In 1980, Buck Showalter was a Yankee minor league outfielder realizing he would never be a Yankee major league player. That year Atlantic City, Buck’s favorite movie, whether he has seen it or not, came out. In Buck’s favorite scene in the film, a frumpy but still delectable Susan Sarandon sidles up to Burt Lancaster, a dignified hustler, at a table in a restaurant that screams fineness.
Sarandon, an aspiring casino croupier, wants to make Burt her mentor-guardian in this sordid town.
“Teach me stuff,” Susan says urgently.
Debonair Burt doesn’t even blink. He gets these sorts of requests all the time.
“What do you want, wisdom or information?” he responds. Red or white? Veal chop or Delmonico?
But hungry Susie’s eyes grow even bigger.
“Both,” she says, managing to simultaneously be sexless and utterly seductive.
Since about mid-July here in Baltimore I have repeatedly imagined this not implausible sports sequel: a young barrel of a ballplayer from country-boy Florida, failing in his diamond dreams but realizing that coaching might be a back door to the big leagues, sits next to a Lancaster-like manager in a minor-league dugout.
“Teach me stuff?” cherub-cheeked Buck Showalter, known more for his buck-naked locker room lounging than home-run power, says with the same sort of Sarandon hunger. This is an existential thing for both, this need to learn and progress in the field.
And then the old-timer gives the same Burt Lancaster line. But Buck, half as savvy as Susan and slightly slower-witted, says: “Information.”
And he sets out the old-fashioned way, coaching through the Yankees system and arriving as their precocious manager in 1992 at age 36, to acquire all the information he can. He craves information even more than all the recent Ivy League undergrads plotting their takeover of the MLB management ranks. He craves it beyond the craving of mad scientist Billy Beane and whippersnapper Theo Epstein and godly Bill James himself. Statistics, yes, but also ballpark dimensions, wind pattern and velocity, outfield grass genus and species, arsenic content in the water fountain in the locker room. He builds his reputation on it, this information and his attempt to control and harness it. It defines him.
The young Buck who tried to do irony on “Seinfeld,” came off as a humorless badass during his Yankee years.
The young Buck who flopped trying irony on “Seinfeld,” succeeded as a humorless badass during his Yankee years. Not the kind you’d be scared of in a fight; not even the kind who might give you pause in asking out his daughter. Rather, the kind of guy who would banish you to the Chilean League if you didn’t back up the catcher or hit the cutoff man or polish your cleats. That look in Buck’s eyes, his gait and mastiff stance on the dugout step, and his unyielding insistence on precision signaled the great turnaround for the Yankees that surely came in some part due to him, after he had been fired in 1994.
And all that information, and that devastating mastery of it, helped him lead the Diamondbacks to immediate success after their franchising in 1998. Indeed, their 100 wins and NL West title in 1999, Arizona’s second season, resurrected the “baseball genius” tag when pundits assessed Buck.
But Buck the information hound also pissed off about half the people he coached, three quarters of his colleagues, and the full spectrum of wealthy and powerful men he worked for along the way. Canned in New York, and in Arizona, he middled and muddled with the Rangers from 2003 to 2006 and got canned there, too.
Too much information, and the consequent self-certainty that tends to accompany its cravers, tend to off-put.
He was a sort of baseball Walter Cronkite – a dominant but reticent presence, forceful on the screen but respectful to the viewer.When I saw Buck pop up as an analyst on ESPN's Baseball Tonight in 2008, I assumed he was going to become a talking head until he turned 65 - or pissed off the ESPN bosses, too. I admired his precise explanations of the night’s highlights and lowlights. I even remember hoping he was saving his money – I knew something about the unemployable personality – and worried for this likeable TV persona for a passing but sincere moment or two.
But soon I started tuning in for no other reason than to hear Buck talk. I can’t stomach TV newscasters in general, be it the guffawing mugs of sports TV or the preeners of network and cable news: the imposition of personality, or, better said, of a concocted persona, inevitability undermines the content at hand, if that content is even enriching in the first place. Narcissism abounds, and disrupts one’s sleep if consumed after 10 p.m.
