A series by Joel Sherman chronicles how the Yankees’ fiasco of 1990 laid the groundwork for a dynasty.
Buck Showalter gave a slight nod of his head to conspiratorially signal a reporter to follow him out of the press box. There was a game about to begin at the old Comiskey Park, Yankees at White Sox. Late May 1990.
Showalter had never made it to the majors as a player. A terrific hitter at Mississippi State then in the Yankees minor leagues, Showalter had been blocked at first base, first by Steve Balboni, then by Don Mattingly, who lived downstairs from Showalter while they were at Double-A Nashville in 1981.
Showalter hit .294 in seven minor league seasons after being drafted in the fifth round in 1977, topping out with 32 games at Triple-A. But he did not have the power to justify a corner spot, and playing with teammates such as Willie McGee and Otis Nixon would reveal he did not have the speed to make less power more palatable.
“He was always running into the monsters [Balboni and Mattingly],” recalled Bill Livesey, who ran the Yankees’ minor league system in the 1980s and early 1990s. “But he had leadership and competitiveness, the whole works. His knowledge of the game was obvious. And he didn’t stop competing for a second physically or mentally. You knew there was something special there. We tried not to let those kinds of guys get away.”
So when Showalter’s playing career ended, Livesey said it was a “no-brainer” to make him a minor league manager, even at 28. Showalter managed five years, finished first four times and won three titles, culminating with a 92-48 Double-A club that featured Jim Leyritz, Deion Sanders and Bernie Williams.
In spring training 1990, the no-nonsense former Yankees third baseman and then minor league coach Clete Boyer compared Showalter to a cross between Tony La Russa and Billy Martin. So he was overqualified to have finally reached the big leagues as the eye in the sky.
That was a job George Steinbrenner had invented in 1979. A football coach at heart, The Boss did not understand why baseball teams did not have a coach in the press box who could better see the field and offer advice on items such as positioning.
Future Rangers and Brewers GM Doug Melvin was the first with the title. Seated at Yankee Stadium between public address announcer Bob Sheppard and official scorer Red Foley, he had a walkie-talkie down to coach Yogi Berra. In the 1981 World Series, the Dodgers were so paranoid about sign stealing that they had a scout sit next to Melvin, who jokes these days, “I was not banging a trash can.”
Now it was Showalter in the press box. His competitiveness and curiosity and a nice dose of paranoia had him grab a reporter for a hunt. There had been rumors for years that the White Sox were sending signals to hitters from the center-field scoreboard. With some time before a game, Showalter deputized a reporter who figured that would be quite a scoop if they ever found anything and took off opening doors where neither belonged, weaving through narrow crawl spaces. There was a lot of dust, but no got-ya blinking light or unexplained employee.
So it was back to the press box for William Nathaniel Showalter III. He still hadn’t made it to a major league dugout.
In many ways, the Yankees’ 1990 season began on Christmas Day 1989. Late that afternoon, Billy Martin died drunk in an automobile accident. Earlier that month, at the winter meetings, he had been telling folks to keep it quiet, but the plan was for Bucky Dent to begin the year as manager, but that Billy VI was coming. Those around Steinbrenner would later corroborate that was the Boss’ thinking — a sixth Yankees managerial spin for Martin.
Dent had not been Steinbrenner’s first choice when Dallas Green was fired in August 1989. He wanted Lou Piniella III, but Piniella did not want it and, after that season, Piniella left the MSG Yankees broadcast team to be the Reds’ manager.
So in January — not long after the debut of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” — Steinbrenner held a press gathering at one of his favorite haunts, the 21 Club. Flanked by GM Pete Peterson and Dent, The Boss pledged, “If they get off to a bad start or a great start, then Bucky is my manager [for all of 1990]. I’m saying it, and that’s all I can do is say it. … There were no demands with Bucky. He just said he wanted to manage the team. There were no agents or three-year contracts. He said, ‘Just give me a chance.’ Loyalty certainly ran from him to me. Now we’ll see if it runs from me to him.”
It didn’t. No surprise. Steinbrenner had made such promises previously, most famously to Berra and most recently to Green. That Berra was still boycotting Yankee Stadium in protest in 1990 and Dent was the manager amplified how much those Steinbrenner votes of confidence meant.
And Dent managed with a sense of a day-to-day contract all year. Steinbrenner had insisted throughout the spring that the Yanks would be substantially better than they were 1989. But it was clear quickly they were worse.
The players did not particularly like three of Dent’s coaches — Champ Summers, Joe Sparks and Gary Tuck. Dent was pleasant, but often seemed without answers and without sophistication. In tense postgame moments, he would offer, “Jeez, oh Pete” as a way to express everything from disappointment to frustration to befuddlement.
Still, the one place you could have expected Dent’s job to be safe was Boston. He had, after all, hit the key three-run homer at Fenway Park in a one-game playoff to decide the AL East in 1978 that turned him into Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in New England. But two losses to open a four- game series in Boston in early June made it nine defeats in 10 games and dropped the Yanks to an MLB-worst 18-31. So, the next morning, after 89 games over two partial seasons, Dent’s managerial career was over.
