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Eli Manning Saga Brings To Mind Buck Showalter's 'Fallen Star' Phrase

December 15, 2017
Orioles manager Buck Showalter's catchphrases and homespun vernacular often provide amusement to those of us who cover his team for a living.

After seven-plus years, the stories get repeated, and the colorful phrases often become commonplace, but there are a few that register beyond the chuckle and/or eye-roll scale.

"Don't let a star fall on you,” is the one that has stuck with me the most, because it is more philosophy than quip. I think Showalter credits his late mentor, New York Yankees manager Billy Martin with that one. But, honestly, it could pre-date Martin, too.

The sentiment is simple: One of a manager's biggest challenges is when a great player's skills begin to deteriorate to the point in which he is not helping the team. Hands are tied. Emotions are high. There's no good solution.

Showalter has had it happen to him before and, in his deadpan, will say about those experiences, "not much fun.”

There's a delicate balance between doing what's best for your team while not embarrassing someone who has given so much and succeeded so often in a sport.

When I read about the saga involving New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, I could hear Showalter's drawl.

Manning's star crashed violently, enraging a fan base and, ultimately, costing two men their jobs.

Manning, 36, had started 210 consecutive games at quarterback for the Giants, dating back to Game 10 of his rookie campaign in 2004. Under his direction, the Giants won two Super Bowls, making Manning at least a borderline Hall of Famer.

But with the Giants dreadful this season, sporting a 2-9 record and already eliminated from the playoff race heading into December, second-year head coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese made the decision to bench Manning in favor of underwhelming backup Geno Smith for the Dec. 3 contest against the Oakland Raiders. The outcome of that game -- a 24-17 loss to the Raiders in which Smith threw for 212 yards and one touchdown -- is incidental.

What is monumental is that Manning's consecutive starts streak, tied for ninth-most in NFL history and second-longest among all quarterbacks, was snapped.

The day after the Giants' 10th loss of the season, and amidst continual fan and media backlash, McAdoo and Reese were fired. To be fair, they may have been canned at the end of the season anyway, given how much the club tanked after its 11-5 campaign in 2016.

Furthermore, McAdoo and Reese weren't fully acting alone; the idea of sitting Manning in favor of Smith and, eventually, Davis Webb, the team's third-round pick in 2017, was reportedly first initially broached by Giants' co-owner John Mara weeks before.

That plan, though, was ill-conceived. Mara and crew wanted Manning to start the remaining games this season, but then be taken out at some point -- likely halftime -- in each one so that they could further evaluate their other quarterbacks. Manning, understandably, didn't want any part of that plan. He felt it was disingenuous, just a ploy to keep his starting streak alive. Plus, he's a competitor. He didn't want to start something without a chance to finish it each week. This isn't the preseason.

So, McAdoo benched Manning, the star fell and all hell broke loose. Mara ultimately apologized to fans, and Manning is back as a starter, beginning a new streak.

It was an absolute disaster -- and Exhibit A of what not to do with an aging superstar. The Giants were going nowhere, it was likely Manning's last season with the team and likely Smith's as well, so it made no sense to see what he could do. We all have a fair idea of what Smith and his career 29-36 touchdown-interception mark in parts of five seasons can do.

Perhaps if the change were made to immediately start Webb, that would be more acceptable, but the rookie had been on the scout team this season and wasn't quite ready to step in. Besides, Manning deserved to have a say in how his Giants career ends. That's common courtesy for such an important member of a franchise, especially when a team, and the talent surrounding the quarterback, is terrible.

This situation is age-old, pun intended.

Many longtime Baltimore sports fans will wax poetic about how Marty Domres replaced a 39-year-old Johnny Unitas in 1972 when the Colts were 1-4 (and ended up 5-9). And how Domres heard it from all angles -- except from Unitas -- during that painful season.

Doug DeCinces received hate mail in 1976 and 1977, when he was supplanting Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson at third base for the Orioles. DeCinces said it seemed like each time he made an error it would trigger, "We Want Brooks,” chants.

Then there were the delicacies involving Cal Ripken Jr., his legendary games played streak and his shortstop position. Ripken was the Orioles' cornerstone -- how could any manager push Ripken off short or take him out of the lineup for a spell, especially when they didn't have anyone better in which to replace him?

Indeed, Ripken agreed to move from shortstop to third base when the Orioles signed Mike Bordick because Ripken respected Bordick's work ethic and style of play. And Ripken was the one who decided in 1998 that it was time to end his streak before the home finale of that season. Manager Ray Miller simply obliged.

I covered Ripken's final season in 2001, and he did everyone a favor by deciding early that year that it would be his last in the majors. It created a farewell tour, which was an added responsibility for Ripken (and for the local media covering him), because he had to have a news conference in every city in which the Orioles played that second half.

Yet it also took the pressure off then-manager Mike Hargrove, who didn't have to worry about any ramifications of sitting or not sitting Ripken on a specific day. In fact, Ripken, at 40, appreciated the occasional breather that year.

During his tenure in Baltimore, Showalter has only had one concrete example of the star falling on him. In his first full season, 2011, Showalter was tasked with where to put Vladimir Guerrero in the Orioles' lineup. Guerrero, then 36 and a likely Hall of Famer, no longer could drive the ball out of the ballpark. He hit just 13 homers that season, and only three in his final two months of play. But, for the most part, Showalter kept Guerrero in the cleanup spot in the order despite having other options.

That Orioles' team was bad -- 93-loss bad -- so ultimately it didn't matter. But Showalter still thinks back on that situation when he has to make tough decisions involving slumping players and lineup changes in the past few years, such as in the case of first baseman Chris Davis.

It's possible that Davis, if he can't rebound to his old form during what remains of his seven-year contract, will be a star falling on a manager in the future. That may or may not be Showalter.

But it's because of Showalter and his turns of phrase that every time this situation arises -- like it did with Manning in New York -- I think about the Orioles' skipper and falling stars.

Issue 240: December 2017