But Buck, no longer young Buck but Buck who seemed to skip his 40s and appear 60ish in a split second, towered on the set. He was a sort of baseball Walter Cronkite – a dominant but reticent presence, forceful on the screen but respectful to the viewer, speaking with an authority that kept him coolly, if not disdainfully, above the mad hatters. How delicious it was, for one who despised all things frat-like in college, to see Buck bristle at the quintessential meathead John Kruk and his merry glibsters when they chortled in unison like Sigma Gamma Zappa brothers standing around the keg.
Tired, too, of the titans of irony on Comedy Central, I made Buck my reliable bedtime brain washer.
Meanwhile, that distinctly American phenomenon dubbed Moneyball seemed to have passed the Orioles by. You could cut the front office some slack and say they saw through the book’s gimmick and realized that three guys – Zito, Hudson, and Mulder – were absurdly lacking for ink in its pages. For a couple years, then-Orioles general manager (and now the thoroughly underappreciated) Andy McPhail had hired a supposed whiz kid. Statheads in my favorite Baltimore bar talked a bit about the move, wondered if our club might shake its intellectual torpor. But the effort to recreate medieval baseball progressed. The Harvard kid, or whatever he was, left for another organization, and the whole Moneyball-less front office, we thought, gave off the air of a university that refused to install Wi-Fi in order to protect the yellowing, sacred books in its library.
Meanwhile, that distinctly American phenomenon dubbed Moneyball seemed to have passed the Orioles by.Whenever the Red Sox and Yankees came to town for the past decade, so did their annoying fans, and my friends and I regularly repeated our whiskey speeches about how these two bloated clubs, whose success coincided with the ascendancy of high finance in America, symbolized the collapse of the American ethic. Not once did anyone ask for a definition of the phrase, but it stuck. The collapse of the American ethic. They filled our park, drank our beer, ate our crabs, looked down their pock-marked noses at us, and one night at least, when one of my buddies ended up in jail for assaulting an unintelligible Bostonian, tried to take our women.
And then in 2010, Dave Trembley, an apparent gentleman who exuded kindness but not necessarily an aptitude for motivating players, got fired, and who soon appears - after the listless Juan Samuel interregnum and his tactless banishment by management - but old 5’9, 200-pound 60-something-looking bulldog Buck, who was really now commencing his mid-fifties.
“You better look within to make sure you don’t miss anything.”
His presser was a dream – it was like watching him on ESPN without all the buffoons around him to distract you. His rhetoric was homespun, his monotone assuring, but his beady eyes seemed softer, almost wistful.
“You better look within to make sure you don’t miss anything,” he said at one point, though no one, save perhaps McPhail, who hired him, had any idea yet that Mr. Information had transformed into Mr. Introspection.
I remembered a line from David Maraniss’s book on Vince Lombardi where Maraniss says people listened to Lombardi in no small part because of the magisterial sound of his voice.
The Orioles won like banshees the rest of the year under Buck.Buck’s intonation wasn’t magisterial, but it was decidedly gruff, Southern sea captain-sounding, and we felt sufficiently commanded as a baseball city once again.
But he also seemed a humbled Buck, a, warmer, ball-yard philosopher-type now. I realized that day that the winning might not resume, but certainly the habitual, comic, cosmic losing would stop, and that was good. That was good. Our summer civic depression, shock-treated each August with the arrival of the Ravens, would ease from acute to chronic.
The Orioles won like banshees the rest of the year under Buck. We enjoyed it, my Guinness chums at the bar and I, but knew it all seemed too easy. More than anything, we marveled at this transformed Buck. We were all big readers, and we started to discuss his press conferences as much as games.
One friend did a send up of Buck as Tennyson’s Ulysses leading his crew on one more fateful journey: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
After a few beers another night, we agreed that Martin O’Malley, our uppity governor and a presidential candidate since he was 7 years old, should get with Buck on the rhetoric thing. Give praise to others, acknowledge small but brilliant plays, especially on defense, maintain a dramatic, but even tone, don’t say the words “I” or “me.” Make even us -- your viewer or your voter, Marty -- feel like part of the team. Buck, at least, had mastered the squash-the-narcissism shtick.
