As manager of the New York Yankees and an employee of George Steinbrenner, Buck Showalter often finds himself in one of the most unnerving positions in baseball: prone on a cot in the complete darkness of a windowless room with the visages of dead Yankees looking upon him and an eerie silence broken only by some strange noises coming from beyond the concrete-block walls. (It may be rats, but he isn't sure.) This is his Yankee Stadium office, where he often spends his nights, Dick Vermeil-style, waiting for an 8 a.m. wake-up call from the guard in the lobby upstairs. "When the door is closed, the lock is turned and the lights are off," Showalter says, "there is no darker place anywhere."
Last Friday, with Martin, Gehrig and Ruth on the walls and Brian Butterfield, one of his coaches, on the couch, Showalter slept there. He had reported for that night's 7 o'clock game against the Boston Red Sox at 10 a.m., managed his team to a 3-1 victory, eaten dinner in his office, watched a videotape of the game several times and then studied a videotape of the most recent outing of Roger Clemens, Boston's starting pitcher the next day. The Yankees went out and won that afternoon too, coming from behind in the ninth inning for a 6-5 victory.
Such a routine has left Showalter, who turns 38 this month, with a complexion the color of antique-white paint. Flat finish. What little of his personality he chooses to publicly reveal is just as dull. He is so bland that Steinbrenner encouraged him last year to be more controversial. Kicking dirt and jawing with umpires would be a good start, said the Boss. It would help sell tickets. But Showalter has declined to play the jester to the king.
These days, in the few moments when Showalter sleeps, he does so knowing that in his third year managing the Yankees he has the team that he wants. It is a team molded in his image and not the owner's. Two years of weeding have left him with a hardworking team that doesn't kick up any dirt. It is a broadsheet team in a tabloid town.
"The only time we're on the back page now is when it says, YANKEES WIN," says infielder Mike Gallego. "That's it. And hopefully we can continue to do that enough until people will notice and say, 'Hey, they're pretty good.' We'll just keep plugging away like this."
The first two wins over the Red Sox, who entered the series with the best record in baseball (20-7), a seven-game winning streak and their best start in 48 years, typified the Yankees' understated but effective manner: None of their nine runs was driven home with an extra-base hit. New York completed the sweep on Sunday in less characteristic fashion, belting four home runs—including back-to-back-to-back dingers by Danny Tartabull, Mike Stanley and Gerald Williams—in an 8-4 victory. It gave the Yankees their first sweep of the Red Sox in New York since 1985.
It is a rare day when these Yankees are big shots. Ordinarily this is a team whose greatest offensive weapon is the base on balls and whose best player may not be as popular in New York as his sister. Businesslike? Well, this Thursday is Briefcase Day at Yankee Stadium.
After a 3-4 start this season, New York ran off 16 wins in its next 22 games to zero in on what has been an agonizingly elusive achievement: standing alone in first place. The Yankees shared the top spot in the American League East for 18 days last season, but other than one day in the first week of the '92 season, they have not claimed solitary possession of first since July 27, 1988. At week's end New York trailed Boston by a half game.
"The makeup of the team has gotten to the point where we're ready to win," says first baseman Don Mattingly. "It all goes back to when Buck was hired. You could see a whole change coming. He got rid of some wrong attitude, and he brought in the right attitude." Since Showalter arrived, the Yankees have jettisoned high-maintenance players such as Mel Hall, Jesse Barfield, Greg Cadaret and Roberto Kelly. On Friday, after Showalter tired of veteran relief pitcher Jeff Rear-don's grousing about being used in what he felt was a mop-up role, New York released him. Meanwhile, most of the players who have been added to the Yankees have brought World Series experience and reputations for an admirable work ethic: Gallego, rightfielder Paul O'Neill, third baseman Wade Boggs and pitchers Jimmy Key and Terry Mulholland.
Says new leftfielder Luis Polonia, who also played for the Yankees in the 1989 and '90 seasons, "There's no comparison to what it was like before. That wasn't even a team then. It was a bunch of guys worried about their own numbers and trying to get their money. Guys rooted for other guys to screw up so they'd get a chance to play. This is a team right here."
It is a team that, given its lack of charisma, has been slow to excite New Yorkers, especially with the Knicks and the Rangers playing well in the NBA and NHL postseasons. Not even having the juice back in the Boston-New York rivalry was enough to fill the place last week, when total attendance for the three-game series was only 104,371. It was the first meeting between the two teams since 1988 in which both had winning records and one of them was in first place. Yet the Friday-night game drew just 30,979 (some 27,000 shy of capacity), and even that figure was reached only with some out-of-town help. "It was a late-arriving crowd," Mattingly said. "It was all those people driving down from Boston after they got off work."
