"It was a difficult decision to come to, a difficult message to deliver, and an even more difficult message for him to receive, I'm sure," said Jon Daniels on Wednesday afternoon, about giving Buck Showalter the news on Tuesday night that he was being fired.
What it came down to, evidently, was two things: communication issues, and a disappointing red zone efficiency. But really, regardless of the factors, it couldn't have come as that big a shock to anyone, including Showalter himself, that he was let go after four years of nothing but third- and fourth-place finishes as manager of the Texas Rangers.
The 18th manager in the Rangers' 35-year history, and the franchise's third-most tenured, Showalter was told on Tuesday night by Jon Daniels and Tom Hicks that he would not be asked to fulfill the final three seasons of his guaranteed contract. Daniels told the press on Wednesday that the decision was made by him and Hicks, but that it was based on his own recommendation to the Rangers' owner.
Daniels conveyed that, and a lot more, at an afternoon press conference that featured him, alone, as if to punctuate the point that Daniels not only accepts some of the responsibility for the teams' failure to win in 2006, but takes full responsibility for the recommendation to go in a different direction at manager. He didn't solicit player input (contrary to various media reports). He didn't base the decision on marketing concerns. He made it clear that the 2006 season wasn't the key factor.
What Daniels emphasized was a need for a fresh perspective going forward, an environment that was conducive (both short-term and long-term) to success through better communication.
From the outside, that's exactly what it looked this summer like this Rangers club needed. I wish I could put my finger on it. It just looked like the players weren't enjoying playing for Showalter. There was a palpable disconnect.
So what? Shouldn't millionaire ballplayers be expected to suck it up? Of course.
But at the same time, if the idea is to give the players the best possible environment to win, it seems that having a manager that they want to play for (whether they "like" him or not is not really the question) should be important. Right?
I have no doubt that every man wearing a Rangers uniform gave it everything he had every night, but I believe in the "extra gear" that some coaches and managers and bosses can get out of their people. I began questioning this season whether Buck was bringing that out in the team.
Of course, that doesn't exonerate the players. But coaches almost never outlive their players in a situation like that.
The players here have outlived Showalter. Maybe because they outgrew him.
Daniels talked about how different leaders have different levels of success with different types of teams. This Texas club isn't like the one that Showalter inherited and got 89 wins out of in his second season. Some of those "24 kids" that Alex Rodriguez left behind are still around, but the best of them are squarely in or entering their baseball prime. Showalter specializes in teaching young teams how to play the game right and how to win. But there's a bit of a history now that suggests that his methods don't work as well with veteran clubs that don't need a manager to help forge their identity. Rod Barajas even suggested to reporters that the situation here, as the season drew to a close, had taken on a "very similar" feel to the one that led to Showalter's dismissal in Arizona in 2000.
Showalter, who has $5.1 million coming his way, said in a Friday radio interview, when asked by Norm Hitzges if he thought he would be blamed for the Rangers' substandard season: "I hope so. I can take it." But he refused to resign his post, according to local reports, when given that chance by Hicks and Daniels on Tuesday night. So he was fired.
Did Daniels think the players quit on Showalter? No, he says. Did he sense some discontent? Sure -- but if your team had fallen short of its own expectations for the second straight year, you wouldn't want the players to be content. If they were, then the problem becomes a lot bigger than the one Daniels faced.
But again, this wasn't the players reaching out to Daniels and prompting a change in managers. Daniels said he only visited with one player late in the season -- and that was Michael Young last month, to address the comments that Hicks made on the radio about the team's mental toughness and to make sure that Young hadn't misconstrued them.
Interesting: Toronto center fielder Vernon Wells, doing studio work for ESPN during the playoffs, said yesterday on "Baseball Tonight" that, although he didn't know exactly what the situation was in Texas, he understood that players were unhappy, and his opinion was that a change was in order.
Remember, two-thirds of the players in the big leagues were polled by Sports Illustrated this summer and only Frank Robinson received more votes than Showalter as the least-liked manager in the league. The merits of those votes are immaterial; what matters is that players perceived what they perceived about Showalter, and that had to factor in when free agents were considering Texas.
In March, Wells -- a native of Arlington and Young's best friend -- told a local reporter that he and Young would be teammates one day: "It's just a matter of time when that will happen."
You should hope that the Blue Jays don't trade Wells in the next 12 months.
Back to the present.
Now what? Daniels acknowledged competing factors at play when it comes to the timetable for choosing Showalter's successor: he wants to be thorough and make sure he assesses every possibility, but at the same time he wants to be efficient and make a decision before long. There's no sense in throwing up an extra roadblock when it comes to retaining the club's own free agents and attracting others from the outside, and having a question mark at manager doesn't help.
Among the traits that Daniels said he'll be seeking in Showalter's replacement is an ability to communicate both good news and bad news to his players. Daniels also commented that he intends for this team to continue bringing along young players -- in "contributing" roles, not just at the end of the bench or the staff -- and the new hire is going to have to be capable of fostering an environment conducive to their success.
The idea of bringing kids along in contributing roles sounds like a good thing if you're a Jason Botts fan, like I am.
Don Wakamatsu, whom Showalter hired to be his bench coach less than a month after he arrived, has been identified in most local reports as the frontrunner to succeed Showalter. Aside from Wakamatsu's reputation as a future big league manager, there's plenty of merit to the idea, from the standpoint of maintaining continuity and taking advantage of his familiarity with the players and the organization.
Wakamatsu would definitely make me happy. My wish list, in no particular order:
* Trey Hillman
* Tom Kelly and Rusty Greer, one as manager and the other as bench coach
I can get behind the idea of Bobby Jones or Ron Washington or Bud Black or Davey Johnson, too.
Joe Girardi, Dusty Baker, Felipe Alou, Robinson, Lou Piniella? No. No. No. No. No.
I'll elaborate on those ideas another time.
For now, the story is Showalter, who took a young team and, arguably, made it better, even if the results the past two seasons haven't measured up to the surprising 2004 squad's. But the dynamic between Showalter and his players, in the eyes of the people responsible for deciding on the direction of the franchise, had degenerated to the point that the general manager concluded the club was better off going forward without him than with him.
So ends this chapter (not to mention a book). Buck Showalter compiled a 319-329 record as Rangers manager. Not good enough. And it cost him his job, which can't be surprising from an objective baseball standpoint.
Does dismissing Showalter make the Rangers better? Not necessarily. Does it remove from the formula an impediment to the "environment conducive to success" that Daniels discussed? Theoretically. Now it's on the players -- which of course is something that they should accept.
Managers manage players.
Players win games.
Whether they'll win more here in 2007 than they would have if Showalter were still in place will always be unanswerable. Daniels has made the determination that a change in managers, and a change in environment and approach, will give his players the best chance to get to the place that Showalter never got them: to post-season baseball.
If and when that happens, the Rangers' 19th manager will get tons of credit. But, as was the case in New York and Arizona, Showalter will get a little bit, too.
Jon Daniels said yesterday that he feels very good about this decision, going forward. It sounds like the players should, too, and it's clear that the fans do.
Here we go.
Players win games.