire owners. It is a tricky enough job when the game is in full swing, especially in New York. During a strike….
“We have to look at both sides of the issue. It’s hard. You know there’s going to have to be a lot of healing,” Showalter assessed.
As much healing as is going to have to occur within the clubhouse, Showalter believes more psychological first aid may be needed in the stands.
“My biggest worry is the effect all this is going to have on the fan base. Without them, this game doesn’t survive. The game would, but not major league baseball as we know it.”
The words might sound like PR-speak coming from another manager. Showalter has a blue-jeans honesty to him. Despite his high-profile job, he has never lost the common touch. Or his sense of humor. What other major league manager would guest star on Seinfeld, as he did this fall?
Strike or no strike, Showalter said he will keep working to improve the Yankees. He believes the Red Sox have improved themselves by signing Jose Canseco and, with more money to spend under the salary cap, he expects Boston to “possibly be the favorite by the time they’re done signing people.”
His stop in Maine is a quick timeout made out of respect for Maine Yankees like former manager Stump Merrill and current coach Brian Butterfield. Then it’s back to Plan A … Or Plan B.
“People working now will be that much further ahead,” said Buck Showalter, who plans to be ahead of the game, as usual, if and when it resumes.