Buck's the System

Busk Showalter, the Diamondbacks' workaholic manager, proves that there is crying in baseball.

Ed Napoleon recalls his hustle, his willingness to run out every hopeless pop fly, his determination.

"If there was a runner on and two outs, he's the guy I wanted at the plate," Napoleon says. "He was going to get a hit."

His growing knowledge of the game did not go unnoticed. Butterfield recalls playing double-A ball with Showalter.

The game face is steely, the man is not.
Paolo Vescia
The game face is steely, the man is not.

"Our manager felt sick one day coming to the park. He looked like he was going to pass out," Butterfield says. "It was about 110 degrees in Columbus, Georgia. He went right to Buck and said, 'Buck, why don't you handle it today? I'm going to kind of curl up in the corner.'"

In the off-season, Showalter took temporary jobs, hanging beer signs, clearing fields with a bulldozer, even whitewashing the fence at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport.

He met his wife, Angela, while he was playing triple-A ball in Nashville. Her friend's father was a team owner and had given her a summer job selling programs. The friend's mother had picked Showalter out as her favorite and introduced them.

Angela was skeptical.

"These guys are here today and gone tomorrow," she recalls. "I had to eat my words."

They married in 1983.

"You never know what you'll find in the minors," she quips.

In the end, as much as he compensated with hustle and study, Showalter wasn't big enough or good enough to make it to the major leagues as a first baseman.

Napoleon concurs that Showalter was a step slow, with a below-average arm, his hitting consistent but lacking power.

"I never had a problem dealing with reality," Showalter says.

As the 1984 season opened, the Yankees gave him some options: He could play triple-A another year, become a free agent, or coach for the Yankees in the minor leagues. He was newly married, wondering about security, and he decided to coach. It went well enough that a year later, he was offered a three-year contract as a minor-league manager.

His first stop, Oneonta, New York, was a shot to the head -- literally.

The team had drafted a new pitcher, and Showalter wanted to see his stuff, close up, from the batter's box. He stood by the plate, without a batting helmet, and the first pitch struck him full in the side of the head.

"I never saw it," he says. "The next thing I know, I'm laying on my back, there's blood coming out of my ears, and [one of the coaches] is leaning over me and talking to me. I can see his lips moving, but I can't hear him."

The nearest hospital was in Cooperstown, New York, where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located.

"I remember riding over in the ambulance and thinking, "This is a hell of a way to get to Cooperstown,'" he says.

He was treated and released, and when he got back to the clubhouse, he found the pitcher in the locker room, pointed a wobbly finger at him and said, "I took your best shot, and I'm still standing."

Buck Showalter's managing skills had already been noticed by the New York press before he reached the majors. His 1989 team in Albany, New York, had finished first in its league.

Billy Martin, the Yankees manager, had noticed, too.

Martin would invite his minor league managers to spring training. Once during a game against the White Sox in Sarasota, Florida, Martin turned to the bench when a new pitcher came to the mound, and asked, "Does anybody know this guy?"

Showalter had managed him the year before in Albany, but he wasn't sure if he should speak up, because he didn't want to seem a showoff. At the same time, he didn't want Martin to find out later that he knew the player and hadn't said anything. So he piped up:

"Billy, I had him last year. He's got a mental block about throwing the ball to first base. He can't throw to first base on the pick-off."

There were two outs, and Martin started using maximum body English from the dugout, trying to get his runner on first to take a bigger lead.

Sure enough, the pitcher tried to pick him off, but threw the ball over the first baseman's head and into the dugout. The runner stole second and eventually scored.

After the game, Martin threw his car keys to Showalter and said, "You're coming with me tonight, kid."

"I was the chauffeur that night," he remembers. "It was a long night."

Sportswriters in New York referred to Showalter as Martin's bodyguard and keeper, the coach responsible for keeping Martin out of trouble when he went out on the town.

Showalter denies being anything more than a close friend to Martin, and a devout student, but he did move up to the Yankees' coaching staff before Martin's death in 1989. He was there until late 1991, when the Yankees' front office -- George Steinbrenner had been suspended -- tapped him as manager. He was 35 years old.

In a New Yorky show of little confidence, the Yankees offered him a one-year contract.

"I would have given me a one-year contract, too," he says now.

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