“Somebody is sitting in front of the TV living and dying with everything you’re doing. And you better take that seriously.”Around this time I read a quote from Buck that I printed out and brought in to the boys:
“You’re in Seattle, it’s 12:30 at night back in Baltimore and somebody is sitting in front of the TV living and dying with everything you’re doing. And you better take that seriously.”
If Buck was trying to rally five high-school chums around him and his team, he sure succeeded with us.
Probably only his wife can account for the moments of self-reflection in his backyard that led to his transformation from Information Master to Sage, though he does regularly chuckle to himself and journalists about marveling at how shockingly red the cardinals fluttering around the backyard were.
The setback 2011 season that ensued still glimpsed a possible future of competence, as we at least started to beat the Yankees and Red Sox more. Buck continuously, defiantly praised his players and spoke about their duty to bring a winner to Baltimore; they, in turn, spoke of how much they enjoyed playing for him. Former Yankees and Diamondbacks and Rangers must have been snarfing their beer on the 19th hole in golf communities all across Florida.
Then that Aug. 24, 2011, we wept along with Buck. This living and dying thing he spoke of took on literal proportions. Mike Flanagan, a laconic New Englandish version of Buck, a fellow who had had far more success on the field and far less in the front office, had killed himself. I called my best friend, we met at our pub, and we kept talking about how Flanny epitomized a glorious sense of understatement that was diminishing from sports as much as from film, fiction, and even romance.
You see, growing up in Baltimore, you had as potential idols Jim Palmer in his underwear ads, Cal Ripken in all his Ayn Randian, near genetic unapproachability, or Eddie Murray, who was simply unapproachable in the regular, earthly way. Rick Dempsey was the ever reliable court jester; Brady Anderson did underwear stuff, too; Gentleman King Singleton went to work for the Yankees as an announcer; and the next generation – Tejada, Palmeiro, y compania – was overdosing on Vitamin B12.
So, for my crowd, Flanagan, or Cool-Hand Iowan Mike Boddicker, remained the guys who embodied the Baltimore ethic – do your job as well as you can, and shut up about it. And, whatever you do, don’t preen.
We drank far too much as we half-watched the game that night, and then Buck came on for an interview afterwards. He was asked the inevitable, and started choking up as he finished his answer.
He then breathed deeply, partially composed himself, and said that when he heard the report during the game, he and the bench were “just hoping and praying that something was erroneous.”
My buddy Adam and I looked at each other. An error. Just score it an error.
He added, to our hearty approval: “The Orioles lost a real source of wisdom.”
And then, the announcer referred to a word Buck had started to use over and over in his pressers: “Perspective.” They looked at each other: yes, this sure brings some of that. And then they cut the interview short and, as the camera pulled back, we saw Buck doubling over in agony.
Here he was trying to resurrect a bloody baseball franchise, and death has to intrude.Here he was trying to resurrect a bloody baseball franchise, and death has to intrude. And a sordid one at that: the press soon linked Flanny’s suicide to the team’s inexorable losing and, less directly, to the way Flanny was treated by the Orioles management. You see, our owner, Peter Angelos, made his money in the mesothelioma class action lawsuit racket. Angelos is a trial lawyer, a pint-sized killer of a litigator who grew up on Baltimore’s medium-scrabbled streets, and, despite an under admired love for his hometown, he exuded his whole life as a public figure two unappealing traits: paranoia and sourness. And now this, and it goes unsaid but said over and over again as my buddies straggle in to the bar: Flanagan killed himself, but we, our city and the team’s mismanagers, had contributed to, unknowingly, the whole incomprehensible thing. The game at root, like everything else in this world, was about living and dying after all.
Buck became a consoling figure to my grieving friends and me.For days afterward, Buck became a consoling figure to my grieving friends and me. We skipped the games but tuned in to his pressers to feel better. In fact, he became our substitute Flanagan. This TV persona, seemingly ever wary of the fate of self-parody that TV seems to impose on any face it transmits, evoked Flanny’s insistent understatement. There’s the cliché that suicide is the most selfish act, and Flanagan surely harbored a troubled, consuming self inside. But as a persona, a player, announcer, and Orioles executive, he was graceful, quiet, unassuming, and seemingly egoless. Like Buck. But Buck brought the binaries that Flanagan seemed to lack along for the ride: graceful but rough, too; quiet in tone but physically loud; unassuming but assuming absolute commitment; ostensibly egoless but always primed to be the big swinging Buck.
