On November 15, 1995 the Arizona Diamondbacks made their first major league signing. The team was still three years away from playing their first game. They did not have a stadium yet, they would not break ground on Bank One Ballpark for another day but on this day they made national headlines with a signing of William Nathaniel Showalter III who would be the first manager in Diamondbacks history.
Showalter had been the manager of the New York Yankees and had been named American League Manager of the year in 1994. He led the Yankees to the play-offs as a wild card team in 1995. Shortly after the playoffs he was fired and then Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo seized the opportunity to bring in one of the brightest minds in baseball.
Showalter signed a 7-year contract with the Diamondbacks that would keep him in uniform through the 2002 season. It seemed odd at first that the Diamondbacks would name a manager three years before they would play their first game and it seemed even stranger that a manager would agree to manage a team that would have no players for three seasons.
The opportunity fit perfectly with Showalter’s personality. He was a brilliant tactician that is prepared to the nth degree. A stickler for detail on the field and in game planning, Showalter would use those three years to help the Diamondbacks to establish a persona that would make them successful.
He created a binder of rules by which the new franchise would abide by. Some of these came from the experiences Showalter had in previous management positions and some came from Buck himself. This was an opportunity of a lifetime. How often can a manager leave his fingerprint on an organization from the very beginning of its existence?
When play started in 1998 Showalter led the Diamondbacks to a 65-97 record, the sixth best record in expansion team history. He was there during the 1998 off-season when the Diamondbacks opened their checkbook and sprinted into the free agent market bringing in such legends as Randy Johnson, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, Todd Stottlemyre, and others.
The 1999 season was a dream. The Diamondbacks went from an expansion team to an instant contender winning 100 games, the best record in franchise history even to this day. They reached the playoffs in just their second season, the fastest ever. Showalter ruled the clubhouse demanding the very best of his players and his coaches.
While the Diamondbacks should have been content just making the play-offs in 1999, expectations were much higher and there were rumblings that the team had underachieved. The 2000 season saw fans and media expecting nothing less than a trip to the World Series.
The Diamondbacks would finish third that year with a disappointing 85-77 record. It seems odd to say a disappointing 85-77 record. That season still marks the sixth best record in franchise history. Despite the early success, management decided they needed to go a different direction and fired the only manager they had ever had.
Today marks the return of William Nathaniel Showalter III to now Chase Field. He will lead the resurgent Baltimore Orioles against the struggling Arizona Diamondbacks. It will seem a little odd to long-time fans seeing Buck in the visitor’s dugout wearing a different uniform. He seemed like such a fixture during the building of the franchise. He had his finger on nearly every on-field decision when this franchise started.
Showalter was not just a good manager when he was in Arizona; he was a great ambassador for the team. He made countless public appearances on behalf of the Diamondbacks and always took the time to interact with the fans and general public.
Early in Diamondbacks history they held a “Fuji Film Fan Photo” day at the ballpark. The warning track would be roped off and fans would be allowed down on the field. Players and coaches in groups of three would stop by various stations and pose for pictures. The plan was that the players or coaches would stand 10-12 feet from the fans but Buck always made it a point to get up close with the fans and have personalized pictures taken with them.
During the 2000 season I took my daughter Mallorie to “Fuji Film Fan Photo” day to see if we could get some pictures. Leading up to the event she had identified three people she wanted pictures of – second baseman Jay Bell, left fielder Luis Gonzalez, and manager Buck Showalter. I tried to explain to her that the players and coaches did not pose individually with fans but she was sure they would.
We stood among the crowds and as each player came out people would go crazy. As these three appeared Mallorie waved her Diamondbacks hat hoping they would see her. In a strange series of events every one of them saw her and came over and posed with this young girl.
I had those pictures developed and prayed they had turned out. Fortunately they were great and I had each of those pictures blown up to 8×10. They were her prized possessions. At one point she decided she would like to see if they would autograph those pictures making them perfect.
I helped her write a letter to each player and the manager and carefully packaged the photos individually and sent them to the Diamondbacks. For the next month she raced to the mailbox every day to see if her pictures had arrived. Each day she would come back disappointed that there was nothing for her.
I tried to explain to her that the players were busy playing and travelling and that she needed to be patient, something difficult for a child to understand. The season ended and shortly thereafter Showalter was fired by the Diamondbacks who wanted to go a “different direction”.
It was an especially emotional day in our household. Mallorie took it very hard. She had made a bond with Buck and idolized the way he led the team. Two days after Showalter had been fired an envelope arrived in our mail. Inside was the photo of Mallorie with Buck Showalter with a personalized message and signature. I looked at the postmark on the envelope and realized it had been mailed the day he had been fired by the team.
My admiration of Buck Showalter rose as I thought about how difficult that day must have been for him yet he had taken the time to make sure that one young fan would not be disappointed. My daughter was thrilled. We framed that photo and it hung in her room from that point forward.
When she moved out to go to college, she boxed up all of her things for storage but not that picture. She took that with her to college to remind her of her childhood and the time she met a major league manager.
She’s married now and has just had her first child. I have no doubt that when her daughter gets a little older she will be told stories about when her mom was a child and when she met Buck Showalter and how he took time to make a fan happy despite going through a difficult time himself. I can’t wait to hear that story.