Former major league manager Buck Showalter had the perfect chance to explain himself once and for all. He sat for an otherwise splendid interview with the New York Post‘s Steve Serby, published Friday. He offered several splendid recollections, revelations, and insights.
Then, just after he explained today’s Yankees sticking with Gary Sanchez behind the plate despite his problems at it, Serby asked the money question: “Your Orioles controversy in the 2016 AL wild-card game when you didn’t call on Zack Britton and lost in the bottom of the 11th in Toronto.”
Showalter, one of the most intelligent managers of his time, a man who once resigned as the Yankees’ manager rather than stand for one of his most trusted coaches being removed, defaulted: “You just have to wear some things, and I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it. I’m at peace with that.”
Serby didn’t seem to push just a little for the ten things Showalter thinks we may not have known about that situation, and Showalter’s probably dead wrong that nobody would have wanted to hear even one of them. If Rob Neyer ever gets the chance to update 2006’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, bet big on Showalter’s wild card game mistake, ten years after that book, showing up prominently.
Bottom of the eleventh, Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles tied with the Toronto Blue Jays at two. One out, and Ubaldo Jimenez, usually a starting pitcher, relieving Brian Dueseng after Dueseng opened by striking Ezequiel Careera swinging. Back-to-back singles setting the Blue Jays up for first and third, and Zach Britton, the Orioles closer and arguably the best relief pitcher in 2016 baseball, nowhere to be seen—even though Showalter used six relief pitchers already.
Just like Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals not even thinking of Trevor Rosenthal in the 2014 National League Championship Series in the bottom of the ninth in San Francisco, Showalter reasoned, too, that Britton’s job as his closer was to come in strictly with a lead.
As Matheny stuck with rusty Michael Wacha in San Francisco, Showalter bargained on Jimenez, who’d pitched well down the Oriole stretch, holding fort in Toronto and the Orioles breaking the tie in the twelfth with Manny Machado due to lead off. (The real shock of that game: two of the league’s most bludgeoning lineups got themselves into a pitching duel most of the night.)
Like Matheny, Showalter forgot—if it was ever programmed into their software in the first place—that the time to bring in your best relief pitcher was when you needed a stopper right then and there, not when his “role” mandated.
“It wasn’t just that he hadn’t used Britton,” wrote Jeff Passan, then a baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. “It was that any number of game states presented themselves with Britton’s use optimal, and Showalter ignored them all the way to his team’s demise.”
Travis Ishikawa delivered Matheny’s reminder a lot more brutally when his three-run homer sailed to the top of Levi’s Landing with a Giants pennant attached. Showalter got off easier by comparison. Edwin Encarnacion’s three-run homer into the second deck merely sent the Blue Jays to a division series.
What were the ten things about that situation Showalter could have told us but he thinks we don’t want to know?
Surely he knows he’s not the first and won’t be the last manager having to wear, own, and live with such things. Some of them owned and explained them with no attempt to evade responsibility. Some of them owned but excused them. Some of them could barely bring themselves to own them. Some of them thought it was God’s will or somebody else’s fault.
Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy took the blame squarely for picking Denny Galehouse to start over Mel Parnell at the last minute (Parnell reported to Fenway Park that day expecting to go) against the Cleveland Indians in the 1948 pennant playoff game. A McCarthy biographer quoted the old man as telling Parnell himself, “I made a mistake. I’ll just have to live with it.”
Charley Dressen, as Neyer pointed out, “never made a mistake he couldn’t blame on somebody else.” Citing Brooklyn Dodgers exec Buzzie Bavasi, Neyer revealed Dressen blundered when the Dodgers won the coin flip for the famous-turned-infamous 1951 pennant playoff—and elected to play Game One in Ebbets Field, where the Giants didn’t usually play well, but Games Two and Three in the Polo Grounds, where the Dodgers usually didn’t.
Ill-fated Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca would remember Dodgers ticket manager Jack Collins calling the coin flip back in Brooklyn since the Dodgers were in Philadelphia at the moment. Not quite. “Dressen . . . probably told anybody who’d listen,” Neyer wrote, “that the pointy-headed ticket sales manager was the one who screwed up.” The pointy-headed ticket sales manager got canned after the season, too. The Giants stole the pennant, but the Dodgers blew their cleanest shot at it when Dressen blew that coin flip.
Casey Stengel had to answer for failing to align his 1960 World Series rotation well enough to give his Hall of Fame lefthander Whitey Ford three instead of two Series starts. The Pittsburgh Pirates still like to thank him for that. The Ol’ Perfesser didn’t discuss it in his memoir Casey at the Bat. A month after Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente was killed in his humanitarian-mission plane crash, the Hall of Fame skipper gave Boston radio reporter Ken Meyer an interview:
I blame myself on the whole Series. I mean for the Yankees losing. Now here’s the reason why I make that statement was because I thought Ford was so good . . . if I’da pitched him in the first game he’da been in better shape to go in the last game when I blow the Series.
Stengel’s biographer Robert W. Creamer translated the Stengelese to mean pitching Ford in Game One instead of holding him back until Game Three might have let Ford pitch Game Five and then be available in relief, maybe even to start, for Game Seven.
Showalter has more company in that special club whose membership requirements are that you’re a manager who blew one of the biggest decisions of your major league life, if not the big one. He has Matheny, Dressen, Stengel, and Gene Mauch to join him.
He has Leo Durocher, who burned the 1969 Cubs out as the Miracle Mets heated up fresh to stay. He has Tony La Russa, who blew a 1990 World Series he might have won, or at least kept from losing in a sweep, if he’d thrown his personal Book out and let his Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley pitch at least twice before ninth innings.
He has Dusty Baker. (Reference Mark Prior staying in but no activity in the bullpen, Game Six, 2003 National League Championship Series, with the Cubs six outs from the World Series.) He has Grady Little. (Pedro Martinez, gassed but left in two hitters too long, Game Seven, 2003 American League Championship Series.)
Most of the time such men wear, own, and explain their mistakes plausibly, even if their teams’ fans would still prefer to see them strapped in the electric chair. Most of the time. When Mauch’s 1964 Phillies returned home after finishing the pennant race they’d blown, Mauch refused to let his players leave the plane before he did: “You didn’t blow the pennant. I did.”
But when John McNamara elected to keep Bill Buckner at first base for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six, 1986 Series, rather than send his uninjured regular late defensive replacement Dave Stapleton out, McNamara refused to change his original tune. He wanted his wounded warrior Buckner out there as he “deserved” to be when the Red Sox finally won it all and that was it, that was all, and that was goodbye.
To the day he died McNamara never backed off. His widow was very right saying upon his death that his entire career shouldn’t be judged by one game. McNamara clinging that stubbornly to his original rationale is its own kind of admirable, but it didn’t make him any less dead wrong.
What’s the worst that Showalter could face now if he’d just given Serby what was asked for and explained himself once and for all about why Zach Britton was nowhere to be seen when Edwin Encarnacion destroyed the 2016 Orioles’ season in one fell swing? Twenty-second guessing?
Oriole fan would still love to hear it. So, really, would baseball fan without a particular Baltimore rooting interest. Showalter has to wear that, too.