|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
NEW YORK -- Buck Showalter was limping down the Yankee Stadium corridor, complaining a bit about growing old, when a boisterous circle of Baltimore Orioles supporters suddenly descended on him, and started hooting and hollering about an all-or-nothing Game 5.
This was after midnight, after the former manager of the New York Yankees had pushed the home franchise to the brink of oblivion with a 13-inning victory in Game 4, and Showalter agreed to pose for a few pictures. One man wrapped an arm around him and said, "I hope you kick the Yankees' ass."
Showalter was on his way to the visitors' clubhouse, the winners' clubhouse, when he broke free from the pack and re-engaged a familiar face who wanted to know how much it would mean to him to eliminate the team that had drafted him in 1977, developed him as a prospect and a coach, and employed him for 19 years before bum-rushing him out the door.
|Buck Showalter never got to celebrate the World Series championships he helped build for the Bombers nearly two decades ago.|
"This is where I grew up, but their eighth hitter has 43 home runs and so I don't have time to get in the nostalgia of it," Showalter told ESPNNewYork.com. "I'm a Baltimore Oriole now, and I love the place."
But again, these were the New York Yankees, the only team a young Showalter ever wanted to work for. This was his program that Joe Torre took over in the fall of 1995, right after George Steinbrenner dumped Showalter for refusing to fire the coaches "The Boss" wanted removed from his staff.
Showalter picked loyalty over his dream job, and Torre would win four titles with the kids his predecessor and Gene Michael protected from Steinbrenner, the Riveras and Pettittes, the Bernies and Jeters. Seventeen years after Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte were rookies on his division series pitching staff, after Derek Jeter was a non-roster VIP watching from the dugout, Showalter was reminded he now is competing against those grown-up prospects, minus the injured Mo.
Those are your kids, he was told.
"Yeah, and ask them how much attention I give them," Showalter said. "I don't give them the time of day because they're wearing the other uniform."
But you helped raise Jeter, he was told.
"I know that, and he knows that, and that's all you need," Showalter said. "Every once in a while, Jeter and I will look at each other and nod, but we are competing, and I wouldn't expect anything less from them.
"That's the way we taught 'em. They're wearing another uniform."
But it's not any uniform, not even close. Showalter had the 70-43 Yankees ready in 1994, the year the players' strike wiped out October. "We would've won it all," he said in 1996, after Jerry Colangelo rescued him from Steinbrenner and hired him to build a team out of a concept known as the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Showalter never won it all. In 1995, he managed Don Mattingly into his first and last postseason tournament, the manager's proudest Yankees accomplishment of all. Before Game 1 against Seattle, during introductions, Showalter pumped his fist to the fans who had been waiting 14 years to return to the playoffs.
Some witnesses thought it was the loudest pregame moment they ever heard in the old place. "No," Showalter said. "When Mattingly hit that homer [in Game 2], that was the first time I thought the old stadium might fall."
The Yankees won Game 1 and then Game 2 on a Jim Leyritz homer in the 15th-inning rain. Leyritz was in the new building Thursday night, there to watch Showalter's collection of Long Island Ducks and Mexican League journeymen take on the mighty Yanks. But as the Orioles barreled toward the 13th, their manager said he never thought of that forever night across the street.
"This series is not about anything to do with me," Showalter argued, "even if it's a great angle to write."
Sure, he could have been the dynasty maker that would be his replacement, Torre. But Showalter's Yankees lost the final three games of that Seattle series, a classic that won back so many fans chased away by the strike. While Steinbrenner comforted Mattingly at his Game 5 locker, Showalter was sobbing in his Kingdome office.
Deep down, he knew this would be his last night in a Yankees uniform.
"I miss that naivete I had back then," Showalter said as he hobbled away from his postgame news conference in the colors of the Baltimore Orioles. "You can say that. I lost that little kid in me who loved baseball and the Yankees growing up."
At 56, Showalter knows he might be working on his last big league project, his last chance to turn a loser into the biggest winner of all. He molded the Yankees and Diamondbacks into contenders only to watch his successors put them over the top.
"I enjoy the climb," he said in 2010. "But just once, I'd like to walk my own daughter down the aisle."
Showalter has a clear aisle to Friday's Game 5, and the pitching matchup says it all. CC Sabathia, a big star, an ace's ace, against the faceless Jason Hammel and his 42-51 career record.
In front of the postgame cameras, Showalter called it "an honor to be playing a Game 5 against a team like the Yankees." Only he wasn't kidding anyone. Two years ago, after he landed in Baltimore, Showalter noticed some Yankees pitchers encroaching on the Orioles' turf in the right-field corner during BP, and he told the offending Yanks to clear out.
Now he's fixing to push them off the field and out of 2012. His Orioles have beaten the Yankees 11 times in 22 tries, and they're 7-4 this year in the Bronx, division series included. No, they weren't about to take those heavy Raul Ibanez punches without throwing a few in return.
The Yanks won in 12 on Wednesday night, and the Orioles answered by winning in 13 on Thursday night. Showalter called Game 5 an opportunity for the Orioles "to shine and separate themselves."
It's also an opportunity for Showalter to pay back the franchise that denied him as a player (he never made it out of the minors) and as a manager in a different life.
"We don't take a back seat to many people's history," Showalter said. "We're the Baltimore Orioles. We have a lot of history, too."
Showalter has his own personal history to manage. He ended up in a pool of tears when he managed the Yankees in a Game 5 in Seattle, and he's compared watching a tape of that crushing 11-inning defeat to watching "Brian's Song" with the lights off.
Seventeen years later, he desperately needs a different ending to the movie. If the New York Yankees find a way to lose this Game 5, Buck Showalter will leave the crying to someone else.