If you took an informal sample of baseball's chattering class, the advance scouts and beat guys and assistant GMs, they'd tell you there are maybe a half-dozen managers now who actually make a difference in games won. The names you keep hearing? Joe Maddon, Terry Francona, Mike Scioscia, Bruce Bochy, and, depending on who's talking, Ron Gardenhire.
Then there are two – perhaps the best of the bunch, based on their preparation, smarts, and laser-guided eye for young talent – who have had a hellish time getting hired. One is Bobby Valentine, who by general acclamation is as brilliant as he is noxious, and who watches each winter as soft-skulled retreads gobble up the jobs he covets. The other is Buck Showalter, the two-time Manager of the Year (Yankees in '94, Rangers in '04) who took over the Baltimore Orioles last August and, during the last two months of the season, turned the worst team in the majors into the AL East's best. In New York and Texas, he'd likewise taken teams in shambles and rebuilt them on the fly, making them models of market efficiency. In Arizona, he presided over the birth of a franchise, designing each detail of the organization, from the color of its jerseys to its clubhouse layout, and then guided the Diamondbacks, in their second year of life, to 100 wins and a title in the NL West. Both the Yankees and D'Backs went on to win the World Series within five years of his arrival; the Rangers took seven but were owned by Tom Hicks, a meddlesome fool.
You'd think that someone so effective would inspire a little love and stable employment. But Showalter never made it to even one of those Series, being axed by the D'Backs and Rangers and allowed to leave by the Yanks before he could finish the job. The stated reasons for his departures varied, but the whispers were the same at every stop: For all his savvy, he wore people ragged with a slakeless thirst for control. Players groused that he called each pitch and changed signals three times a game. Suits in the front office bitched that he tried to undermine them or invade their turf. Fairly or not, a reputation grew and attached itself to him: He'd fix your team but drive players and employees batshit.
And so it was that when Texas canned him in '06, he waited almost four years for another shot – and a chance, maybe his last, to clear the record. If history is any guide, he will reconstruct the Orioles for a quantum leap in 2012, if not this year. And then maybe we'll get an answer to a pointed question: Can he change his spots in middle age and see a job through to completion?
"I've had my heart broken so much," said Showalter when I passed through his winter town of Plano, Texas, a couple of weeks prior to spring training. "Every stop I've been to, I've approached like it was my last. Invested in it to the point where…"