THE NEWBERG REPORT — AUGUST 31, 2006

I’ll write about the trade of Mike Nickeas for Victor Diaz next time. There’s something else on my mind right now.

I’ve stayed away from the Buck Showalter subject for a few weeks now, for several reasons:

1. There’s not really a story to discuss — just a reaction to what the columnists and talk show hosts are stirring up. For the last year I’ve tried to steer clear of commenting on commentators, preferring to keep the focus on what’s actually happening. I’m trying to stick to offering my opinions on the facts, rather than my opinions on opinions.

2. I don’t spend any time in the clubhouse. I don’t think it would be fair of me to speak out on an issue that, I think, is basically a clubhouse issue. My guess is that the columnists (unlike the beat writers) and talk show hosts don’t spend any time in the clubhouse, or at least not enough to get a true vibe on (if not a true picture of) the situation — but the point is they have that access, and so I can only hope they are using it before proclaiming what the state of the Rangers is, off the field.

3. I have no beef with Showalter’s effectiveness as an in-game tactician. Never have. I think he’s among the most passionate, prepared, effective baseball men in the game.

To me, the issue of whether Showalter is right for this team is one that’s unfair for me to really weigh in on, because I think the most important factor is what goes on between the manager and his players when we aren’t looking.

But as a fan, I’m going to toss in my two cents. Because even if I don’t feel qualified to evaluate the situation, this is my team. I buy tickets to games based on how I feel about the team. It feels like the time is right to discuss this, as last night’s tough loss seemed, with 28 games left, to shut a heavy door.

Sports Illustrated published the results of a poll a week or two ago asking who the best and worst managers in baseball are. A third of the 470 major league players polled said that Frank Robinson (17 percent) or Showalter (15 percent) was the worst.

SI points out that Robinson and Showalter also headed last year’s poll results, and that none of the next four on the 2005 list — Lloyd McClendon (Pirates), Larry Bowa (Phillies), Lou Piniella (Devil Rays), and Tony Peña (Royals) — are still managing in the major leagues.

But look at the managers who topped the “best” list: Bobby Cox, Jim Leyland, Joe Torre, and Tony LaRussa.

Cox has been fired once and resigned another time.

Leyland resigned three times.

Torre has been fired three times.

LaRussa has been fired once and resigned once.

Even the best managers have a shelf life. Circumstances inevitably lead to a breakup, sometimes by the manager’s choice and other times anything but. But that’s only the second most interesting thing about the SI poll.

What’s most interesting to me is who was polled. We don’t know which players SI questioned, and what criteria the publication used to determine which players to ask. Did they have to have played for more than one club? Did they have to vote within their own league? Could they vote for their own skipper?

Which players were polled is really not very important. But the fact that the survey exclusively involved big league players is significant, I think. Doesn’t the fact that nearly two-thirds of the players in the major leagues were asked to weigh in mean something, when free agency is a bigger factor in baseball than in any sport? Likeability certainly isn’t on the list of prerequisites for a big league manager or coach, but isn’t any reason that a marquis player may not want to play in Texas a reason that needs to be considered?

It was a players’ poll. Four hundred seventy baseball players who are, by definition, current or potential Texas Rangers.

Here’s what I think, and let me reiterate that I’m just a fan, entitled to an opinion because it’s my team but not entitled, in this case, to assume my opinion has any basis in fact.

I think Showalter has proven that he is among the best in baseball at taking a bad baseball team and making it better. At taking a collection of young baseball players and teaching them how to prepare and how to manage the grind. At getting a team on the right track. But then what?

Showalter managed for four seasons in New York. For three seasons in Arizona (five years counting the two prior to the club’s first season). And now four seasons in Texas.

His best year with the Yankees — in terms of games won — was his second year.

His best year with the Diamondbacks was his second year.

His best year here was his second year, when he was named American League Manager of the Year.

Is it a coincidence? Is it a matter of peaking? Or is it a matter of taking a team and getting more out of it, in short order, than he really should have been expected to, only to have things settle back a little after that? Or am I twisting the facts just to prove a flimsy point, since the Yankees actually had better seasons in Showalter’s third and fourth years there, both of which were shortened due to the 1994 strike?

I don’t know what it means. And I don’t know what it means that the year after Showalter left the Yankees, they went out and won their first World Series in 18 years, or what it means that the year after Showalter left the Diamondbacks, they went out and won a World Series in their fourth season of existence. I don’t see it as a cause-and-effect thing. But it happened.

Is there a reason Arizona retreated after Showalter’s second season, a reason that can be attributed to the fact that he was the manager? How about in Texas, same question?

There have been widespread stories in the last couple weeks that Showalter teams tend to fade late in the season, and that that’s necessarily indicative of something. Not sure what it means, though, when a little research indicates that the Rangers have won more games in August (60) than in any other month with Showalter at the helm, and it’s the club’s second-best month (.526) in terms of winning percentage during his tenure.