In early July of this year I started to realize, along with, say, a third of Baltimore, that this Orioles team might be different. That civic murmur had welled up a few times during fast starts or winning streaks since 1997. But in general, the town over the past 15 years bore the summer’s heat and humidity with forbearance and Oriole-less conversation.
In early July of this year I started to realize, along with, say, a third of Baltimore, that this Orioles team might be different.I didn’t start watching the games with any degree of devotion until July. I had been raised in a family with a tradition of reading books after supper then turning on the 10 o’clock news. That 10 o’clock hour still felt like the marker of a moment calling for ritual as my new wife and I ended our day. She is from Spain, where the whole cult of personality thing on the airwaves hasn’t yet been monetized, and she can’t stand Anderson Cooper’s smirk, either. So we watched cooking shows and animal shows to chill out and then slept as well as Conscience permits.
One night during channel surfing, we came upon a Buck presser, and my wife perked up. She is still learning English, and appreciates with such sweetness anyone who will slow down their bloody tongue when speaking. She appreciated Buck.
I had given up on explaining baseball to her a while back. Its singular vocabulary and pace, despite her soccer passion, made the sport a non-starter.
But the Brian Roberts story intrigued her – how a guy could actually be so upset with himself that he clobbers his noggin’ intentionally with a bat, thereby devastating his career. Roberts, you see, was making a comeback from severe, self-inflicted concussions this summer, and in July Buck kept getting questions about him until Roberts succumbed to a hip injury.
She asked why Buck’s tone of voice and body language changed so much when he discussed Roberts’ situation.
“He’s fond of him,” I said.
“You can tell,” she said. “He acts like he’s his father.”
And then another night, she liked this: “I like these young guys who growl at the game.” I explained to her what “growl,” means: guts and passion and treat your job like a lion.
She understood his English, and liked his act.
She is a fan of Real Madrid, whose coach, a Portuguese dude, dresses for games like he just got off the plane from a runway show in Milan. And here is Buck, frumpy like Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City, peddling wisdom and winning her over along the way.
So we start to watch Buck. 10 o’clock, sometimes the game is over, rarely, but we start to tune in at 9:45 or so just in case.
One night I try to tell her about what has happened to baseball in the past decade. I try to tell her about this book, Moneyball, and all these Ivy League guys who would have been derivatives traders but instead decided to deal in teenagers from San Pedro de Macoris and Maracaibo, and how they are making a bundle of dough for themselves but are sucking the poetry out of the game.
So one day we rent the movie Moneyball, because when she was a teenager she had a crush on Brad Pitt and I really get a kick out of how Brad really likes to put himself out there at the cutting edge of things – African aid, sabermetrics, organic hair dying that won’t make girl fish into boy fish when you shower and the organic chemicals from your hair color run off into the waterways, all that leading edge stuff.
And I make a deal with her. We can watch her boy Brad so long as she tolerates a slog of an American classic called Atlantic City. They’re really the same movie anyway, I tell her, or at least they are trying to deal with the same great American theme – getting a step up, getting ahead.
And I cuddle up with her, and just to be a jerk I tell her I am going to count the number of time we hear the names Zito, Mulder, or Hudson. Just help me count them, I tell her.
“Who?” she asks.
“Zito, Mulder, and Hudson,” I say. “Don’t worry about who they are. Just pinch me whenever you hear one of those names.”
I like to hold up my end of the deal, especially with my wife, but I couldn’t take the movie. If I were poor, defamed Paul DePodesta I’d sue Brad Pitt for a week in Cancun with Angelina.
But I suffered through, and we got to Atlantic City the next night.
About halfway through, as we watch Burt Lancaster strolling along the Atlantic City boardwalk, hard-won wisdom just seeping out of his pores, she taps me on the shoulder.
“Buck,” she says. “He reminds me of Buck.”
I almost weep. She nailed it.
During my regular middle of the night sleeplessness, I ponder why she, too, was so spot-on in her comparison. Understatement and wisdom, I decide. An awareness of the danger of self-parody on screen and understatement as the antidote. And an insistence on saying the word, wisdom, that we hardly utter in the public domain.
