The Yankees went through an overhaul in the 1995-96 offseason after the heartbreaking Division Series loss to Seattle. Most notably, GM Gene ‘Stick’ Michael was replaced with Bob Watson and manager Buck Showalter was replaced with Joe Torre. The latter was almost undone.
Even though the Yankees improved dramatically under Buck’s 4-year tenure managing and stormed to the postseason for the first time since 1981 with a 21-6 September record, it was not enough for George.
Showalter’s contract was set to expire at the end of October. Buck, under the impression he was negotiating, turned down a 2-year contract because he wanted 3-years (he had earned that much). But a counter-offer from Steinbrenner never came.
After days went by with no word, the Yankees issued a statement prior to Game 5 of the 1995 World Series sating that Showalter and the Yankees had parted “under amicable terms.”
Buck was blindsided.
In the release, Steinbrenner said Showalter declined to meet on two issues: the length of his contract and the coaching staff.
Showalter said that was untrue and he was never asked to meet again to negotiate.
Also in the statement from Steinbrenner:
We tried but were unable to dissuade Buck. I have nothing but praise for Buck and the job he did for us, and I told him I was very upset by his leaving. I wish buck and his fine, little family nothing but the best. There will be no criticism of Buck in any way from me.
(I dare you to read that with a straight face.)
A bigger issue than contract terms was the coaching staff. For starters, George wanted hitting coach Rick Down gone after the season. The two disagreed throughout the year about coaches — George wanted Down and first base coach Brian Butterfield fired as far back as July, but Showalter stood up for his staff and talked George out of it.
(Side note: Why did George care who the first base coach was? That’s a rhetorical question…)
If disagreements over coaching personnel was the underlying issue then the contract length was icing on the cake. Buck was gone.
Letting Showalter go seemed like an overreaction in hindsight, but George and the Yankees fell ass-backwards into Joe Torre — they just didn’t know it at first.
Backlash over the Joe Torre hiring started immediately for a few different reasons.
On November 2, 1995, the Yankees officially introduced Torre, but the news had been known since Halloween. Confusion came because Bob Watson — the new GM — spoke to the media as if he was still evaluating candidates even though it was public that Joe accepted the job.
Confusion and misinformation may have been the reason the media was upset, but the public was angry because Torre’s resume was awful. To that point in his career, his managerial record was 894-1,003 over 14 seasons. The Yankees let a perfectly qualified manager in Showalter walk in favor of a well-established loser.
Torre was originally offered the general manager job but turned it down (he later joked it was because there was no vacation time, but it was actually because he had never been a GM and was not prepared for it).
Once Watson accepted the GM job, the Yankees front office spun Torre as the unanimous choice for manager. In reality, he was the last choice among outside candidates which also included Davey Johnson, Sparky Anderson and Tony Larussa.
To cap it all off, Steinbrenner did not attend Torre’s opening news conference.
The media onslaught did not end with the “CLUELESS JOE” headline.
Mike Lupica wrote:
Torre was the favored choice by the confederacy of dunces running the Yankees’ office in Tampa even before Bob Watson was hired as general manager. Torre went to the top of the list once the Braves swept Davey Johnson’s Reds in the NLCS, because Steinbrenner is the phoniest front-runner of all time.
Brian Cashman, an assistant at the time, remembers the fax machine in the Yankees office being flooded with pissed-off fans.
Perhaps the best summation of the mood was this, written by George Vecsey in the New York Times:
The real question is, who’s next in this Yankee-manager business? My own sense of the coming Yankee chronology is: Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly, Chris Chambliss, Newt Gingrich (although, come to think of it, has anybody ever seen George and Newt in the same place at the same time?), Darryl Strawberry, Arthur Richman, Rick Down (George often does [have a] penance for ugly words and deeds), Art Fowler, David Letterman, Dwight Gooden, Pee-wee Herman, Nathaniel Showalter (the owner does admire Buck’s “nice little family”), Suzyn Waldman, Mookie Wilson, Andrew Giuliani and Lenny Dykstra. (George has this terrible case of Met envy.)
That takes us to about 1998. I see Bill Bradley managing the Jersey Yankees. Instead of hearing old Sinatra croaking “New York, New York,” we hear Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” George doesn’t get the irony. By then, Joe Torre’s managing somewhere else. If Steinbrenner can go on and on, why not Torre?
It’s no wonder why Steinbrenner had second thoughts.
The full story didn’t come out until years later but it was first reported in early December 1995 that Steinbrenner tried to rehire Showalter just 72-hours after coming to an agreement with Torre. At the time George would not discuss it and Buck would not admit it.
Steinbrenner and Showalter’s agent called Buck’s Florida house to give him a heads up that they were visiting and needed to be picked up at the airport. It seems odd that George needed a lift from the airport, you know, seeing as how he was one of the most powerful owners in sports, but I guess he just wanted to make his presence known.
Showalter was flying back from Phoenix where he met with the Diamondbacks about being their manager — a job he verbally accepted.
Buck’s wife Angela finally got a hold of him while he was on a layover in Texas to alert him that George would be at their house in a few hours. Buck was obviously stunned. Angela and the “fine little” kids would have to entertain Big Stein until Buck arrived home.
Once Buck got back they discussed the “grand plan” for returning Showalter to the organization. He would receive a new contract and Torre would be relegated to something else (George would figure that out later). The whole thing screamed George and Billy Martin in the 1970s-80s.
Showalter considered but ultimately decided to honor his agreement with Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo.
To recap the timeline of events:
Oct 31: Torre accepts the Yankees job
Oct 31/Nov 1: Reports surface and negative articles start to be written
Nov 2: Torre is introduced as Yankees manager
Nov 3: “CLUELESS JOE” headline; Fans freak out; Steinbrenner tries to rehire Showalter
It was very hard for Buck, a Yankee lifer, to turn Steinbrenner down. He went on to help establish and manage the Diamondbacks, but was fired before they won a title.
The Yankees went on to be the best modern-day baseball dynasty.
Podcast – A Brief History: The Yankees replace Showalter with Torre
You can listen to the full history episode about the Yankees transition from Showalter to Torre below.