He’s not flashy, he’s not loud, he’s not controversial, but Texas Rangers manager Buck Showalter does have one thing in common with his highly-respected peers: winning.
Much like his managing style, Showalter has built his winning reputation from the ground up. After almost 10 years in the Yankees minor league system, Showalter moved to the major league level and eventually took over as manager for New York in 1992. Despite the big city spotlight and success, Showalter has surprisingly been flying under the media radar. That’s, in part, due to timing and Showalter’s unwavering managerial philosophy. He does not compromise.
In his first year as a manager for the New York Yankees he was 76-86. Then, he followed with three straight winning seasons and a playoff appearance in 1995 and was promptly fired for refusing to fire his coaching staff. Showalter didn’t feel it was a fair decision to fire the coaches, so he took the axe from Steinbrenner. His actions speak volumes about his approach.
Showalter has a formula. It’s not a secret formula, there are no magic tricks, no Bill Jamesian sabermetrics logarithms playing a dominant role. Showalter simply identifies the strengths and weaknesses and begins auditioning talent to fill the holes.
Through his career – regardless of affiliation – Showalter has applied the same philosophy, a philosophy that once ruled baseball, then took a back seat to the emergence of free agency, and has been revived over the last two major league seasons. It’s a system that, in time, builds a winner through scouting, talent evaluation and player development.
It’s a system that requires talent – and patience, to which ownership and fans have none. Over time, baseball has lost revenue and fan support using the “win now” formula. Higher payrolls, aging talent, less excitement, higher ticket prices equaled lower attendance, more debt and no improvement.
There’s no better example than Showalter’s current project in Texas. Showalter took over a group of overpaid underachievers in 2003 and the transformation of building a winner is unfolding right now under the lights at The Ballpark in Arlington.
The process isn’t always smooth. This past winter’s unpopular decisions to move Alex Rodriguez and longtime fan-favorite Rafael Palmeiro left fans and critics confused. Showalter and Texas owner John Hicks shed payroll, abandoned the free agent game and started replacing aging veterans with younger, aggressive, hungry athletes.
The Rangers are coming of age as a result. The infusion of Hank Blalock (.337-4-18), Laynce Nix (.365-5-14), Michael Young (.368-3-14) and Mark Texeira, has sparked the Rangers offense. The team leads the majors in batting (.316), the only team hitting over .300 through April. Even more surprising, Showalter has the Texas pitching staff third in the American League in ERA (4.31), trailing pitching-heavy Boston (2.95) and Oakland (4.05).
The 2004 Rangers team have bought into the Showalter philosophy. Showalter told the team before the April 5 season opener in Oakland, “regardless of what happens this year, I want them to have fun,” said Showalter. “I want them to seize the moment. I want them to start making memories that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the climb can be just as exhilarating as being on top of the mountain.”
The climb has just begun in Texas – and it has been exhilarating. The Rangers finish the first month of the 2004 season in first place at 13-9, one-half game ahead of the favored Angels.
Showalter’s success in Texas is no surprise to insiders who know him but it sure has been a pleasant surprise to fans in Texas, who expected another pitching-poor team trying to rebuild. Instead, Showalter’s early success in 2004 has players and fans believing, sprouting an air of confidence over Texas.
Whether or not the Rangers can maintain this pace is still up in the air but that is not something that concerns Showalter, never has. “There are no shortcuts here”, Showalter told the media before the season opener. “You’ve got to stay the course. It wasn’t until ’94 that we got it going in New York. I didn’t know if I was going to able to ride that one out either, but I could see it coming.”
Showalter’s track record indicates a consistent, winning approach, whether it was in New York, Arizona or, now, in Texas. Showalter reflected on his approach in a recent interview with the Star-Telegram in Dallas.
“In Arizona, it wasn’t pretty in ’98, but we identified the keepers,” he said. “It’s like sifting for gold. You sit there with your pan, you scoop up a lot of worthless rocks.
“But here’s a nugget, here’s a nugget, here’s a nugget. You take them, sit them over here, dump the rest and do it all over again and sift for some more. When you get 25 of those, you get to go to the promised land in October. We think we’ve got some nuggets here.”
The 2004 Texas Rangers are eerily similar to the team Showalter managed in Arizona from 1998-2000. After suffering through his worst win-loss season of his career (65-97) in the Diamondbacks inaugural season in 1998, Showalter did not push any panic buttons and rebounded in 1999, winning 100 games, winning the NL West title before losing to the New York Mets in the playoffs.
If he called it quits today, Showalter would leave the game with Hall of Fame numbers. He posted a career minor league record of 360-207 with no team ever finishing under .500. He won six of seven postseason series in the minors.
His major league managerial career is just as impressive. As of May 1, 2004, Showalter has a career major league record of 647-604, including two playoff appearances, finishing over .500 in five of his seven years as a major league manager. Albeit, it’s not recorded anywhere, the venerable Showalter is, to a large degree, responsible for building the championship teams in New York in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 and the remarkable championship team fielded by Arizona in 2001 against the Yankees.
So what keeps Showalter from being mentioned in the same breath as Joe Torre, Bobby Cox or Tony LaRussa? Showalter has never won a championship of his own. It might be the only missing piece of the puzzle for critics but Showalter says he doesn’t feel as if something is missing.
“Do I need something to validate my career? No. But that doesn’t keep me from grinding toward it,” Showalter said in an early April interview. “Nobody grinds harder than I do, to a fault.
“I don’t want to leave any stone unturned because you have so many people depending on you, people who have shown a lot of faith in you, but it’s not to put a stamp on some personal verification. If that means I get it close enough and somebody else takes it to the next level … I’ve finished plenty of things in my life. I don’t need that.”
But the Rangers – and team owner John Hicks – need “that.” Meaning, a championship. Hicks’ decision to pass the torch to Showalter looks as if it could result in the ultimate payoff for ownership, management and fans.
Hicks understands and appreciates Showalter’s efforts and appears to be commited to patiently watch the progress from the box behind home plate. “Buck created the foundation for successful big-league clubs with the Yankees and Diamondbacks,” Hicks told the media. “He brings a winning attitude.”
In the meantime, win or lose in 2004, you can be sure of one thing: the Texas Rangers are exciting to watch. Then again, don’t be surprised if you’re hearing the names Blalock, Nix, Teixeira, Young and Soriano come October.