Buck has bittersweet return to Bronx

NEW YORK -- Jorge Posada turned up with a concussion scare and Derek Jeter, the shortstop who looked half his age last year, looked twice his age again Wednesday before Buck Showalter recalled a time when both were young and restless and terribly naive.

Showalter took the kid Yankees to Seattle for the 1995 AL Division Series, Posada as a pinch runner, Jeter as a wide-eyed observer, and the manager's instructions were as clear as Boss Steinbrenner's win-or-else mandate.

This is a great opportunity. Don't screw it up.

Jeter would tell his first manager that warning made him afraid to leave his hotel room, and 15 years later Showalter could smile over the thought, if only for a second or two. The Orioles were a couple of outs away from sweeping the Yankees in the Bronx in a series of at least three games for the first time in nearly a quarter century, and then Nick Swisher sent a Koji Uehara pitch barreling over the left-center wall, leaving Showalter to say all the right things from behind the losing manager's desk.

Yeah, he said he was proud of his players. Yeah, he said he was thrilled his pitchers attacked the Yankees' lineup. Yeah, he said a month's worth of wonderful things happened over these past three days.

But 15 minutes later Showalter was slumped in a chair, the color drained from his cheeks. The man looked as though he'd just lost Game 5 in the Kingdome all over again.

He started rattling on about managers and coaches who talk about three-year plans and four-year plans in order to buy themselves time. Showalter? He was signing up for the one-year plan.

"How about coming to the ballpark every day and grinding it out and seeing where that takes you?" he said.

The Orioles had lost 50 more games than they'd won in the Bronx since they last swept the Yanks here in 1986, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Baltimore's 117 losses in Yankee Stadium over the past 25 years matched the most defeats for any visiting team against a specific opponent (the Expos/Nationals had lost 117 in Philly over the same period).

And Showalter didn't just win this series with a team he inherited at 32-73, a team that's 21-14 under his watch. With one small but decisive gesture, Showalter reminded the Yanks that the AL East's one and only tomato can just developed a hard and reliable jab.

Tuesday night, the Baltimore manager saw some Yankees pitchers warming up in the right-field corner during Orioles batting practice, and told them to move. It's a game of inches, after all, so Showalter decided to push his former team back a few feet.

"I was just trying to see if our guys can get their work in," he said. "I just wanted to move them back so our right fielder could take some balls off the bat. I'm not nearly as calculating as people think I might be."

Showalter has a lot of history here, even if that history unfolded in the old place across the street. He helped convince Nick Priore, clubhouse man, that Jeter was worthy of wearing No. 2. He helped convince a young Bernie Williams to remain a switch-hitter by threatening to call his father in Puerto Rico if he didn't.

His 1994 Yankees team was 70-43, and Showalter will never forget the image of Bud Selig on his TV set, announcing that the season and the World Series were no more.

The former Yankees manager still believes his team would've won it all that year, and still believes that watching a Game 5 tape from the epic defeat in Seattle the following year is "like watching 'Brian's Song' with the lights off."

Showalter lost more than the division series; he lost the only job he ever wanted. The fans eased some of the pain. The fans who wrote him to say his Yankees and that series helped bring them back to the sport.

"They said we helped bury the players' strike," Showalter said, "that we reminded people of the essence of why everybody loved the game. If that's what goes on my tombstone, that's pretty cool."

Only the 54-year-old Showalter didn't leave a comfortable ESPN job so his managerial legacy would remain shaped by a parade of what-ifs. As in, what if the players didn't walk out in '94? As in, what if he accepted Steinbrenner's offer to return as Yankees manager after Joe Torre had already been hired as his replacement?

As in, what if the Diamondbacks didn't fire him before the 2001 season?

"I enjoy the climb," Showalter said. "But just once, I'd like to walk my own daughter down the aisle."

Some Mets fans who respected his work in the Bronx thought Showalter could've escorted their franchise to the altar. But when asked if the Wilpons ever called him, Showalter said, "No, not directly.

"I did my homework, and I don't mean that badly. I thought this was the right fit. People ask why Baltimore, and I'm like, why not? What am I missing?"

Other than Jeter, Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, not much. Showalter missed out on a potential dynasty, and for the record, he says Torre was the right guy to finish the job he started.

That was then, this is now. Showalter likes the Yankees' chances of defending their title, and mocks those advancing the theory that Jeter is locked inside a grim state of decline.

"People try to keep throwing dirt on him," Showalter said. "If they don't like him, hey, give me a call."

But the Baltimore manager is trying his damnedest to move on. Wednesday, he watched a walk-off homer in the new place that wasn't quite as enjoyable as Jim Leyritz's walk-off homer in the 15th-inning rain in the old place.

If the defeat hurt Buck Showalter, it was a good kind of hurt.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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