SAN DIEGO — They were hired with much fanfare over the off-season and have received rave reviews around Major League Baseball for their early work with their new teams. Both have won three Manager of the Year Awards and, should things keep up, would be strong contenders in this year’s voting as well.
But before they became dugout peers and fast friends, Mets Manager Buck Showalter and his San Diego Padres counterpart, Bob Melvin, shared a moment together under different circumstances. It came in Yankee Stadium in 1994, when Showalter, then 37, was a third-year manager guiding the Yankees under the owner George Steinbrenner. Melvin, who was 32 at the time, was an aging catcher in his final season.
“Bobby saved my job,” Showalter said, explaining that he had three catchers on the roster at the time and was looking for an extra right-handed bat to face a difficult left-hander for a game in May. He came upon the unorthodox idea of using the light-hitting Melvin as his designated hitter. “Mr. Steinbrenner was ready to kill me.”
Melvin responded to the unusual assignment by slugging a three-run home run against the Baltimore’s Arthur Rhodes in the bottom of the first inning of his first game at the Stadium that year, setting the tone in a 5-4 victory.
“When he got that hit, I said, ‘Oh thank you, Bobby,’” Showalter said.
Standing on the Petco Park field here on Monday before the Mets-Padres series opener — a meeting of the teams with the first- and third-best records in the National League, which the Mets won, 11-5 — Melvin chuckled at the hyperbole and said he doesn’t think what turned out to be the last of his 35 big-league home runs saved any jobs. He remembers it, though, for a different reason.
Showalter, said Melvin, “used to explain to me why I was playing against certain guys; that’s the first time I’ve ever had a manager do that.”
Furthermore, Melvin added, Showalter initially approached him that day with the idea of playing him at first base. But Melvin’s eyes told the manager his backup catcher wasn’t comfortable with that — Showalter still uses what he calls “eye talking” today — and so Showalter used him as a designated hitter instead.
“Which was probably a harder sell, to D.H. somebody like me, to the front office or whoever he had to answer to,” Melvin said.
But their conversation boosted Melvin’s confidence, allowed him to fully prepare, and the homer in part became a reward to Showalter, as well.
Moments like that always have been a part of Showalter’s methodology. And over 19 seasons managing Seattle, Arizona, Oakland and, now, San Diego, Melvin has never forgotten that lesson. These days he regularly implements it, too.
“Even though he’s the manager and there’s a clear-cut distinction, it felt like he was in it with us,” said Mets outfielder Mark Canha, who played for Melvin for seven years in Oakland before signing a two-year free-agent deal with the Mets this winter. “It very much feels that way with Buck, too. We’re in it together, we’re all after the same thing. It doesn’t feel like there’s any motivation for him other than how do we win today.”
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Showalter’s attention to detail is unsurpassed, and with Billy Eppler, the Met’s first-year general manager, some of that old Yankees’ lineage is evident. Even though Showalter, 66, is 20 years older than Eppler, their baseball foundation in many ways was cast from the same curriculum. Gene Michael was the general manager and Bill Livesey the scouting director during Showalter’s Yankees years. Brian Cashman was the assistant general manager. Eppler later worked in the Yankees’ scouting department and, eventually, ascended to assistant general manager under Cashman.
Because of that, Eppler said, Showalter’s fixation on even the most minute of details has been familiar.
“I’m cognizant of, ‘How long is the bus ride to the ballpark? What kind of water is on the plane?’” Eppler said. “So is he. It’s like, whoa. I get a kick out of it. Somebody else is thinking along this line also!”
Showalter said he knew it was going to work with Eppler because he is a Michael disciple and a “pick up the phone on the first ring type of guy.
“We share the same passion,” Showalter said.
Part of that passion led Showalter to make a phone call one evening this spring on his way home from the Mets’ Florida complex. In the parking lot outside a Subway sandwich shop, he said he sat in his car in the dark for about an hour, using the time zone difference to catch up with Melvin, who was in Arizona. Three Mets players — Canha, pitcher Chris Bassitt and outfielder Starling Marte — had played for Melvin in Oakland, and Showalter had questions.
“The timing was perfect, because I was going to call and ask him about Manny, too,” Melvin, 60, said of the slugger Manny Machado, who played for Showalter in Baltimore. “It was a lengthy conversation. And I think we probably talked a couple more times this spring, too.”
Information is key to building relationships. And with the lockout-shortened spring training, Showalter and Melvin were looking to get information as quickly, and from as many different sources, as they could.
“Mark Canha’s a left of left hippie,” Showalter said. “Chris Bassitt is right. Not right of right, but right. Yet they’re best friends. It’s a great story. Bob said they sit on the plane and talk politics and stuff. I told Bob I wish that’s how our country would go — you think this, I think this, let’s talk about it, civilly. It paints a picture. You’re trying to get head starts on guys.”
Melvin, Showalter said, “looks at players and things very similar to the way I do.
“We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “We always have to keep the end game in mind. You may not put your best foot forward tonight so you can win the next three games.”
That the Padres were able to poach Oakland’s career leader in managerial victories was a thunderbolt in the moment last October, and the first signal that the A’s were about to embark on another rebuilding project. Melvin is a Bay Area native, a Cal graduate and wore No. 6 in Oakland as a tribute to Sal Bando. It was far more emotional for him to leave than most realized. But with his coaches Ryan Christenson, Matt Williams and Bryan Price, he’s quickly become comfortable in San Diego. The only bump was a six-game absence for prostate surgery last month, but Melvin is back and healthy now.
“His communication is some of the best I’ve ever been around in letting us know where we’re at and what the expectations are, even things like coming to us and explaining why he’s made some of the moves he’s made,” said Joe Musgrove, the ace of the Padres’ rotation.
In other words, a lot like what Melvin’s old skipper did for him once upon a time — and still does today with his Mets.
“I consider him a real friend,” Melvin said of Showalter. “There are acquaintances in baseball, there are baseball friends. But he’s a guy who, off the field, we talk during the off-season, call each other, even when he was doing ESPN stuff he would call me. We’ve never been to dinner together, but I consider him a friend. In the game of baseball, that’s further than someone you just admire on the field.”
Not that there aren’t differences. Recently, Showalter said, his little sister Melanie scolded him by saying “organization and detail is great, but you know what, every once in awhile I really like spontaneity. Every now and then, it’s OK to be spontaneous.”
Showalter related this story with a knowing smile and a shrug of his shoulders during a weekend conversation in the visiting manager’s office at Dodger Stadium. What are you going to do?, he seemed to be saying. A tiger can’t change its stripes.
Melvin, meanwhile, has been able to change his. He’s long been a connoisseur of hard candy during games, but only in the first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth innings. And over 11 years in Oakland, the candy in the ninth had to be green.
Now? It’s only root beer barrels in Padres brown in the ninth innings.
“And we’ve had two or three walk-offs,” he said. “So it’s worked.”
The Padres have actually had four, but like old Manager of the Year Awards once the season gets going, who’s counting?