That Buck Showalter and Matt Williams share a history is scarcely a surprise in baseball, where paths are criss-crossed and intertwined to the point in which there seem to be only two or three degrees of Kevin Bacon between any two characters. So when Showalter brought his Baltimore Orioles to Nationals Park on Monday night for the first of four straight games against the Nationals of Williams, there was the opportunity for each to genuflect in the other’s direction, because Showalter managed Williams back in the late 1990s in Arizona.
“They got a good one,” Showalter said of the Nationals and Williams, in their first season together.
“For me, he was the most prepared manager I ever played for,” Williams said of playing for Showalter, which he did from 1998-2000, the Diamondbacks’ first three seasons in existence.
Once the mutual admiration blather is over, though, these relationships sometimes rekindle the telling of stories that seem unique to baseball. Which is how, on a hot July night in 2014, we come to revisit That Time Buck Showalter Walked Barry Bonds with the Bases Loaded.
“We are in San Francisco and we have the bases loaded with Barry Bonds up with two outs,” Williams said, remembering the circumstances of May 28, 1998, perfectly. “He elects to walk Barry on four pitches and walk a run in. We were up by two. It takes a great deal of intestinal fortitude, I guess is the right way to put it, to do something like that.”
It was, Williams insisted, a lesson for him in having belief in his pitching staff — in his team — to get one final out. Showalter demurred.
“We were lucky,” he said.
But he did it. Such a strategy hadn’t been attempted since 1944. But there were a few extenuating circumstances that led to such a decision. First, there was the matter of Bonds the hitter, in the midst of a 13-year streak in which he homered at least 33 times and posted an OPS of at least 1.000. (Think about that a minute.)
Yet on this night, Bonds started the game on the bench and came in on a double switch.
“Usually,” Showalter remembered Monday, “Jeff Kent was hitting behind him.”
In this situation, the next hitter was catcher Brent Mayne. Showalter signaled to Kelly Stinnett, his catcher, with four fingers — four straight balls. Stinnett then turned to the field, swiveling his head to first, then second, then third, then back to the dugout. “Four?” Bryan Anderson, Arizona’s starter who was in line for the win, walked by Showalter. “Really?”
Williams was playing third base.
“What he showed in that regard was that he had confidence in our pitching staff and he had confidence in our defense and he had confidence that the guy on the mound, which was Gregg Olson, would get the next guy out,” Williams said.
About that guy on the mound. Olson allowed a triple to Bonds already that year and walked him twice.
“Gregg Olson was real okay with it,” Showalter said. “Check out Barry Bonds’s numbers off Gregg Olson in a misty rainstorm with the mound slipping around and no curveball. Nothing good was going to happen. And if you told him to pitch around him, he couldn’t command the ball well enough slipping and sliding.”
This was the first year of the Diamondbacks’ existence, and Showalter had already developed a reputation as a maniacal, detail-oriented freak who wanted to control all aspects of the organization. It rubbed some in baseball the wrong way.
Williams lapped it up.
“He took it upon himself as a manager to say, ‘I know I’m going to walk Bonds here, walk in a run, and I’ll be up by one run with the bases loaded, and I know one swing of the bat could lose the game for us,’” Williams said. “But that intestinal fortitude and that commitment to what he was trying to do showed us a lot as a team. It was, ‘This is what we’re going to do. I’ve got confidence in you guys to get this guy out.’”
So when Olson issued the walk, the Giants pulled within 8-7, and the bases were still loaded, and the Diamondbacks had to get that last out. Olson got Mayne to lift one toward right field. Brent Brede looked into the mist, and the lights.
“I’m seeing it, I go, ‘All right, popped him up,’” Showalter said. “Then I go, ‘Wait a minute. He’s struggling with the ball in the lights.’”
This was the difference in an unorthodox strategy working out, and Showalter being second-guessed into oblivion. But Brede made the play. Bonds was stranded at first, the Giants left the bases loaded, and the Diamondbacks won by a run.
And the two guys in opposite dugouts at Nationals Park on Monday and Tuesday nights learned something about each other.
“Matt never gave me that quizzical look like, ‘What are you doing?’” Showalter said. “Matt kinda gave me, ‘Okay. Makes sense.’”
Sense? So much that it’s only been tried once since – when Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon called for a bases-loaded walk of Texas’s Josh Hamilton in 2008.
Maddon got away with it, too.