Thursday, March 24, 2011

Showalter: Fool On Jeter, Wise on Epstein

My favorite Yankee Fan's blog (not counting my own, of course) is Subway Squawkers, which is actually a co-production by a Yankee Fan, Lisa Swan, and a Met fan, Jon Lewin.

Lisa and I have gone back and forth over the relative merits of certain Yankees, particularly Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and former manager Joe Torre, who ripped A-Rod (and suggested that several players did as well) in his book The Yankee Years.

Prior to Torre becoming manager, the Yankee manager was William Nathaniel Showalter III, better known as Buck.

I will praise Buck at the end of this blog. Please be patient. For now, though, I must take him out to the woodshed.

Buck guided the Yankees through a difficult rebuilding season in 1992, and then in '93 guided them to first place in the American League Eastern Division in September, before falling off and seeing the Toronto Blue Jays go all the way. In '94, he had the Yankees sitting on top, 6 1/2 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles and with the best record in the AL, when the Strike hit. In '95, despite all kinds of difficulties, he got them to the AL's Wild Card, before losing a thrilling, but ultimately gut-wrenching, Division Series to the Seattle Mariners.

That was the last turning point: George Steinbrenner, as he so often did, decided to pressure his manager by telling him to fire a coach or two. Showalter refused. George said either they go with you, or they go without you. Buck quit, and was hired as the all-purpose guy (field manager, general manger, director of scouting, you name it) for the startup Arizona Diamondbacks.

George hired Joe Torre, moved Gene Michael up, made Bob Watson the new GM. They made the trade that brought in Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson from the Mariners. They made Jeter the starting shortstop. They made Mariano Rivera, whom Showalter did not trust in the Playoffs with disastrous consequences, the definitive setup man for closer John Wetteland (and, a year later, they let Wetteland walk and made Rivera the closer). They traded failed slugger Ruben Sierra for slugger Cecil Fielder. They let catcher Mike Stanley walk, a move that proved very unpopular, but that faded as soon as fans realized that new acquisition (now manager) Joe Girardi was a good catcher. And, of course, they let the beloved Don Mattingly walk, in favor of Tino. Result: The Yankees won the 1996 World Series, and, with a little more tweaking by George, Stick and new GM Brian Cashman, built the dynasty that won the 1998, 1999 and 2000 World Series.

Buck went to Phoenix and built the D-backs from the ground up. Result: They won the NL West in only their 2nd season, 1999. An amazing achievement -- and still the only 1st-place finish Buck has ever had, unless you count the '94 Yanks (whose season, however awkwardly, did come to a conclusion with them in 1st at the finish). But the Snakes got embarrassed in the NLDS by the Mets, and missed the Playoffs completely in 2000. Buck was fired. Bob Brenly, one of the many good-field-no-hit catchers who rode his brain into the broadcast booth, was hired as the new manager. Result: The Diamondbacks -- with a little pharmaceutical help from Matt Williams (proven), Luis Gonzalez (almost certain but as yet unproven) and Curt Schilling (so far, only suspected), beat the Yankees in an epic World Series in 2001.

Buck moved on to the Texas Rangers, where he won nothing. He went into the ESPN studio, and then, last season, was hired to manage the Orioles. The O's had the worst record in baseball at the time, 32-73. That's a 113-loss pace. Buck turned them around: They went 34-23 the rest of the way, a 97-win pace.

Does Buck know baseball? Well... This is his 4th team. He made the first 2 winners, but not champions.

We'll never know if Buck could have made the Yankees champions again if he and George could have swallowed their differences and held out for 1 more year. I'm guessing no, because he and his pitching coach, Mark Connor (one of the guys George wanted to dump), didn't see what Torre and his pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre saw in Mariano. I'm also not sure if he would have liked dropping Mattingly, his former minor-league teammate, for Tino. I doubt he would have liked the trade of Sierra for Fielder.

And would he have agreed, once Tony Fernandez got hurt in spring training, to make Derek Jeter the starting shortstop? Maybe... but maybe not.

Now, we have a story about Buck criticizing Jeter, who has won 7 Pennants and 5 World Series, is the only man to win the Most Valuable Player of both the All-Star Game and the World Series in the same season, has been cheated out of at least 2 regular-season AL MVPs (1999 and 2009), has a .314 lifetime batting average, has 5 Gold Gloves, has made the All-Star Game 11 times, and, barring injury, will, this season, reach 3,000 hits and become the Yankees' all-time leader in games played, surpassing Mickey Mantle's record of 2,401.

Now, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives us freedom of speech. We can say whatever we want about whoever and whatever we want -- although that's not absolute. You can't shout "Fire!" in a crowded place unless there actually is a fire, things like that. And you can't lie about someone with the purpose of damaging their reputation -- when spoken, that's slander; when printed, that's libel.

