George Steinbrenner sat in the living room of Buck Showalter’s ranch-style home on the Florida Panhandle, roughly 10 miles from the Alabama border. Three days before, on Oct. 31, 1995, Steinbrenner had discarded Showalter as Yankees manager and replaced him with Joe Torre.
But Steinbrenner had changed his mind. Now he wanted Showalter back even if it meant shunting Torre to a desultory desk job.
Only a few people knew that Steinbrenner had flown in his private jet to surprise Showalter at home with his startling offer.
Except Showalter was not there. He was returning from Phoenix, where he had been offered the job as manager of the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks.
This was before cellphones became common, so Buck’s wife, Angela, answered on a land line at home that morning and listened as her husband’s Tampa-based agent, Jim Krivacs, hastily explained that he and Steinbrenner were en route and that someone needed to pick them up at the Pensacola, Fla., airport.
Shocked, Angela tried summoning Buck by using a beeper, but he was on a flight and unavailable. Thirty minutes later, while he was changing planes in Texas, Buck returned Angela’s call.
She posed a question, “Guess who’s going to be here at the house in a couple hours?”
Angela answered her own question. Her husband was thunderstruck.
“What? What’s he want?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Angela said. “I just know he’s coming here, and I have to pack up the kids and go get him at the airport.”
Together, they figured Angela would have to entertain Steinbrenner for about an hour before Buck arrived in Pensacola.
“Buck told me to go buy some food to give them,” Angela said. “And I said, ‘I love to cook, but I’m not making something that might kill him.’”
The compromise choice was a store-made shrimp tray with dip, which Angela bought on the way to the airport. She found Steinbrenner and Krivacs, then drove the 15 minutes to her home, parked in her small, circular driveway and led Steinbrenner inside.
Both Showalter children, Allie, 8, and Nathan, 4, were enamored of their unexpected guests, especially Nathan, who climbed onto Steinbrenner’s lap. Plates of shrimp were distributed.
Joe Torre, left, at spring training in 1996, his first season as the Yankees manager. Shortly after Torre was hired, Steinbrenner was ready to replace him with Showalter.CreditChris O’Meara/Associated Press
“Well, Nathan tried some shrimp, which he had never eaten before,” Angela said. “He made a face, said it was too chewy and spit it out onto George’s plate. I’m sitting there staring at George and this half-eaten, gooey pile of shrimp on his plate.
“I wanted to die.”
The group eventually retired to the living room, which is where Buck found them when he walked in the front door.
What exactly did Steinbrenner say that day in the living room?
“I’ve thought about this, come on back and manage,” said Showalter, who has turned aside scores of questions about the clandestine meeting since 1995.
Asked if Steinbrenner had tried to persuade him to resume managing the Yankees immediately, Showalter, sitting inside his spring training office with the Baltimore Orioles in 2017, nodded and answered, “Uh-huh.”
Dumbfounded, Showalter told Steinbrenner he had shaken hands with Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo and agreed to take over his team.
“Did you sign anything?” Steinbrenner asked.
When Showalter said he had not, Steinbrenner was elated.
“Because I hadn’t signed anything, he thought that was good enough, and he said we’d work it all out for me to come back to the Yankees,” Showalter said.
Steinbrenner had the same response when asked what would become of Torre: Something would be worked out, with Torre becoming the team president or taking some other similar post. As for Showalter’s coaches, whom Steinbrenner had wanted to fire, that was another minor detail to be rectified.
Steinbrenner’s attitude was one of acquiescence and compromise. In essence, he wanted to turn back the clock and fix a messy rift. Steinbrenner had come all the way to the Florida Panhandle to make amends.
And what had motivated him to do such a thing?
“He was getting crucified publicly for the Showalter situation,” Gene Michael, who a month earlier had been removed as the Yankees general manager, said in a 2017 interview. “He was getting killed in the press and the fans were going crazy — just incensed. It was a disaster.
“It really shook George up. It changed him forever. It affected everything he did with the team after that.”
The Yankees had just been in their first playoff games in 14 years, completing the most dazzling, unforeseen revival in the franchise’s history. Five years earlier, they had been in last place and were the laughingstock of baseball. The seasons from 1989 to 1992 saw the franchise’s worst four-year record (288-359) since it became known as the Yankees in 1913. Attendance at Yankee Stadium was down 35 percent, television ratings had plummeted and Steinbrenner had been banished from baseball for consorting with a known gambler.
Michael and Showalter had been the faces of the Yankees’ ingenious resurrection, and now they were both out — all because the Yankees had fallen one run short in a scintillating five-game postseason series against the Seattle Mariners, whose lineup was stacked with three future Hall of Famers.
The current Yankees general manager, Brian Cashman, remembered the fax machine in the team’s office spitting out page after page of angry missives from an enraged fan base.
