The Big Showalter

After a sudden end to the Yankees' season, George Steinbrenner is not the type to act rationally when a situation calls for panic.

Published October 10, 2002 12:02AM (EDT)

On Nov. 2, 1995, owner George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees locked the door behind William Nathaniel "Buck" Showalter III.

His recalcitrant manager, a lifetime employee who had rocketed from backup outfielder for the Yankees farm team in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the skipper at Yankee Stadium in just under 15 years, had fenced with The Boss once too often. After weeks of traded barbs worthy of the schoolyard -- "I'm not coming back"; "I didn't say you could come back" -- Steinbrenner had settled it: He'd hired Showalter's replacement, Joe Torre.

And New York howled with laughter.

Revisionist history has Steinbrenner making the most adept move of his extraordinarily varied three decades as Yankees owner, welcoming back into the city's bosom the Brooklyn boy who had gone off to star in Milwaukee and St. Louis, and who had earned respect if not championships as the manager of the Mets and Cardinals. In fact, Torre's hiring was greeted with the kind of disbelief and contempt last seen when the Yankees had selected as manager one of the game's greatest clowns, Casey Stengel, in 1949. The idea that Torre The Failed could succeed Buck, the man who had brought the Yankees back to the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons, seemed to confirm Steinbrenner's return to lunacy.

The reaction so unnerved Steinbrenner that within a week he had swallowed his pride and arranged a secret meeting with Showalter. At it, sources then and now insist, Steinbrenner offered Showalter his old job back -- even though he'd given Torre a multiyear contract to fill that job. He reassured Showalter that wouldn't be a problem; Torre could go into the front office, or become a scout, or, hell, George would just pay both of them.

Showalter, who has since honed his reputation for control freakiness to Hall of Fame proportions, knew enough to recognize an involuntary "manage à trois" when he saw one. Instead of taking George up on this most bizarre of offers, he went on to build the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks in his own image, choosing everything from the team colors to much of the roster to the exact way players should wear their ties while deplaning after a road trip.

This is all mentioned because a month ago, long before the Yankees' stunningly rapid descent from modern dynasty to instant also-rans, things were already pretty tense in the Bronx. Privately -- and sometimes not privately at all -- various Yankees executives moaned about the rise in the Steinbrenner Tension Index. The old warning signals were all there: Steinbrenner was incensed when he learned some employees were not at their desks at 9 the morning after a long night game. He yelled at midlevel managers for the insufficiency of their shaves. He responded to baseball's new luxury tax system, which will cost him Money in increments of a million dollars, by threatening to eliminate the team's alumni newsletter, which is produced as a labor of love by various departments, and costs perhaps $5,000 a year to maintain -- including stamps.

And then the Yankees lost the American League Division Series in four games.

Since the team's elimination in Anaheim on Sunday, forests have been harvested just to print the words about how Steinbrenner, Torre and general manager Brian Cashman will rebuild the Yankees for 2003. Nowhere in any analysis has the assumption been challenged: Who says Torre and Cashman will be back next year?

The attempted Showalter Redux notwithstanding, Steinbrenner has been pretty stable since he was reinstated in 1992 from what was to be a lifetime banishment from baseball. It can be argued, however, that he maintained a low profile the first two years out of fear of going back on the enemies' list. In 1994, the Yankees had the best record in the American League before a player strike truncated the season; in 1995 they reached the playoffs -- not too much for George to get angry about there. Then came 1996's renaissance, the world championship under the unlikely genius of Torre, and its prophylactic qualities for the failure to repeat in 1997. This was followed by three World Series victories, the first two by sweep, and last year's epic seven-game loss to the Diamondbacks to which Steinbrenner could respond by reloading with the likes of Jason Giambi and David Wells.

In short, for the last decade, George hasn't had very much to complain about. But this is different. These are the Yankees' first back-to-back postseason failures since the 1980 team was swept by Kansas City in the American League Championship Series, and the 1981 edition won the first two World Series games against Los Angeles only to lose in six. Steinbrenner didn't take it too well -- and what he did then could be very instructive about what he may yet do now.

Think "French Revolution."

In the fall of 1980, despite a 103-victory rookie season, manager Dick Howser was demoted to scouting duties. General manager Gene Michael was demoted to succeed Howser. Steinbrenner immediately dropped six members of his 25-man playoff roster, and by mid-season of 1981, seven more veterans had been lopped off. Three of the six starting pitchers -- including veterans Gaylord Perry and Luis Tiant -- were gone by May 20, 1981.

After the debacle against the Dodgers, George really got mad. Five more players, including Reggie Jackson, were immediately cut adrift. Seven more -- Bucky Dent, Tommy John and Bob Watson among them -- were offed during the '82 campaign. Though Steinbrenner spent the winter of '81-82 making overtures towards ex-ex-manager Billy Martin, manager Bob Lemon survived, only to be fired on April 25, 1982, and replaced by Gene Michael, who had been fired the previous September. Then Michael was fired again on Aug. 4, 1982.