With 94 pitches Key disposed of the Red Sox that night in much less time—two hours, 13 minutes—than it took the Boston fans to commute. O'Neill broke a scoreless tie with a fourth-inning single off Aaron Sele. Once touted by Lou Piniella, his manager with the Cincinnati Reds, as a future home run champion, O'Neill has looked more like a future batting champion (an odd development for someone who had been a career .259 hitter before his trade to New York after the 1992 season). It was during his first spring training with the Yankees that O'Neill, with the help of batting coach Rick Down, came up with a strange leg kick to help him wait on pitches. O'Neill takes his stance with his right heel off the ground and kicks his right foot toward the plate as the pitcher delivers. He then swings the foot toward the pitcher as the ball arrives. He might look like a reject from a Rockettes tryout, but O'Neill did hit .311 last season and at week's end was hitting a major-league-best .463 this year.
"Yeah, well, we'll see what happens," says an unimpressed O'Neill, who hates talking about himself. "It's only May. No big deal." O'Neill is no wordsmith, even though he is a distant descendant of Mark Twain, and his sister, Molly, is a popular food writer for The New York Times. That makes him perfect for these Stepford Yankees, whose public utterances are monitored, lest they speak out of turn.
Yankee general manager Gene Michael, who shares Showalter's taste for the bland, is known to begin his workday with clips from the morning papers and a highlighter pen. Any quotes from his players that suggest freethinking are noted and later called to the attention of the offending party. That happened in spring training when Michael and Showalter undressed rookie Sterling Hitchcock for saying about the Yankees' impatience with young pitchers, "It's been, give a guy six, seven starts, and if he doesn't do anything, then get him out of here and bring in Dave LaPoint." What used to be a clubhouse famous for its outrageous quotes and pervasive leaks has turned into a hermetically sealed environment.
"Other people call it damage control," Showalter says. "I call it covering the bases and making sure we're all on the same page. I have meetings with two or three people every day about all kinds of things. I think they should stay internal."
O'Neill added two more hits on Saturday, including one off Clemens (Roger, not Samuel) in a game that was a match of wits between two Andy Griffith Show fanatics: Showalter and Boston manager Butch Hobson, his former minor league teammate. Showalter remembers the day in Charleston, W.Va., in 1983 when Hob-son peered from the Columbus Clipper dugout to a spot beyond the outfield fence and said, "That looks like Ernest T. Bass out there." Showalter sat upright in delight upon hearing the name of an obscure character from Mayberry. The two men became instant friends and watched the show together several times. Hobson still wears an Andy Griffith deputy sheriff's cap when he's not in the dugout.
Hobson pulled Clemens from a 3-3 game after Clemens had thrown 126 pitches in six innings, though the penultimate pitch arrived at 96 mph. Hobson used five pitchers thereafter, including his closer, Jeff Russell, who, in his first appearance in nine days, squandered a 5-4 lead in the ninth. The Yankees mounted one of their resourceful rallies to score the tying and go-ahead runs: two walks, two singles and two fly balls.
Through 29 games New York was on pace to draw 866 walks this year. That would shatter the Yankee record (766) set in 1932 and break the major league record (835) of the 1949 Red Sox. Even the heretofore free-swinging Mattingly, who walked a career-high 61 times last year, would wind up with 123 walks at his current rate. "I'm still swinging the bat, but I'm not going to get myself out like I used to," Mattingly says. "Now 2-0 and 3-1 counts aren't automatic swings."
Says Michael, "This whole team makes you throw strikes."
Steinbrenner likes to call New York "a star-vehicle town" that demands big names and big headlines. But thanks to a plan formulated by Michael and Showalter that began in 1992 while Steinbrenner was banned from baseball, the Boss has an off-Broadway team that can win, especially if Michael can pull the trigger on a deal to get closer Rick Aguilera from the Minnesota Twins for third base prospect Russ Davis.
Steinbrenner himself has not courted the newspapers much since returning from exile in March 1993 other than to bash his stadium and threaten to take his team to New Jersey if New York City doesn't fix up the park and its environs. Behind the scenes, though, he is as maddening as ever, meddling in every issue, whether it's one as significant as ordering players off the roster (reliever Paul Assenmacher or infielder Randy Velarde had to go for the payroll's sake, Steinbrenner decreed; Assenmacher was traded) or one as trivial as the length of Reardon's hair (Reardon got it cut).
Showalter has maintained his low profile by refusing to take any gripes about Steinbrenner into the newspapers the way his predecessors did. That may explain why, if he can last at least until the final week of this season, Showalter will have managed the most consecutive games (472) of any manager in the Boss's 22-year reign. He has learned how not to fight his boss. He hasn't time for that.
"He looks much better now than he did when he first took the job," Mattingly says of Showalter. "That first year he had zits all over his forehead, and he kept getting sick. He's still intense as ever, but I see signs that he's handling it much better." How's that? Said Mattingly, "I've seen him smile a few times."