The New York Mets have reached back to the past and tapped Buck Showalter to manage the team, following what’s become a Major League Baseball trend: reprocessing seasoned managers, like Dusty Baker, Tony La Russa and Joe Girardi.
Even the San Diego Padres hired veteran skipper Bob Melvin away from the Oakland A’s early this off-season, ending a succession of first-time managers with no Major League experience and little success. Bruce Bochy, who retired in 2019 after 25 years of managing the Padres and San Francisco Giants, also has made some noise about getting back in, at age 66.
As the saying goes, what’s old is new again.
Showalter, now 65, spent the last three years as a television analyst since being fired after nine seasons leading the Baltimore Orioles.
“I was off the field, and if it had been permanent, I was at peace with that,” Showalter said during Tuesday’s introductory video conference with the media. “But this is a labor of love.”
Showalter is returning to a game that’s in the midst of a lockout and has changed immeasurably on and off the field after two seasons plagued by the coronavirus.
He said he reached out to Baker, among others, to get a sense of how managing has changed. Baker, 72 and heading into his 25th season managing, sat out two seasons after being fired by the Washington Nationals until the Houston Astros selected him in 2020 to lead that franchise after the fallout from its sign-stealing scandal.
Under Baker, the Astros this year made their fifth consecutive trip to the American League Championship Series and their third World Series, this time a six-game loss to the Atlanta Braves.
Baker had a bit of advice.
“[Showalter] can be successful if he can combine his experience with analytics,” Baker said when reached by phone. “Analytics is here to stay. It was here before, but it didn’t have a name to it. It just wasn’t as in-depth and complicated as it is now.”
It should be noted that last season’s managers of the year—Gabe Kapler of the Giants in the National League and Kevin Cash of the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL—represent the new school of managers. They are steeped in analytics and controlled by baseball operations departments, which dictate how players are used as well as in-game strategy.
But as successful as these two have recently been, a long line of inexperienced managers in recent years have failed to produce.
Showalter is anything but inexperienced. An excellent baseball man with 1,551 wins and a .506 winning percentage over the course of 20 seasons, he’s also known for his controlling nature; he likes to be in charge of all aspects of the operation. He’s led the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks, Texas Rangers and Orioles, and yet he hasn’t managed a team into the World Series. The Yankees won the 1996 World Series under Joe Torre, the year after Showalter was fired. Ditto in 2001 when the D-backs won after Bob Brenly replaced him.
That’s ancient history. Mets owner Steve Cohen prevailed on club president Sandy Alderson and new general manager Billy Eppler to hire Showalter as they try to bring the Mets back to respectability, if not their third World Series title and first since 1986.
Alderson has taken this path before, hiring veteran Terry Collins to manage the Mets in 2011 after his 12-year hiatus from a Major League bench. That was met with tremendous success, as Collins managed the Mets into a five-game loss to Kansas City in the 2015 World Series and back-to-back postseasons.
Collins was eventually fired when communications broke down between him and baseball operations.
But like Collins at the time, Showalter’s managerial experience was a determining factor, coming after two years of sub-.500 play under the guidance of the inexperienced and since terminated Luis Rojas.
“Buck’s been around for a long time,” Alderson said. “You don’t last as long as Buck has, you don’t remain as interested in a person who’s been out of the game for three years, if that person hasn’t been adaptable, remain curious and evolve with the game itself. A lot of these issues like analytics are interesting, but given what Buck has done in the past, using available information, he’s about as close [to perfect for us] as anyone can be.”
It’s tough on managers now, Baker said. Any manager, no matter his pedigree, has to expect a certain amount of front office intrusion. Baker, who has 1,987 wins and a .534 winning percentage managing five clubs, said one man’s collaboration can be another’s interference.
“You’re still going to get told what to do,” Baker said. “It’s just a matter of whether you agree or disagree. Sometimes you see their point, and you hope they see your point. Most of the time the analytical people don’t see your point as much as you have to see theirs. In there lies the problem.”
Baker said there are times he has to answer to management if he makes decisions counter the game plan.
“If it doesn’t work, no question,” he said.
Showalter said he also reached out to La Russa and Joe Maddon, another veteran who’s going into his third season with the Los Angeles Angels after highly successful tours with the Rays and Chicago Cubs. Maddon, whose 2016 World Series win was the first for the Cubs in 108 years, is no retread, even at 67, having managed in MLB for 16 consecutive seasons.
La Russa, 77, returned to managing this year with the Chicago White Sox after a 10-year gap working mostly in various front offices. The bookends are a 2011 World Series title managing the St. Louis Cardinals and a 93-win, AL Central-leading season for Chicago in 2021.
Along the way, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the same 2014 Class as Torre and Atlanta’s Bobby Cox. He’s second among managers with 2,821 wins behind Connie Mack at 3,371, a mark that seems out of reach.
Even so, La Russa was criticized this season for not knowing the rules on occasion and being out of touch with the modern player.
“I wanted to pick their brains about what might be different,” Showalter said. “It’s not like I’ve been out for 10 years. I’ve been pretty connected through television. I’m anxious to see. I’m going to go into it with an open mind.”
So are the Mets, for that matter.