And, as a good baseball fan (the Minnesota Twins) who should have been President of the United States, Hubert Humphrey, liked to say, "The right to be heard does not include the right to be taken seriously."

I know, I know, a fine line to quote in a blog. Go ahead, roll your eyes.

Here is what Buck Showalter said about Derek Jeter, as quoted in the April issue of Men's Journal and in today's New York Daily News (link: http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/2011/03/24/2011-03-24_buck_takes_dig_at_derek.html#community):

<< "The first time we went to Yankee Stadium, I screamed at Derek Jeter from the dugout," the former Yankee manager told the magazine, according to The St. Petersburg Times.

"Our guys are thinking, 'Wow, he's screaming at Derek Jeter.' Well, he's always jumping back from balls just off the plate. I know how many calls that team gets - and yes, he (ticks) me off." >>

Really.

Since when is jumping back from a ball just off the plate against the rules?

Buck is a former Yankee manager. He should know full well the Yankees do NOT get very many calls.

Or did I miss all those warnings that Red Sox (and other) pitchers get for plunking Yankee batters, the same warning that Yankee pitchers get all the time?

Close calls at first base? "Tie goes to the runner"... unless the runner is a Yankee.

Home plate is 17 inches wide? More like 24 if you're a Yankee.

Well, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm getting carried away. After all, this is Buck Showalter we're talking about. He's a smart baseball man. After all, look at everything he's won, especially compared to Jeter:

Playoff Berths: Jeter 15, Showalter 2 -- 3 if you count the one the '94 Yanks would have gotten.

Division Titles: Jeter 11, Showalter 1 -- 2 if you count the '94 Yanks.

Pennants: Jeter 7, Showalter 0.

World Championships: Jeter 5, Showalter 0.

And let's not forget 3 major league teams have willingly gotten rid of Showalter as manager. None has gotten rid of Jeter as anything.

Showalter has the right to criticize Jeter. And we have the right to tell him he's a fool for criticizing him for doing something totally legal.

I realize that he's managing the Baltimore Orioles, the team once managed by Earl Weaver. A name that was also used for the team that made John McGraw, a great third baseman in his playing days who then became the greatest manager of baseball's next era. Both the Earl and the Little Napoleon searched for any edge they could get, and this is what Buck is doing now.

But isn't that also what he's accusing Jeter of doing?

I could say, "Hey, Buck, win something, then you can criticize Jeter without looking like a fool."

Instead, I'll say, "Hey, Buck, wait for Jeter to do something illegal, then you can criticize him without looking like a fool."

*

So IS Buck a fool? As his fellow Floridian, and his former fellow ESPN man, Lee Corso, would say, "Not so fast, my friend!"

Buck also had this to say, about the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Theo Epstein:

"I'd like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay Rays' payroll. You got Carl Crawford 'cause you paid more than anyone else, and that's what makes you smarter? That's why I like whipping their butt."

Looks like Buck may still have some Yankee in him, sticking it to The Scum.

Let me be honest: Baltimore, for all its difficulties, is a great sports town. It's a very good baseball town. The Orioles, in spite of being mostly dreadful since Monica Lewinsky dominated headlines and not having won a Pennant since Ronald Reagan was considered a poor bet for a 2nd term, have one of the better histories in Major League Baseball.

For an entire generation, from 1960 to 1984, they were very solid; from 1964 to 1983, they were in the Pennant race nearly every season. They've won 6 Pennants since 1966, and the only other teams that can say that (or more) are the Yankees (11), the St. Louis Cardinals (7), the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers (6 each). The Atlanta Braves' "dynasty"? Cincinnati's Big Red Machine? Over that same stretch, each has won 5.

For much of my youth, from 1977 to 1984, that fluky but amazing run in 1989, and again from 1994 to 1997, the O's were a winning team, always ready to mix it up with the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Detroit Tigers and (from the late '70s through the '80s, they were in the AL and good) the Milwaukee Brewers. I'm used to seeing the Orioles threatening for the AL East title. Don't forget, in 1996, the Yankees had to beat the O's for it, and then beat them again in the ALCS; in 1997, the O's beat the Yanks out for it -- and haven't appeared in the Playoffs since.

It remains to be seen if Buck Showalter can do in the 2010s what GMs Paul Richards and Frank Cashen (the future Met GM), and managers Hank Bauer (the ex-Yankee right fielder) and Earl Weaver, did in the 1960s; and what Larry Lucchino (now the Red Sox president) and manager Davey Johnson (the former Met manager) did in the 1990s -- build a Playoff team that just might (did the 1st time around, didn't quite the 2nd) win Pennants.

But Buck does know the game. Just not as well as he thinks he does.

After all, he has won one fewer Pennant than Alex Rodriguez. (Lisa will like that.)

(No, Lisa and I are NOT an item.)

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