What’s more, I got the sense that these pressers had become Buck’s soliloquies, person and persona weaving in and out of each other as Buck tries to hear himself, hear his lessons, remind himself of perspective and camaraderie and duty and the wise thing to say or do.
We were astonished by one cinematic moment later that month when Buck waits for the next question and sort of wanders off during the pause. The question comes, and the sound of it startles him, shocks him out of some inner thought. He jumps a bit in his seat, shakes his head, and almost asks that the poor reporter to repeat himself. Buck had been busy introspecting.
And then, on Sept. 8, Buck made a full-fledged baseball fan out of my wife. There he is misty-eyed I dare say, seated in front of the mike looking like he has to tell the country that Ahmadinejad had just bombed Alaska. It was clear that we had defeated the motherloving Yankees. It became clear that we had won like our 76th one-run game of the season. And, lastly, it became clear that CC Sabathia had hit Nick Markakis and broken his hand.
Buck, emoting full bore now: “It breaks my heart, personally. It’s emotional for all of us.”
He collects himself, not quite like he did the night Flanagan died, but emotional in just the kind of way my wife likes it – on edge, on the cliff, but balancing himself there.
“Because we know how much he means, and more importantly, how much the Orioles mean to him,” Buck continues. “He’s been here from the start … He’s a special breed. We’re lucky. The more you manage, the more you’re lucky to have a guy like him, regardless of what the statistics say. If you get bogged down with statistics, you’d never be able to make out your lineup.”
“So Nick is like a son to him, just like that other hurt guy?” my wife asks.
I’m choked up a bit, too.
“Seems so,” I say.
And then, referring to the big win again, Buck says something like this: the older I get, the more I sit back at moments like this and take in the grandeur of it. Buck scoffing at statistics and sitting back and enjoying it? Steinbrenner himself must have wanted to emit a thunderbolt from the billionaire heavens at that one.
Sentiment. Wisdom. WAR and WHIP and OBP and all these abbreviations, all this information that consumes us and makes Brad Pitt want to make a slow movie out of a book that was slower-moving than the game of baseball itself, and finally Buck arrives, with his hard-won wisdom, and realizes the whole thing is a lot more complex. Luck, that’s what all the statheads say now. This team has deviated from statistical predictions for longer than thought possible but will revert with aplomb – be it in October or next season.
But the regulars at the theater who pay to hear Shakespearian Buck, part rousing Henry V, but now, after all these firings and backyard reflection, part Hamlet, too, overhearing himself as this spectacle takes on a life of its own, know better.
Buck, it seems, embraced that antique baseball world where wisdom counted the same, if not more than information.Buck, it seems, embraced that antique baseball world where wisdom counted the same, if not more than information. Indeed, the next crop of GMs at the fancy universities are no doubt plotting their ouster of the statheads by pilfering science’s new rage, a field called complex system theory that says, well, the obvious: a social system, even a team, like an ecosystem or molecule – is built upon complex parts that interact unpredictably. But Buck is a step ahead of the new new thing. Balancing wisdom and information, emotion and precision, he has built as cohesive a team as television can present.
And now we hope they play on, my wife and I, not so much so we can keep watching the games, but to partake one more night of this television persona, this jowly, twanging Buck with his rarely humorless but regularly enlightening post-game TED lecture, imparting, disdaining, emoting, professing, lamenting, reflecting, instructing, debating …
“One thing experience allows you to do as you get older, you try to keep people from making mistakes you made.”This American authentic’s last lecture may well be nigh, but the wisdom has been bountiful, and come October the whatevereth, we’ll sorely miss ones like this past Saturday, when Buck tells us, goddamnit, that he urged the team’s rock, Matt Wieters, to stay back in California with his wife and newborn son and forget about the pennant race because some things are just more important.
“He’s where he should be,” Buck said. “One thing experience allows you to do as you get older, you try to keep people from making mistakes you made.”
The O’s won despite Wieter’s absence, the Orioles made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, and the Sage will speak to us, bestow for us, God bless him and his televised wisdom, for a at least a few more cliché and cant-free nights.