For a time in '81 Michael was listed as both manager and G.M., but the Yankees stopped mentioning the second position at all in the middle of that season. Steinbrenner had in reality become his own de facto general manager, and begun his reign of personnel terror. He would trade obscure minor leaguers like Willie McGee (2,254 career hits -- 0 for the Yankees) and Fred McGriff (478 career homers -- 0 for the Yankees) for pitchers named Bob Sykes and Dale Murray. He would sign a speedy free agent outfielder named Dave Collins and then tell him he was becoming a first baseman. And he would eventually rehire Billy Martin in time to start the 1983 season.

In short, of all of the Yankee stars of 1980, only two -- Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph -- would last longer than three more years with the team. Of all of the changes in 1981, only two of that year's additions, Dave Righetti and Dave Winfield, would last beyond 1983. It was chaos, and it sentenced the Yankees to a dark age that lasted until Don Mattingly's final season as a player in 1995.

Baseball's history is riddled with owner petulance that has ranged from throwing the baby out with the bath water, to Steinbrennerian self-destructions. The mild-mannered Connie Mack was so unhinged by the World Series sweep against his fabled 1914 Philadelphia A's, and so threatened by rising salaries, that he sold or traded off five future Hall of Famers. The A's went from first place in an eight-team league in 1914, to 58-1/2 games out in 1915, to 40 games out of next-to-last in 1916. Their next pennant came in 1929.

Even today, the San Francisco Giants, despite their victory over Atlanta in the opening round of the playoffs, could open next season with a new manager and a new general manager because of the whims of owner Peter Magowan, who has just enough Steinbrenner in him to make you want to avoid him during full moons.

Back in the Bronx, an on-field purge is inevitable. Roger Clemens, Mike Stanton, Orlando Hernandez, Robin Ventura, and Ramiro Mendoza are all free agents. The club has an option on Andy Pettitte. Raul Mondesi was a washout, Nick Johnson a promising disappointment, Rondell White a cipher, Shane Spencer a corrosive. Some will return; others will not. If the Yankees can trade White and Mondesi -- even if it means paying parts of their 2003 salaries -- they will, and will spend the remainder on our friend Godzilla, the Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui. The defection of another Cuban would-be émigré, pitcher José Contreras, is of great interest in the Bronx.

But who'll do all the paperwork? Within management, the easiest target would be Cashman, the general manager. Steinbrenner grows ever older; Cashman is 35 and still looks 24. Steinbrenner had to buy his way into New York's respect; Cashman sprang fully grown from the ground as an intern in the Yankees' minor league department 16 years ago; Steinbrenner signed David Wells over the protestations of his "baseball people" (read: Cashman); Cashman traded for Jeff Weaver, whose first inning as a Yankee was so horrific that Steinbrenner shouted, in my presence, "Jesus Christ Almighty!" Since the loss to Anaheim, Steinbrenner has repeatedly referred to Cashman's "promise" that this Yankees' team would win the World Series.

It seems improbable that Cashman would be fired outright; he has two years to go on his contract and would instantly be knee-high in offers from other clubs. But the Steinbrenner history books show entry after entry for vice presidents who suddenly discovered they were working for new executive vice presidents. Somebody could be brought in as Cashman's boss, or built-in nemesis.

Simply firing Torre, this season, would probably be too much of a public relations disaster even for George, at his angriest, to be unable to anticipate it. Then again, that didn't stop the Showalter exodus at the height of his success and popularity. Steinbrenner twice fired the similarly popular and avuncular Bob Lemon. In the 1974-1988 epoch, he didn't seem to worry that he had divided time into two parts and two parts only: those days when Billy Martin was about to be fired as manager of the Yankees, and those days when Billy Martin was about to be hired as manager of the Yankees.

Still, the likeliest threat to Torre is a slow on-field start in 2003 (Steinbrenner used that excuse on Lemon in 1982, then promised never to do it again, then did it again to Yogi Berra in 1985), or the hypothetical sudden interest in the job by yet another ex-Yankee skipper like Lou Piniella, or a Bronx folk hero like Mattingly or better still Paul O'Neill. However, were Cashman to be fired or superseded by an extremely dominant baseball figure who were to have Steinbrenner's ear, he could make things intolerable for not just Cashman but also Torre.

And that takes us back to the mid-winter meeting in 1995-96 when Steinbrenner offered Buck Showalter his old job back, even though Torre had already been signed to take it. Showalter, now two years removed from the palace coup that toppled him in Arizona, is once again one of the hottest managerial candidates as a remarkably fluid off-season begins. Six jobs are already open and as many as 10 more could become so, and Showalter's already been mentioned in Boston, Milwaukee, Tampa Bay and Texas, for the Cubs' job in Chicago, and, most ominously for Torre and Cashman -- he was interviewed Tuesday for the manager's job with the Mets.

Serious interest in Showalter from his hated cross-town rivals could be the nudge that pushes George to revisit his Robespierre days. Imagine your sexy ex suddenly dating your lifelong rival, or worse, your nerdy cousin. Whether it would be logical or suicidal, serious or fleeting, you might think of upping the ante and immediately proposing marriage. Remember, at all times, that George Steinbrenner is not the kind of man to sit around and act rationally when a situation calls for panic. He's the one in a million of us who wouldn't just think it; he'd pick up the phone and book the cathedral.

How does William Nathaniel "Buck" Showalter III -- executive vice president and/or field manager of the 2003 New York Yankees -- sound to you?

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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