So what are we to make of this Red Sox season, just 28 games old and growing more bizarre with each day?
Beyond the brilliance of Chris Sale, the up-and-down early goings of Mookie Betts, the resurrection of Craig Kimbrel and the distressing lack of power from Xander Bogaerts, there is this: Buck Showalter, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, has at last succeeded in getting the Red Sox to believe in something that he dreamed up in 2011 and has been ranting about ever since—the existence of some kind of rivalry between these two teams.
In fairness to Showalter, this feud, which until recently existed only in his mind, is hardly the strangest of his imaginings. This, after all, is a man who also believes that the shape of a player’s head and the physical characteristics of his posterior are predictive of the success he’ll have in the major leagues. You, of course, think that I’m kidding about this. But I am not.
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"You don’t see a lot of good power hitters or good pitchers that generate arm speed that don’t have a good, high butt on them," Showalter once said on television. From there, he went on to gush about the backside of the former slugger Derrek Lee. "I don’t want to say he’s got a perfect butt, but when I look at it I say, Wow."
Another time, when Showalter was managing the New York Yankees, he summoned Keith Olbermann, then an ESPN SportsCenter anchor, into an empty clubhouse to tell him that several Yankees players disliked Olbermann so intensely that he was concerned that one of them might strike him. The manager identified Yankees outfielder Paul O’Neill as one of the players most likely to take a swing.
A few years later, when Olbermann ran into O’Neill at an event, he recounted the meeting in the vacated room. “Buck ordered us into the trainers’ room,” O’Neill explained, “Twenty-five guys in there like sar-blanking-dines! All he told us was there was a reporter he hated and he wanted to air out and we needed to stay put till he let us back in the clubhouse.”
Showalter, in other words, was quite comfortable with making his team unwitting accomplices in an invented story involving animosity and the threat of violence. This is precisely the sort of mind capable of conjuring a blood feud from thin air. Indeed, in examining the depths of Showalter’s crock-pottery, it is important to note that when it comes to manufacturing rivalries, he doesn’t limit himself to the Boston Red Sox.
In a 2011 Men’s Journal article in which Showalter pointedly questioned the extent of Theo Epstein’s baseball acumen, he also called out Derek Jeter for “always jumping back from balls just off the plate. I know how many calls that team gets—and yes, he pisses me off.” (Showalter isn’t wrong about everything.)
The Orioles by then had suffered through 13 consecutive losing seasons, and Showalter—about to begin his second year managing the club—clearly wanted to project toughness and resolve. Which is why the shots at Theo and Jeter were generally laughed off and understood to be deliberately provocative and combative. They were also largely harmless. Which is more than can be said of another incident involving Showalter and his team.
By 2014, Showalter had rebuilt the Orioles in his image. They were a winning team, tough and aggressive. Late in the season, Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph stepped on the hand of Toronto Blue Jay Jose Reyes as he slid head-first into home. Later in the game, when Joseph came to bat, Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman threw a fastball behind him. Showalter would later call the retailiation “borderline professionally embarrassing.”
Early the next season, the two teams met again, and Orioles reliever Darren O’Day threw a pitch behind the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista—who promptly responded by hitting a home run. About a week later, Orioles pitcher Jason Garcia threw another pitch behind Bautista. The Blue Jays thumper answered once again by homering, this time taking plenty of time to enjoy the sight of the ball leaving the park. Bautista later exchanged words with Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones, who insisted that the pitch from Garcia had been unintentional.
Bautista was hardly persuaded. "I think it's all pretty well planned out and premeditated and I think (the Orioles) act and hide behind the way their manager acts and conducts himself on the field," he said after the game. "They're going to continue to keep doing that until something comes down from MLB."
Which brings us nicely back to Showalter’s repeated, and rather transparent, attempts to stir up trouble with the Red Sox. As Bautista would no doubt attest, it doesn’t take much dot-connecting to draw a direct line from the manager’s combativeness to the beanball war that has erupted between the Red Sox and the Orioles.
Back in April, after a number of key Sox players had missed games because of the flu, Showalter—without being asked—intimated to reporters covering the Orioles that the Red Sox were whining about the illness and using it as an excuse for underperformance. The Sox, as manager John Farrell feebly but accurately insisted, had done no such thing.
Aside from a few mild protestations, however, the Red Sox largely ignored the issue. A few days later, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado slid late into second base with his spikes up high. He caught Dustin Pedroia on the leg, causing an injury that resulted in the Red Sox second baseman missing a few games. Showalter had finally caught the attention of the Red Sox, and with the suspensions and targeted batsmen that have followed, he at last has the rivalry for which he has for so long pined.
We’ve seen this act from Showalter before and we’ll no doubt see it again. To Bautista’s point, Showalter’s con, for all its effectiveness, is both thin and repetitive. It is also enabled by Major League Baseball, which has yet to discipline Showalter in the way that Bautista suggests will be necessary to change things, and by the baseball writers who so characterize Showalter’s dangerous behavior as impish, old-school, and smart. One of these days, a player is going to get beaned and seriously injured during a Showalter-instigated rivalry.
Beyond all that, though, Showalter’s antics have simply become predictable, and even tedious. Just ask Olbermann. Scarcely an hour after he wrote about Showalter’s clubhouse ruse with him, he received a message from a sportswriter friend who told him that Showalter had pulled precisely the same stunt with him while managing the Arizona Diamondbacks.