As manager of the New York Yankees and an employee of George Steinbrenner, Buck Showalter often finds himself in one of the most unnerving positions in baseball: prone on a cot in the complete darkness of a windowless room with the visages of dead Yankees looking upon him and an eerie silence broken only by some strange noises coming from beyond the concrete-block walls. (It may be rats, but he isn't sure.) This is his Yankee Stadium office, where he often spends his nights, Dick Vermeil-style, waiting for an 8 a.m. wake-up call from the guard in the lobby upstairs. "When the door is closed, the lock is turned and the lights are off," Showalter says, "there is no darker place anywhere."
Last Friday, with Martin, Gehrig and Ruth on the walls and Brian Butterfield, one of his coaches, on the couch, Showalter slept there. He had reported for that night's 7 o'clock game against the Boston Red Sox at 10 a.m., managed his team to a 3-1 victory, eaten dinner in his office, watched a videotape of the game several times and then studied a videotape of the most recent outing of Roger Clemens, Boston's starting pitcher the next day. The Yankees went out and won that afternoon too, coming from behind in the ninth inning for a 6-5 victory.
Such a routine has left Showalter, who turns 38 this month, with a complexion the color of antique-white paint. Flat finish. What little of his personality he chooses to publicly reveal is just as dull. He is so bland that Steinbrenner encouraged him last year to be more controversial. Kicking dirt and jawing with umpires would be a good start, said the Boss. It would help sell tickets. But Showalter has declined to play the jester to the king.
These days, in the few moments when Showalter sleeps, he does so knowing that in his third year managing the Yankees he has the team that he wants. It is a team molded in his image and not the owner's. Two years of weeding have left him with a hardworking team that doesn't kick up any dirt. It is a broadsheet team in a tabloid town.
"The only time we're on the back page now is when it says, YANKEES WIN," says infielder Mike Gallego. "That's it. And hopefully we can continue to do that enough until people will notice and say, 'Hey, they're pretty good.' We'll just keep plugging away like this."
The first two wins over the Red Sox, who entered the series with the best record in baseball (20-7), a seven-game winning streak and their best start in 48 years, typified the Yankees' understated but effective manner: None of their nine runs was driven home with an extra-base hit. New York completed the sweep on Sunday in less characteristic fashion, belting four home runs—including back-to-back-to-back dingers by Danny Tartabull, Mike Stanley and Gerald Williams—in an 8-4 victory. It gave the Yankees their first sweep of the Red Sox in New York since 1985.
It is a rare day when these Yankees are big shots. Ordinarily this is a team whose greatest offensive weapon is the base on balls and whose best player may not be as popular in New York as his sister. Businesslike? Well, this Thursday is Briefcase Day at Yankee Stadium.
After a 3-4 start this season, New York ran off 16 wins in its next 22 games to zero in on what has been an agonizingly elusive achievement: standing alone in first place. The Yankees shared the top spot in the American League East for 18 days last season, but other than one day in the first week of the '92 season, they have not claimed solitary possession of first since July 27, 1988. At week's end New York trailed Boston by a half game.
"The makeup of the team has gotten to the point where we're ready to win," says first baseman Don Mattingly. "It all goes back to when Buck was hired. You could see a whole change coming. He got rid of some wrong attitude, and he brought in the right attitude." Since Showalter arrived, the Yankees have jettisoned high-maintenance players such as Mel Hall, Jesse Barfield, Greg Cadaret and Roberto Kelly. On Friday, after Showalter tired of veteran relief pitcher Jeff Rear-don's grousing about being used in what he felt was a mop-up role, New York released him. Meanwhile, most of the players who have been added to the Yankees have brought World Series experience and reputations for an admirable work ethic: Gallego, rightfielder Paul O'Neill, third baseman Wade Boggs and pitchers Jimmy Key and Terry Mulholland.
Says new leftfielder Luis Polonia, who also played for the Yankees in the 1989 and '90 seasons, "There's no comparison to what it was like before. That wasn't even a team then. It was a bunch of guys worried about their own numbers and trying to get their money. Guys rooted for other guys to screw up so they'd get a chance to play. This is a team right here."