Friday, July 30, 2010

Buck Showalter, Orioles Manager

The Baltimore Orioles hired the best man available, Buck Showalter, to become manager of the team beginning Tuesday, August 3. He will be formally introduced at the Orioles warehouse headquarters on Monday. In discussing the beginning of his managerial search, team President Andy McPhail indicated the criteria for hiring a manager is finding the right person to fit a team’s needs. Some might have felt the Orioles’ situation so desperate any high profile candidate would be an improvement, but the case for the Orioles made Showalter especially appealing.

The Orioles have not hired a manager with major league experience since hiring Mike Hargrove in 2000. Mike Hargrove was tremendously successful in the 1990’s as the Cleveland Indians developed into a winning team playing in two World Series. Hargrove’s tenure would show him a miserable failure serving from 2000-2004 having the misfortune to manage the team while the team was in a front office and organizational free fall as a revolving door of General Managers wound up with Syd Thrift in change, a baseball executive who time had clearly passed by, who was inept and careless not even checking to find out a player he traded for was severely injured. His replacement, Lee Mazzilli, a great player and Yankee’s couch was utterly unprepared for managing and doing so under such circumstances present in Baltimore making his tenure brief brought to an abrupt end when Raphael Palmeiro was drummed out of baseball for steroid use after he had insisted testifying before Congress he was clean.

Third base coach, Sam Perlozzo was promoted as the mid-season replacement. Perlozzo was a well-seasoned baseball man with substantial coaching experience, but he was put in the position of being skipper on the Titanic. After serving the entire 2006 season, the team had tuned him out. By the end of June, the team was falling like a meteor from the sky leaving with a 29-40 record.

At that point, the Orioles appeared to have hit rock bottom, the team was now in the hands of former Orioles left-handed ace, Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette who hired a well-travelled minor league coach and manager, Dave Trembley, as interim manager and then as full-time skipper for the 2008 season. Days after Trembley’s hiring, Andy McPhail was hired as President of Baseball operations. Many expected Trembley’s termination after the 2009 season when the Orioles came dangerously close to losing 100 games were it not for sweeping the last series of the season. Trembley was retained but in announcing the move, President McPhail stated clearly that they had now reached the point in the rebuilding process that winning would be expected and improvement demanded.

This season could not have started much more horribly except for those who remember 1988. On April 24th, the Orioles stood at 2-16, their season already well on the road to ruins. Trembley’s demise was expected at any time after that but not until the team’s frustration reached a mark of 15-39 on June 3rd, Trembley was out, replaced by 3rd base coach, Juan Samuel, on an interim basis. While Samuel attempted to inject enthusiasm and went after players who did not play with acceptable intensity, a streak of 2-11 after the All-Star break made the big move essential. With a record of 16-31, Showalter’s hiring was finally concluded.

Showalter was originally a product of the Yankees’ organization. As a first baseman, there was little room for him on the major league roster during the reign of Don Mattingly, but he capably transitioned to coaching. He got his first managing job in 1985 with the single-A Oneonta Yankees. In 1989 leading the double-A Albany-Colonie Yankees, Showalter was named Minor League Manager of the Year. The following year, he joined the major league coaching staff and became Yankees manager after the dismissal of Stump Merrill after four losing seasons to take the helm for the 1992 season. While only realizing a slight improvement (76-86) that season, Showalter guided the Yankees to their first winning season in 1993, a second place finish. The Yankees were in 1st place when the 1994 baseball strike began. He was named Manager of the Year for the strike shortened season. Showalter managed the 1995 All-Star game and took the Yankees to post season for the first time since 1981 winning the Wild Card berth.

Conflicts with Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner, led to Showalter’s departure. The Yankees won the World Series the following year. Upon announcement of an expansion team, the Diamondbacks, being awarded to Phoenix, Arizona, he was hired in 1996 to help build the team and serve as its first manager. The Diamondbacks won 100 games in their second year, unprecedented for an expansion team. After a lackluster 2000 season, Showalter was dismissed. The Diamondbacks won the World Series over the New York Yankees the following season.

Buck Showalter would return to managing in 2003 taking on a last place team having committed to a multiyear pace setting contract with Alex Rodriguez. After trading the superstar to the Yankees, the Rangers made huge strides in 2004. Again, Showalter was named American League Manager of the Year. After a front office shakeup, moves to reduce salary, and a mediocre 80-82 season in 2006, Showalter was dismissed as has since worked for ESPN as an analyst.

In establishing the right fit, McPhail had to be impressed that as a former Yankee skipper, Buck Showalter knows what it’s like to step right into a pressure cooker. The Yankees were a rebuilding team with emerging young talent. His experience at Arizona showed his ability to help assemble a winning team quickly. In an organization in transition, when he had his full complement of players in Texas he was most successful.

The only well-experienced managers readily available besides Showalter were Bobby Valentine and Eric Wedge. Valentine’s resume is substantial, but he scoffed about the futility of the Orioles’ post on ESPN clearly not interested. Wedge served seven years with the Cleveland Indians helping them obtain modest success including a division title in 2007. He had three winning seasons and four losing seasons. Of the experienced managers, Buck Showalter was by far the best candidate.

The other major candidate, at least in Baltimore fans’ eyes, was former Orioles’ catcher, Rick Dempsey, who enthusiastically courted the job and was a tremendous fan favorite for the job. Dempsey is an exceptionally knowledgeable baseball man who has had successful minor league managing experience. He was Most Valuable Player in the 1983 World Series, the last time the Orioles won a championship. In 1994, Dempsey managed the AAA Dodgers affiliate to the PCL championship with the Albuquerque Dukes. He managed the Norfolk Tides, then the New York Mets triple-A team in 1997-1998.

While Rick Dempsey has tremendous appeal for the job, the consequences of failure taking on the top job of a team headed for its 13th straight losing season are overwhelming. The hit the organization would take having a person as popular as Dempsey failing could alienated the Orioles’ diminishing fan base even further.

While success is never guaranteed, and much hard work is ahead, Buck Showalter has the proper resume for the job. His involvement in personnel and organizational issues when building the Diamondbacks provide valuable skills and insights as the Baltimore franchise attempts to become a winning operation into the future.

Showalter will have to size up what he has to work with in short order and work with Andy McPhail on personnel matters to upgrade the team for 2011. Surely, there will be major changes ahead in the coaching staff as well. The Orioles cannot afford to be attached to any players or coaches on board now. While players such as Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis would be seen as the hub of the team, if their departure can address the needs for the team’s growth, even they could depart. There is no coach who is irreplaceable. The Orioles poor performance through Terry Crowley’s reign has undeservingly tarnished his reputation.

The Orioles have now rolled the dice. Next year at this time, many returns will be expected though fans must realize there is no quick fix. This project will take time and the Orioles will most likely be a losing operation again in 2011.

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