“The fax machine was constantly running out of paper, and the phone kept ringing nonstop with angry callers,” Cashman said. “We were under siege. I think George was caught off guard by the fallout. He was getting destroyed when Buck wasn’t brought back as manager.
“George was definitely impacted by the ferocious assault that the franchise was under at that time.”
There was precedent for Steinbrenner’s response to the 1995 crisis. Seventeen years earlier, after the forced midseason resignation of Manager Billy Martin, Steinbrenner had rehired Martin six days later.
Steinbrenner was going back to a familiar script. Billy Martin had been an influential mentor to Showalter. But the two men were more dissimilar than alike.
In the Showalters’ living room, with the shrimp plate all but gone, there was a certain stunned silence after Steinbrenner laid out his plan for Buck’s triumphant return to lead the Yankees yet again.
Then Showalter and Krivacs went into another room to discuss what they had just heard, as well as what had been discussed in Arizona. The Diamondbacks’ contract offer was for seven years and $7 million.
Angela Showalter remained with Steinbrenner.
“He had a little giddap — he thought he was going to get Buck back,” she said. “But I knew Buck had been impressed by his trip to Arizona and by what he had heard there, because he had been calling me to talk about it.”
After about 10 minutes, Showalter emerged from his conference with Krivacs. Standing inside a house filled with Yankee paraphernalia, Showalter, who had been employed by the Yankees since signing as a minor league free agent outfielder in 1977, told Steinbrenner that he was not returning to the only professional baseball home he had known. He had given Colangelo his word; he was going to honor that commitment.
Steinbrenner, Showalter said, was incredulous.
“He couldn’t understand what the big deal was — he didn’t understand why there was anything to stop me,” Showalter said.
Steinbrenner remained in the Showalters’ home for roughly another 30 minutes. He continued to be surprised at the turn of events.
“But we tried to make some peace,” Showalter said. “And I think we did. The man had done a tremendous amount of good for my family, supported us for 19 years, and I told him that. He recognized that I worked hard for the franchise for all those years.
“I wished him and the Yankees well, and I certainly meant that. Those were still my guys.”
Many of Showalter’s guys would be part of the 1996 team that made a spectacular run through the postseason, a charge that concluded with a stirring upset of the heavily favored Atlanta Braves in the World Series. Led by players nurtured under the watch of Michael and Showalter — including Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada — the Yankees won three of the next four World Series. From 1996 to 2012, they played in baseball’s postseason every year but one.
Treated as a wasteland by the baseball community in 1990, the Yankees were the dynasty no one saw coming.
But the architects of that renaissance were largely pushed aside before champagne in the Yankees locker room and ticker-tape parades in Lower Manhattan became the norm.
In addition to Michael and Showalter, at the end of 1995, the entire leadership of the team’s scouting and minor league operations, who had drafted or signed Jeter, Williams, Rivera, Pettitte and Posada, was unceremoniously fired.
“There was a bittersweet feeling sometimes,” Michael conceded as he sat in the sun and warmth of the Yankees’ spring training complex in March 2017. “But that was a long time ago — do we have to go back there? It’s such a nice day.”
But Michael, who died six months later at 79, wasn’t one to duck a question. He settled back in his chair and propped his baseball cap on the back of his head with the bill tilted up so the sun bathed his face. He stared at an empty practice infield.
“If we had just won in Seattle, I would have stayed as the G.M., and there would have been no questions about Buck as a manager,” he said. “But we didn’t win that series.”
“I did expect some of the success that might come to pass,” he said softly.
In 1995, Showalter threw himself into his new job with the Diamondbacks, but Angela Showalter said it was hard at first to put the Yankees in the past.
“You’re punched in the gut,” she said. “It hurt.”
Her husband did not disagree.
“I woke up some days still thinking about the Yankees batting order or some Yankees minor leaguer I wanted to watch film on,” Showalter recalled. “There were things I wanted to finish.
“Life isn’t always fair. But I do believe things happen for a reason.”
Showalter kept a close eye on the Yankees and always would. He couldn’t help himself.
“I’m not going to lie to you; I did grow up with them,” Showalter said. “Do you ever forget where you went to elementary school or high school? Do you ever want to?”
Willie Randolph, who won two World Series as a Yankees second baseman and was a third-base coach for Showalter and Torre, insists the 1990 to 1995 Yankees don’t get enough credit for the bounty of baseball riches that followed.
“Every championship team usually has to endure some serious heartache or heartbreak before winning it all,” Randolph said. “That’s what Buck, Stick, the 1995 team, plus all those scouts, minor league managers and the big league coaches who built that team from the ground up, did for the Yankees franchise. They took that bullet.
“The bad taste it left in everyone’s mouth became the motivation for reaching higher the next season and all the seasons after that.”