Buck's the System

Buck Showalter sat alone on the dugout bench at the Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, legs crossed, one palm atop a baseball bat he leaned on as if it were a cane.

He watched the Texas Rangers take batting practice and thought "how lonely this job is sometimes," or so he said. And whether he was being facetious is hard to say, because Buck is a hard read.

There are times in the long baseball season when a manager gets reflective, and this was one of them. The Diamondbacks were in first place earlier this week; in Texas, they were two and a half games out of first place. Not too shabby for an expansion team in its second season, but still not good enough for the coaches or players, who by definition want to win it all. And certainly not good enough for the fans.

The game the night before had been another of those late-inning losses, a big lead blown by a relief pitcher, a scenario that has become a recurring curse. At 2:30 in the morning, an after-the-fact baseball expert had somehow gotten Showalter's cell-phone number and left a message so venomous that Showalter wouldn't repeat it. He denied it bothered him, but it was clearly on his mind.

The fans only see Showalter's game face, tightlipped and serious; his jacket is always buttoned to the top, even on the hottest days, and they assume that he, too, is buttoned-up and humorless.

In fact, Showalter is immensely likable, with a quick, dry wit, and a straight-faced delivery. He's a Southern gentleman, discreet and polite, but full of stories and fond of philosophical discussion. He chokes up regularly. He's more thin-skinned than he lets on. He reads what the newspapers write about him.

The deadpan is a deliberate attempt not to get caught up in the emotion of any particular moment, high or low, because there's usually another game tomorrow that he's got to prepare for. And even if the day-after-day wears him down as the season drags on, he thinks that a football-like schedule would drive him crazy, because he wouldn't want to have to wait a whole week to redeem himself after a loss, or prove a win was no fluke.

Showalter, 43, is a player's manager. He's protective of his team, trying to clear all obstacles for them. As he says, "The only thing that is going to challenge them is, 'Am I as good as the guys on the other team?'"

Showalter's workaholic schedule is legendary. He gets to the ballpark every morning by 10 and leaves after midnight.

"He's here when I get here and he's still here after I leave," says utility infielder Andy Fox.

He's got a Murphy bed in his office just off the clubhouse in Bank One Ballpark, and he sleeps there after a late night leading into a day game.

He makes sure that all his mail is answered. He feels guilty on road-trip flights because he's not working. He can't stay on the treadmill to exercise because he remembers things he hasn't finished yet. When he opens his eyes in the morning, he can't roll over and go back to sleep, because he immediately starts thinking of game match-ups and what needs to be done next.

Even while sitting and talking in the Texas dugout, he had one eye on the Rangers players, figuring out how he'd play against them.

"He swings better right," he says of one switch hitter, almost talking to himself. "Ahhh, they'll only use him in a pinch."

Then he points to a spry older man out on the field in a Rangers uniform.

"See that guy over there?" he says. "He was my first manager. He's the guy who gave me my nickname."

"I guess I did," says Ed Napoleon, now first-base coach for the Rangers.

Showalter came into the world as William Nathaniel Showalter III, Nat to his family. But according to baseball lore, Napoleon saw Showalter sitting in the locker room late after a game with just a towel around him and said, "Hey, don't you have any street clothes? Every time I see you you're either in uniform or buck naked."

Showalter's teammates overheard the remark and started calling him Buck.

"He said, 'You look more like a Buck than a Nathaniel,'" Showalter insists, and Buck didn't fight the nickname because "he was my manager."

Napoleon doesn't really remember the exchange.

But more than 20 years later, Buck Showalter still seems to exist only in a baseball park. He does have street clothes, for sure, but they really don't look right on him.

A reporter trying to get a handle on Buck Showalter might as well be a wildlife biologist studying some elusive creature in its natural habitat. Each sighting is just another snapshot of the creature's life as it comes to the watering hole, with little chance of figuring out what makes the animal do the things it does.

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