“The juxtaposition of firing Bucky in Boston was not lost on me,” recalls Jeff Idelson, then the Yankees’ media relations director. “I grew up in Boston as a Red Sox fan. So I obviously knew the connection. So changing managers in Boston and having it be Bucky is a higher level of callousness and intrigue.”
It was Steinbrenner’s 18th managerial change in 18 seasons and came eight days after the Mets axed Davey Johnson in favor of Bud Harrelson. The expectation was that to one-up the Mets, Steinbrenner might hire Johnson. But it was not a strong consideration. However, he now did not have Martin or Piniella available. So Stump Merrill became the manager in the way so many did in that time — it just felt like his turn. He had been in the Yankees organization for 14 years as a scout, coach and often minor league manager, and he was at Triple-A Columbus when summoned.
He did not look the part of Yankees manager. Merrill was just 46 but could have passed for much older. His nickname was fitting. He was perhaps 5-foot-8, jowly, rotund. What little hair he had was prematurely gray. There was New England in his accent and old-school in his approach, but he had difficulty commanding respect.
“Stump was a lifer, a minor league guy,” recalls Steve Sax, the Yankees’ second baseman in 1990. “I just felt he was a little out of his element to manage a team where the prospects to win weren’t good. It’s not like he could take us to the promised land. We just weren’t good.”
On the morning Dent was fired, Showalter returned to the team hotel after a few hours out with his wife and daughter to see scrambling about. He asked a reporter what was going on and was informed Dent had been fired. But no one immediately told Showalter if his job — which also included working pregame with the team, especially the outfielders — also was terminated.
So he went to Fenway Park at 11 a.m. for that night’s game, sat at his locker and waited. And waited. At 4 p.m., Yankees vice president George Bradley took him into the shower area in the visiting clubhouse for privacy and told Showalter he was being made the third base coach, and because the hitting coach, Summers — plus Sparks and Tuck — had also been fired, Showalter had to do the hitting job too until Darrell Evans arrived in two days. Oh yeah, he was getting a bump from $50,000 to $100,000.
To replace Showalter as eye in the sky, Steinbrenner installed Gene Michael — a month later the American League abolished the position, concerned that the walkie-talkie to the dugout provided too tempting an avenue to cheating.
In his first two games as a third base coach, Showalter got to wave home one runner. In his only two games as the hitting coach, the Yankees managed two hits, then one versus the Red Sox. Yep, the 1990 Yankees were dreadful.
But for Buck Showalter, he was finally in a major league dugout.
It was obvious. Showalter’s energy and baseball intellect were not hidden. He made sure to learn about every player — it felt like he actually had memorized the team’s media guide — as a way to find connection. It was not a touchy-feely time. Merrill, for example, would follow old ways of not informing players when they had been benched — they just wouldn’t see their names in the lineup. But in the pregame Showalter would walk around, mingle with players. He was in the constant information-gathering business.
As Dave LaPoint recalls, “He had a roundabout way to get to a point. He would be walking among the players and tell you a joke, and suddenly you were talking and telling him what you thought of guys in the clubhouse. He wanted to understand the locker room.”
Bob Geren remembers a team bus ride in which Showalter got him to explain why a catcher being able to throw well was so important, which Geren was happy to do since it was one of his assets. Then Showalter explained that a good manager could do a lot to stop the running game by ordering throw-overs or pitcher step-offs or pitchouts. Showalter felt the ability to steal borderline strikes for your pitcher was a far more vital skill, a concept that would be greatly championed about a quarter of a century later.
“I was a catcher, I was offended,” Geren says now. “But then I became a manager and a coach and looking back, he was right back then. He was entering the new school. You could tell he was ahead of the curve.”
As Sax says now, “Everyone knew Buck was going to be a big-league manager.”
Still, at the end of the season, Showalter’s job was not assured. He had played for Merrill at multiple levels in the minors. But the two were not bonded, and Merrill could see him as a threat. Michael, who became the GM in late August, had no history yet with Showalter.
In October 1990, with a rising fear of a tuberculosis contagion in New York City spread through sneezes and coughs, the Yanks fired pitching coach Billy Connors. Showalter was spared, as much because the Yanks feared he would be in such demand in the marketplace, his reputation growing.
He would serve as the third base coach in 1991, after which Merrill would be fired. Michael leaned toward an experienced replacement with whom he had history, such as Hal Lanier or Doug Rader. But by then, he had gotten to know and appreciate Showalter, to whom he eventually turned.
“I just feel like Buck and Stick did so much to make it better [with the Yankees],” Mattingly says now. “They changed the tone of bringing the right kind of player in. They got us going in the right direction with the right people.”
In the 28 years since Michael hired Showalter to replace Merrill, the team that once changed managers more than any team ever has had four — Showalter, Joe Torre, Joe Girardi and Aaron Boone. Only the Braves have had fewer.
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