In the summertime of 1985, Buck Showalter introduced himself to me as we stood on a dusty minor league infield. Inside minutes, Showalter, the obscure rookie manager for the Yankees’ farm team in Oneonta, N.Y., laughed and asked me: “Did you hear that I’ve already been escorted to Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, in uniform and on the front of a procession of vehicles?”
As a Yankees beat author trying to know all the pieces concerning the franchise, I had just driven three hours into upstate Latest York to learn concerning the team that represented the bottom rung of the Yankees’ minor league system. That quest turned out to be irrelevant.
As an alternative, for the following three days, I received a memorable indoctrination into Showalter’s methods, work habits and team-building tactics. Looking back, it was a snapshot that presaged all the pieces that has followed for Showalter as a manager and personality.
But first the story of how he ended up in Cooperstown.
The 1985 Oneonta team was a combination of recent highschool graduates, college underclassmen and young castoffs from other organizations. A backup catcher on the team, Todd Ezold, believed he also needs to be a pitcher. Ezold badgered Showalter into letting him pitch a bullpen session to prove his value during an off-day team workout. After Ezold warmed up that day, his manager got within the left-handed batter’s box to get a greater sense of how Ezold’s pitches looked to a hitter.
Although Showalter, then 29, didn’t wear a helmet, he was unworried. As a profession .294 hitter in seven minor league seasons, he made 3,292 plate appearances and was hit by a pitch only 15 times. Ezold’s first pitch, a fastball, sailed inside and struck Showalter just above the precise ear.
Lying on the bottom, Showalter heard his salty, 61-year-old pitching coach, Russ Meyer, who was often known as the Mad Monk for his hot-tempered mound displays as a Brooklyn Dodger, say: “Don’t stand up, Buck, there’s blood coming out of your ear. You’re pretty tousled.” An ambulance rushed Showalter to the closest hospital, in Cooperstown, with a bunch of Oneonta players’ cars following in succession.
Showalter was back with the team in three days. Relating the story to me after I arrived in Oneonta, he said, “They tell me that the ringing in my ear will go away eventually.”
Because the Mets prepared for his or her first postseason games in six years — scheduled for Friday night against the San Diego Padres — Showalter’s steadying influence has been a central factor. It’s price noting that his ragtag team of misfits became the 1985 Latest York-Penn League champion. Ezold was even allowed to pitch three innings, without incident. The team won greater than 70 percent of its games.
That first Showalter championship was no more a coincidence than the three other minor league titles he won as a manager within the late Eighties or the three Manager of the Yr Awards he won within the majors from 1994 to 2014. But as Showalter continues to shape his legacy at 66, I’m drawn to my eyewitness recollections of the embryonic phase of his managerial journey.
There was, for instance, his unorthodox 1985 postgame routine and what it said about his indefatigable craving to be more prepared than any opponent. Within the Eighties, minor league managers, or major league ones, were way more prone to be present in a bar an hour after a game than studying videotape. The technology to achieve this was not even available.
But in 1985, after I met Showalter’s wife, Angela, she explained that the couple had recently emptied much of their savings account to purchase a comparatively latest, and expensive, invention: the VCR. It was needed because Buck desired to tape all the Yankees’ game broadcasts so he could study the tactics of the team’s legendary skipper, Billy Martin.
And that’s how I ended up sitting with Showalter within the semidarkness of his small apartment eating bologna sandwiches as that night’s Yankees replay flickered on a small television screen.
Buck dissected Martin’s strategies, jotted observations in a notebook and analyzed every facet of a dugout decision. He had also developed an inherent ability for stealing the signs of opposing managers and third-base coaches. He did so by watching their mannerisms early in a game when there was little pressure after which noticed differences in body language in tense, late-inning sequences. That was a tip-off that something unusual is likely to be afoot. It was one other furtive tool in the search to remain a step ahead of the competition.
Or, as Showalter quoted Martin, whom he later worked for as a coach, “Preparation at all times shows itself within the spontaneity of the moment.”
The Oneonta Yankees’ practices — the team played only 78 games but never took a time off — were often hours long and reflected the manager’s diligence.
In a single session, Showalter painstakingly instructed middle infielder Chris Lombardozzi the correct technique for making a tag on a stolen base attempt at second base. The tutelage on a sequence that may last lower than a second continued for 20 minutes. Afterward, I wondered what Lombardozzi, whose older brother, Steve, was a serious league second baseman, considered the lesson’s length.
“Actually, a few of that was latest to me,” Lombardozzi answered. “We respect that Buck puts in all this work for us. We’re on the identical page, and he’s not that far off in age from a few of us. We relate.”
Which isn’t to say that Showalter, the son of a highschool principal, didn’t dole out discipline. As mandated by the franchise, every player was drug-tested and had restrictions on hair length and facial hair — a decree that also extends to the massive league club.
Showalter also imposed a midnight curfew, but with a roster of 18- to 23-year-olds, he was realistic enough to know that it was not at all times strictly observed. He expected to offer his charges some leeway.
Then, an Oneonta saloon named the Library decided to offer Showalter’s players free draft beer for the remainder of the season within the hope that the one skilled athletes on the town would draw other people to the bar. The spacious Library was open until 4 a.m.
Cognizant that free beer is likely to be making prudent curfew decisions harder, Showalter took a visit to his players’ latest favorite hangout around 1 a.m. He walked in, and without making direct eye contact with anyone, slowly walked to the back of the bar. Then he pirouetted and wordlessly ambled back out the front door.
The following day, when the team’s locker room was full before a game, Showalter walked to the middle of the room and said: “OK, should you were a librarian after I was there last night, I would like to see you in my office.”
Showalter thought he had seen about six or seven players during his late-night tour. But then nearly 15 players tried to crowd into his tiny, windowless cubicle of an office. Showalter later told me he needed to turn away to stifle amusing.
There was punishment for breaking a rule, even though it was menial, like helping the stadium grounds crew with cleansing the restrooms and concessions for a few days. Showalter emphatically warned that a second violation could be treated with more umbrage.
What mattered, he said, is that the players were held accountable, albeit in an affordable way. And for the remainder of the season not much free beer was flowing from the Library taps well after midnight.
Across the a long time, as he became one in all the best-known managers in baseball, I’ve reminisced with Showalter about his time in Oneonta. He’s convinced it was a formative, pivotal period when he was allowed to develop his own managerial style.
“You’re in just a little town in upstate Latest York and also you’re really there all by yourself,” he said. “This was before the widespread use of video, so what you were doing was unseen by your bosses. They got reports, but because the manager, because the guy sitting within the front of the bus, you’re all by yourself.
“But I learned that it’s really about what you do when no person is looking that shapes you. You get a variety of opportunities to do the precise thing or the fallacious thing when no person’s looking. And the way you reply to that, it could possibly set the course for all the pieces to follow.”