Friday, January 28, 2005

Texas Rangers To Win it All in 2007 under Manager Rex Hudler?

Could the Texas Rangers hire Rex Hudler to be their manager in 2006 and then watch as Hud "excitedly" leads his team to their first World Series Championship? Well history would suggest that this improbable scenario is, at the very least, possible. On January 21st the Rangers extended the contract of Manager Buck Showalter in a move sure to hasten his eventual firing. You see, nothing is as certain or predictable in this world than the managing career pattern of one Mr. William Nathanial "Buck" Showalter. Here is the typical Showalter pattern for managing a baseball team:

1. Inherit underperforming team and have a mediocre first season.
2. Surprise the world with a great second season, win awards, get contract extension, blah, blah, blah.
3. Watch helplessly as the team backslides and then turns on their hard-driving, control-freak manager resulting in firing or forced evac.
4. Next season, watch that same team rebound and win the World Series under some former-broadcaster hired as their new "player friendly" manager.

Seem implausible? Exhibit A: The 1992 - 96 New York Yankees. The team that featured Don Mattingly, Paul O'Neil, Wade Boggs, a youngster named Bernie Williams and Jim Abbott when he threw a no-hitter against Cleveland in '93. Well, that team sucked. But that was the dark era for the AL East and after winning 76 games in '92 and then climbing to 88 wins and a second place finish in '93 the Yanks were due to begin their backslide. But in the strike-shortened '94 campaign the Yankees won their division with 70 wins (they were on pace for a 100 win season) before being dispatched in the first-round by Seattle. Showalter wins the 1994 Manager of the Year award. It was not until the following season that the Yankees fell back to second place with 79 wins and hard-luck Buck leaves the Big Apple. Of course, the Empire then hired former Angels broadcaster Joe Torre and won the Series in '96 (and ’98 & 2000).

Exhibit B: The 1998 - 2001 Diamondbacks. The expansion D-Backs hire Showalter as their first coach and he leads them to a 65-97 record their first year. But in year two, with the newly acquired Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre & Angel-to-be Steve Finley, Arizona shocks the world by winning 100 games and the NL West before being quickly dispatched in the first round by the Mets. The dreaded year-three backslide appears in 2000 and the D-Backs win just 85 games and fire Showalter. According to the Buck-obsessed webmaster Jeff Henn at ('All Things Buck') this was due to Showalter shepherding "a team decimated by injuries,” and poor Buck was”a victim of clubhouse backstabbing and conspiratorial drum-banging by the media in Phoenix." Yes, that Phoenix media machine is a fierce animal. Particularly after Showalter had it so easy dealing with the pussycats in New York. Of course, Arizona hires Bob Brenley and wins the Series in 2001.

So here we are in the midst of Buck's next nightmare with the 2003 - 2006 Texas Rangers. After winning 71 games in '03 the Rangers shock the baseball world by staying in contention until the last week of the '04 campaign and win 89 games. Showalter wins the 2004 Manager of the Year Award. So it would follow that the Rangers could follow the Yankees example and win the AL West in '05 before starting their inevitable backslide (the other two Showalter teams both won their divisions before the real backslide began) or they could simply follow the D-Backs on the three-year cycle and backslide this season. I suspect if it going to be one or the other the Rangers will likely win the division this year, fire Buck next season and then win it all in 2007.

What is it about Showalter that allows him to take teams to the edge of greatness before he self-destructs as a manager and some other guy gets the glory of a World Series Championship? Or in Torre’s case, several World Championships and untold millions in endorsement money. While it would be easy (and amusing) to assume Showalter was some nut-job who simply melted down just prior to achieving his life's ultimate goal, the facts do not necessarily bear that out. Both earlier managerial experiences ended badly for Buck and have led some to assume he is simply a head-strong guy with really bad timing. With the Yankees, Showalter was forced out by Steinbrenner after refusing to fire two of his coaches following an exciting first-round playoff loss to the Mariners. Let's face it, a team can only have so many detail-obsessed egomaniacs and in New York, Big George is king. So Buck, not surprisingly, loses that battle of wills and an emerging dynasty was handed over on a sliver platter to Torre.

The expansion Diamondbacks approached with an offer of carte blanche control and that appealed to Showalter's inner-Steinbrenner and D-Backs owner Jerry Colangelo probably knew his young squad would need some discipline. But as Uncle Ben wisely counseled Peter Parker "With great power comes great responsibility". Part and parcel of that responsibility for major league managers is to coddle and nurture young multi-millionaires and that was clearly not Buck's style. As Henn points out in the 'Buck' section of under 'Notable': "Showalter is known as a stern disciplinarian and strong leader and once handed out a 300-page organizational manual to the players his first year in Arizona." You know ball players just can't get enough of 300-page organizational manuals. I think we can safely draw the conclusion that Buck is not a "player's manager". Hard to imagine there might be some "clubhouse backstabbing" going on in Phoenix, what with all that light reading available.

Can the pattern be broken, with Showalter staying on as manager AND the Rangers winning? Well anything is possible but unless Showalter is able to demonstrate a heretofore unseen ability to adapt with his team it would seem highly unlikely. The reason Showalter is so successful early in his tenures probably has a lot to do with his stern disposition and strict rules. The teams that Showalter has inherited are all similar in that they were losers for a number of years (or in the D-Backs case were expected to be) and were populated by a collection of young players and veteran castoffs. Younger players respond to verbal whippings and pressure while the veterans were probably more tolerant to Buck because they either needed to hang-on and finish out their contracts or were unwanted elsewhere. Players accept the limitations set by Showalter such as no music in the clubhouse, the banning of earrings, beards goatees or laziness because they want to win. They buy-in to the program because nothing else has worked but internally they also feel that once things are turned around then they will be treated with more respect and given more liberties. But this is where Buck seems to lose his team. This unspoken contract between player and manager does not really exist, at least to Showalter, and a rift begins. He continues to press and manage the same despite the changing atmosphere of the teams’ clubhouse. Suddenly players are feeling intense pressure to perform not just from their manager but from ownership, the fans and the press. Showalter continues to push the concept of team but in the real world, players see their names singled out in print. They hear the fans getting on them, not the team as a whole. Suddenly perspectives change and bitterness erupts. But when the expectations are raised and the handling of emerging superstars transforms managers from drill instructors to quasi-diplomats, then the true abilities of a manager are revealed. The true test to Showalter's abilities was not 2004 when he was awarded Manager of the Year for taking a low-expectations ball club and making them competitive. No, the true test will come in 2005 when every other team is ready for you and expecting a battle. Where you have to cool tempers in the clubhouse when expectations are not being met and players are feeling defensive and picked-upon. When a five game losing streak has teammates questioning one another and wondering why they are putting up playing in a toxic atmosphere of intolerance from their manager when they could play for a manager like Joe Torre or Mike Scioscia. When the players start counting the days left on their contract, this is when a great manager will be revealed for bringing them back into the fold. For understanding that at some point it becomes ineffective to disillusion your players any more and a more supportive manager is what they need. This is when Buck gets fired and Rex should get by his phone.


Blogger Matchosan said...

It would be great to get Rex off the air, and into the dugout. But he's a pothead. I don't think MLB likes druggies. But I wonder. If'n he gets a job managing would he still have a ball in his hand at all times?

11:32 AM  
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