What’s more pertinent to the second-half subject is that Texas is in a division with the most incredible finisher in sports. Five weeks ago, Oakland stood at 51-49, tied with the Angels atop the AL West and a half-game up on Texas. Since that time, the A’s have gone 26-7, with 15 of those 33 games coming against division opponents. A team that headed into the final days of July peeking over a .500 mark is now on pace to win 94 games. With their closer, their number two starter, and their shortstop out of action. It’s ridiculous. And the A’s do this every year.

It’s certainly not Showalter’s fault that Adam Eaton wasn’t around until that day when Oakland was 51-49. Or that Francisco Cordero blew five saves in the season’s first three weeks, four against division opponents. Or that Brad Wilkerson and Phil Nevin, two key components to the offense, would give this club exactly one good month each.

But forget the Rangers’ month-by-month trends, and forget the individual disappointments. The easy facts are that the Rangers are 307-313 under Showalter, with a fourth-place finish and two thirds, and a team that right now sits in third again, nine-and-a-half games out with 28 to go. That win-loss record through four seasons, and those results in the standings, would prompt columns and talk show segments questioning the future of Cox or Leyland or Torre or LaRussa, too. It’s how baseball works.

Is that fair? Should the players be held accountable as a whole? Sure, but what does that mean? Every one of them can look back at some stretch of the season and say he could have done more, but that’s true of every player on every team in the league. Should Jon Daniels be held accountable? Of course, and he’d admit that, too. Eaton’s and Wilkerson’s lack of production has made the club’s two biggest off-season trades disappointing, overshadowing good deals for Vicente Padilla and John Koronka and John Rheinecker, the huge signing of Kevin Millwood, and a very good late-July flurry of trades.

I don’t include the Robinson Tejeda deal in the list of good deals, even though his chances to help long-term might be as legitimate as those of any pitcher Daniels traded for. I don’t include it because I wonder if the absence of David Dellucci has been more critical than even I anticipated (April 2 Newberg Report: “I’m comfortable with this one, with my only reservation being that I hope it doesn’t cause a problem in the clubhouse”).

Dellucci served four roles on this team: leadoff hitter, designated hitter, part-time left-handed-hitting outfielder, and clubhouse force. Wilkerson’s arrival was supposed to make the first one moot. The organization’s desire to have Nevin protecting Mark Teixeira in the lineup was supposed to take care of the second one. The idea that Wilkerson and Laynce Nix were going to play virtually every day along with Gary Matthews Jr. and Kevin Mench meant there wouldn’t be much need for the third.

But as for the fourth, Dellucci’s voice in the room was not replaced. Mark DeRosa is clearly a glue guy, and Millwood has plenty of leadership qualities, but those playoff teams that had Nuschler and Rusty and Tettleton and Valle and McLemore and Hamilton succeeded, in part, because they governed themselves, and because Johnny Oates allowed them to.

This is not an indictment of Michael Young or Teixeira, any more than it would have been an indictment of Pudge or Juan in the Red Years. The sheriffs aren’t always the stars.

And this is where my blindness comes in. I don’t know what goes on before the game, after the game, or on the plane. All I can do is go by a gut feel as a fan. When we get shots into the dugout, the body language of the players doesn’t look good — but shouldn’t that be expected when it’s been a disappointing season? Is it cliché to say the team looks tight, like it’s pressing, like it’s not as loose as it should be?

All of this is why I was so fired up about the fight with Anaheim two weeks ago. Did the bench clearing help Texas go win three of four in Detroit? No telling. I wanted to accept the correlation, but then how do you explain the club then dropping three of four in Tampa, the absolute low point of the season?

Maybe what this team needs is another Dellucci, and another, and another. Then the question becomes whether Showalter would loosen the reins the way Oates apparently did, and let the players “manage” themselves until the first pitch and after the last. If not, maybe his message, and his methods, start to wear thin.

There are coaches in every sport who consistently build contenders but don’t have a ring.

I think the Rangers have the core players in place to win, and the right general manager in place to build around them. The club’s best players are in, or entering, their prime. We have to capitalize on that, and not let their best years go by.

I subscribe to the premise that players win and lose more games than managers do — the pitchers and hitters and defenders (and not the bench coach) get the credit for taking three of four from the Tigers, and they get the blame for dropping three of four to the Devil Rays.

But sometimes there needs to be a change for change’s sake, even if the manager doesn’t really deserve to be the fall guy. In pro sports, when there’s a disconnect between coach and players, there’s usually only one way to repair it. Is there a disconnect here? If you believe the columnists, there might be. But do they really know what the psyche is among the men wearing the uniforms, or are they basically going on vibe just like you and me have to? I don’t know.

Man, I want this team to win so badly. And I think it can. It just seems like there’s something missing right now.

You can’t expect Buck Showalter to change his style and approach. He has proven that his style and approach works, that it’s well suited to building a team. But what about carrying his club over the threshold?

Ultimately, as any sports fan knows, it may not really matter if he is too intense, or too controlling, or too organized or too smart or too blonde. The best managers in the game inevitably end up wearing different uniforms, a lot of times because their personalities are such that they aren’t wired to wear different hats.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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