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BASEBALL '98 | ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK : Buck Isn't Planning on Saying Uncle

Manager Showalter says he 'didn't take this job to be the doormat of the division.'

March 29, 1998|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUCSON — Buck Showalter signed a seven-year, $7-million contract to manage the Arizona Diamondbacks, but this Buck doesn't stop there. He has been architect of the team on the field and architect of a lot more.

"We're a first-year team, we're just starting out, we want to do it right," said Showalter, whose control as manager of the New York Yankees was limited by an owner named George Steinbrenner.

With the Diamondbacks, Showalter may be the closest thing baseball has to a manager-general manager.

Besides governing the team's war room before and during the expansion draft, he has:

* Examined each of his player's bats to make sure they're the right length and weight for the player.

* Assigned the lockers at Bank One Ballpark so as to establish proper chemistry.

* Had team caps revised because the "A" logo was too big.

* Ordered stools in the club's spring training conference room returned because they were more yellow than gold.

* Designed a unique warning track at the new Phoenix park with a grass strip between track and fence so that an outfielder crossing the track knows, as he reaches the grass, that he has only one more step before colliding with the fence.

In addition, as a manager in waiting during the two years before the draft, Showalter traveled to eight countries and more than 150 ballparks in evaluating players. He logged it all in a black binder, an important adjunct to the volumes of information filed by the team's scouts.

Then, after the draft, he went back to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, meeting 13 of his new players "because I didn't want to be meeting them for the first time when they got to spring training."

Showalter said at the club's new training complex this spring, "Some people may have had a perception that we were sitting out here for a couple years, twiddling our thumbs and playing golf, but preparing for this year has been a physical, mental and emotional challenge, and there's seldom a day goes by when I don't think of how lucky I am to be involved."

How lucky Showalter feels in midsummer as the Diamondbacks sink slowly in the National League West remains to be seen. A division in which the defending champion San Francisco Giants are generally picked to finish fourth is simply too tough to think an expansion team can escape the cellar.

At the same time, given the financial resources that have led to an array of trades and free-agent signings, the Diamondbacks won't die easily in '98 and won't be in the cellar much beyond '98.

"We hold ourselves to a very high standard," Showalter said. "We're not going to use the fact we're an expansion team as an excuse for getting our brains beat out every night. I didn't take this job to be the doormat of the division, but I also understand the reality of the situation."

The Diamondbacks signed free-agent shortstop Jay Bell to a five-year, $34-million contract, traded for center fielder Devon White and third baseman Matt Williams, who was given a five-year, $45-million extension, and signed free-agent pitchers Andy Benes for three years at $18 million, and Willie Blair for three years at $11.5 million.

"Anyone who thought we'd invest $325 million [in franchise fee, start-up costs and stadium construction] and come in with a Montreal- or Pittsburgh-type payroll is crazy," owner Jerry Colangelo said.

Of course, the Diamondbacks have sold 36,000 season tickets, expect gross revenue of $110,000 million this year and are guaranteed about $500 million in long-term marketing deals.

The sellout crowds in '98 will see a lineup that includes veterans White, Bell and Williams, along with four intriguing draft selections.

Catcher Jorge Fabregas was surprisingly exposed by the Chicago White Sox. There are outfielders Karim Garcia, the former Dodger, and Yamil Benitez, who had 21 homers for Kansas City's triple-A team. And second baseman Tony Batista was most recently with the Oakland A's.

The first baseman will be $10-million bonus baby Travis Lee, 22, from San Diego State. Lee has played only one professional season and will bat fifth, a key spot in that he will try to protect Williams.

"I don't want him to feel like the weight of the organization is on his shoulders," Showalter said of Lee. "It's not. He's going to have some challenges thrown at him, and he'll have some bumps in the road, but the thing that's intriguing is that he's very competitive and a quality defender."

The Diamondbacks have two quality pitchers at the top of the rotation--Benes and Blair--and some promise in the three other starters: Brian Anderson, the former Angel and Cleveland Indian; Jeff Suppan, late of the Boston Red Sox, and Joel Adamson, formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers. All were selected in the expansion draft.

The problem is the bullpen, where Arizona has no closer. Felix Rodriguez will get first crack at the role, but pitching coach Mark Connor said, "It's going to be a situation where we may go through the year trying different people with the idea we may hit on somebody. If we don't, then we've got to go get somebody."

Not easy, but then who knows what's in Showalter's binder?

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