In the summer of 1985, Buck Showalter introduced himself to me as we stood on a dusty minor league infield. Within 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 at the front of a procession of vehicles?”
As a Yankees beat writer trying to understand everything about the franchise, I had just driven three hours into upstate New York to learn about the team that represented the lowest rung of the Yankees’ minor league system. That quest turned out to be irrelevant.
Instead, for the next three days, I received a memorable indoctrination into Showalter’s methods, work habits and team-building tactics. In retrospect, it was a snapshot that presaged everything 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 mix of recent high school graduates, college underclassmen and young castoffs from other organizations. A backup catcher on the team, Todd Ezold, believed he should also 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 in the left-handed batter’s box to get a better sense of how Ezold’s pitches looked to a hitter.
Although Showalter, then 29, did not wear a helmet, he was unworried. As a career .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 right ear.
Lying on the ground, Showalter heard his salty, 61-year-old pitching coach, Russ Meyer, who was known as the Mad Monk for his hot-tempered mound displays as a Brooklyn Dodger, say: “Don’t get up, Buck, there’s blood coming out of your ear. You’re pretty messed up.” An ambulance rushed Showalter to the nearest 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 when I arrived in Oneonta, he said, “They tell me that the ringing in my ear will go away eventually.”
As the Mets prepared for their 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 is worth noting that his ragtag team of misfits became the 1985 New York-Penn League champion. Ezold was even allowed to pitch three innings, without incident. The team won more 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 in the late 1980s or the three Manager of the Year Awards he won in the majors from 1994 to 2014. But as Showalter continues to shape his legacy at 66, I am drawn to my eyewitness recollections of the embryonic phase of his managerial journey.
There was, for example, his unorthodox 1985 postgame routine and what it said about his indefatigable yearning to be more prepared than any opponent. In the 1980s, minor league managers, or major league ones, were far more likely to be found in a bar an hour after a game than studying videotape. The technology to do so was not even readily available.
But in 1985, when I met Showalter’s wife, Angela, she explained that the couple had recently emptied much of their savings account to buy a relatively new, and expensive, invention: the VCR. It was needed because Buck wanted to tape all of 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 in 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 aptitude 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 and then noticed differences in body language in tense, late-inning sequences. That was a tip-off that something unusual might be afoot. It was another furtive tool in the quest to stay a step ahead of the competition.
Or, as Showalter quoted Martin, whom he later worked for as a coach, “Preparation always shows itself in the spontaneity of the moment.”
The Oneonta Yankees’ practices — the team played only 78 games but never took a day off — were often hours long and reflected the manager’s diligence.
In one session, Showalter painstakingly instructed middle infielder Chris Lombardozzi the proper technique for making a tag on a stolen base attempt at second base. The tutelage on a sequence that would last less than a second continued for 20 minutes. Afterward, I wondered what Lombardozzi, whose older brother, Steve, was a major league second baseman, thought of the lesson’s length.
“Actually, some of that was new to me,” Lombardozzi answered. “We respect that Buck puts in all this work for us. We’re on the same page, and he’s not that far off in age from some of us. We relate.”
Which is not to say that Showalter, the son of a high school principal, did not 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 still extends to the big 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 always strictly observed. He expected to give his charges some leeway.
Then, an Oneonta saloon named the Library decided to give Showalter’s players free draft beer for the rest of the season in the hope that the only professional athletes in town would draw other people to the bar. The spacious Library was open until 4 a.m.
Cognizant that free beer might be making prudent curfew decisions harder, Showalter took a visit to his players’ new 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 next day, when the team’s locker room was full before a game, Showalter walked to the center of the room and said: “OK, if you were a librarian when I was there last night, I want 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 had to turn away to stifle a laugh.
There was punishment for breaking a rule, although it was menial, like helping the stadium grounds crew with cleaning the restrooms and concessions for a couple of days. Showalter emphatically warned that a second violation would be treated with more umbrage.
What mattered, he said, is that the players were held accountable, albeit in a reasonable way. And for the rest of the season not much free beer was flowing from the Library taps well after midnight.
Across the decades, as he became one of the best-known managers in baseball, I’ve reminisced with Showalter about his time in Oneonta. He is convinced it was a formative, pivotal period when he was allowed to develop his own managerial style.
“You’re in a little town in upstate New York and 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 as the manager, as the guy sitting in the front of the bus, you’re all by yourself.
“But I learned that it’s really about what you do when nobody is looking that shapes you. You get a lot of opportunities to do the right thing or the wrong thing when nobody’s looking. And how you respond to that, it can set the course for everything to follow.”
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