Orioles manager Buck Showalter is a storyteller, and if you listen to him long enough, the tales will eventually lead to the lessons he learned from former Yankees executive Gene Michael in surviving the spotlight of his first big leaguer managerial job with baseball’s most recognizable franchise.
He told some of those stories on Thursday morning, hours after he learned of Michael’s death at the age of 79 of a heart attack in Florida, but the words didn’t come out as easy, his voice breaking several times talking about one of his biggest mentors.
Showalter, whose Orioles team ends a three-game series with a makeup game against the Yankees on Thursday afternoon, was informed of the passing of Michael – the player, coach, manager, general manager, scout and special advisor with the Yankees who was often simply referred to by his nickname, “Stick”– while driving to Camden Yards on Thursday.
“Tough, tough day,” Showalter said. “It’s really hard to talk about it. My wife called me on the way in today right after I left the house. … I’ve cried enough today. You hear things that make you pull off the road, that’s one of them. … It’s a loss for everybody. … He had done it all. He was trying to keep you from stepping on your tail like he did, as he put it.”
Showalter and Michael remained close, and Michael — who lived in the Tampa area — would often visit Showalter when the Orioles came to Yankee Stadium, most recently on the team’s last trip there in June.
“He’s the one who [said] the first time I heard, ‘Friends are people who know all about you and still like you,’ Showalter said. “Last time we were in New York he told me, ‘Hey I know you. You ain’t gonna fool me.’”
The Orioles have returned to prominence under Showalter’s on-field leadership, but he cut his teeth with the Yankees and was given his first big league managerial job by Michael.
Showalter attention to detail, his mind for talking all aspects of scouting into his in-game decisions, and his knack for knowing his players are all aspects that he’s said over the years that he’s learned under Michael’s wing.
On Thursday, Showalter lauded Michael’s eye for player development, but also was benefitted from Michael shielding him from demanding Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
“Some of the stuff he screened me from, some of it he couldn’t, he’d tell you the stuff he couldn’t,” Showalter said. “He’d say, ‘Hey you need to come up after the game.’ The call I’d get from him after every loss, [even if it was] 13-1, ‘Hey boy, how you doing? Hang in there. See you tomorrow. Everything’s fine.’ He’d come in with a great idea and ask me, ‘Do you think you could make this work?’”
“… You know, New York thinks it has a corner on pressure,” he added. “… [But] it’s true everywhere, the big leagues in general. But he also knew the little challenges that people faced in the big leagues and in a big city like New York that might affect him. … Jeter had made 40-some errors and he tell this guy’s going to be an all-star shortstop. Really?… How do you project those things and then stand buy them?”
Neither Showalter, who managed the Yankees from 1992 to ’95, nor Michael saw the fruits of their labor but both have been credited with building the foundation of the Yankees teams that would go on to win four World Series in five years from 1996 to 2000.
On Wednesday, Showalter remembered getting a call from Michael before the 1992 season – Showalter was on the Yankees major league staff at the time — telling him that the team planned on hiring a new manager who would get to choose his own staff and he might not be among those included, so if he was uncomfortable remaining in the organization in a lesser role, that he should start looking for another job.
One week later, Michael called back – the team’s first choice having fallen through – and told Showalter he was getting a one-year, $175,000 deal to manage the Yankees at the age of 34.
“A week into spring training – seven to 10 days – he walked into my office and said, ‘OK, I think this is going to work. I think you can do this.’ It gave me great confidence. Whether he meant it, it gave me a lot of confidence. He knew what managers went through, especially with Mr. Steinbrenner. ‘Hey boy, what are you doing? What did you screw up today? You mess anything up yet? It’s early. You will, because I’ve messed up three things today, most of them at home.’”
Stacking bullpen more than a numbers game
Since rosters expanded last Friday, the Orioles bullpen has accounted for 29 2/3 innings, which is third most in the American League, and while the addition of right-hander Mike Wright gave the Orioles 12 relievers, it doesn’t necessarily make for a better – deeper — bullpen.
“I tell you one thing,” Showalter said. “I think it give you too many toys. Not toys, but sometimes the options can kind of get in the way of some good decisions. It’s tough. You like the idea of being able to cover some innings, physically with some guys, but that’s the extent to how we like it.”
The additional relievers doesn’t necessarily mean more rest for his late-inning arms. Over the past week, closer Zach Britton (5 IP)and set-up man Brad Brach (4 IP) are among the team’s top three relievers in terms of innings (September callup Jimmy Yacabonis is between them with 4 2/3 innings).
Showalter added that roster expansion also takes away situational matchups late in games because of the additional bench players teams can stock. So for a pitcher like left-hander Donnie Hart, who has been used against left-handed hitters this season, he has to be able to get right-handers out as well.
“I think that’s a mistake people make to think it doesn’t affect the game that much,” Showalter said. “It affects it a lot. Basically you’re just picking your poison this time of the year.”
Hardy for Cleveland?
Showalter said before Thursday’s game that he hoped to activate shortstop J.J. Hardy from the disabled list before Friday’s series opener in Cleveland.
Hardy, who went on the DL with a broken bone in his right wrist and most recently dealt with arm soreness that required a cortisone injection, was testing his arm before Thursday’s game by hitting and throwing.
Showalter has said that the biggest obstacles with Hardy is ensuring he’s pain free while hitting.
“A good man,” he said. “I’m going to miss him.”