After leading a late-season revival in Baltimore, a (slightly) mellowed-out Buck Showalter is back doing what he loves: teaching at spring training
This is an article from the March 28, 2011 issue
The Ping-Pong table in the Orioles' clubhouse wasn't there when spring training began. The yawning gap in the middle of the room was in itself a monument to the austere reputation of manager Buck Showalter, who last August inherited a Ping-Pong--happy outfit that was one of the sorriest in the American League, on its way to a 13th straight losing season.
"Where's the table?" Showalter asked outfielder Nick Markakis.
"Oh," Markakis replied. "Some guys are scared what you might think."
The next day, courtesy of Markakis—and with Showalter's blessing—a Ping-Pong table appeared.
"Given the stuff you hear about him," says infielder Brendan Harris, "you wouldn't think he'd like it. You'd think it would be a boot camp. But he's nothing like some of the things you hear. He completely understands players."
In his jacket pocket Showalter carries a leather-bound black notebook with red-inked pages on the 57 games he managed last year—the equivalent of a contractor's punch list for a massive fixer-upper. Armed with the notebook and a fungo bat, Showalter has spent a month of mornings in Sarasota, Fla., basking in the glorious details of his first camp since 2006, his last before his firing by the Rangers began a 3½-year forced sabbatical.
Showalter, 54, is one of 12 managers running their first spring training with their current club; none bring more career wins (916), more gravitas or more attention to detail. "I love it," he says. "This and the postseason are the best times of year. It's the purity of the game. It's teaching. Billy Martin once told me, 'Dumb players will get you fired.' When I say, 'O.K, we're going to go over this today, this is important,' trust me: It will be the difference in winning or losing a game."
Beyond the orthodoxy of Ping-Pong tables, the Orioles are learning as much about Showalter as he is about them. When Showalter blurts out, "Really? Really?! "—for instance, when minor leaguers imported for rundown drills last week participated at less than full speed—the manager isn't happy. Another oft-heard piece of Buckspeak is "I got it," which means "I understand, but ..."—a prelude to a more important point.
One day last week, for instance, Showalter stopped a morning workout and instructed his players to gather around him behind second base. He had left the ballpark the previous day with a bad feeling about his team's effort. "Guys, listen," he told them. "It's the middle of spring training. I got it. I got it. I'm aware of where we are: The novelty of spring training has worn off, and you can't see the finish line. I've been doing this 20, 30 years. It happens every spring to everybody at some point. But you have to push through it. It's a mental and emotional discipline to push through it."
Showalter uses the phrase so often that centerfielder Adam Jones decided to print T-shirts that say I GOT IT on the front and NO, NO ... I GOT IT on the back—but only after he asked permission from his manager, of course. The highlights from Camp Buck have included not just table tennis and T-shirts but also Movie Night: Showalter whisked the team to a local theater to deliver a pep talk and show them a 12-minute video about restoring Orioles tradition. There has been no standing around ("Haven't shagged one ball all spring," pitcher Jeremy Guthrie said) and frequent on-field instruction.
"The other day," says first baseman Derrek Lee, a 14-year veteran, "I learned something about staying out of the double play in a first-and-third situation I never had heard before."
Showalter had schooled his players on this: runners at first and third, less than two outs and a ground ball that the second baseman fields near the baseline. Most runners on first are taught either to stop or head toward the infield grass, making it hard for the second baseman to tag them and still have time to throw to first for the double play. Showalter taught the Orioles to slide directly into the second baseman, essentially breaking up a double play in the baseline. "That's six to 10 outs a year we save if we do it right," Showalter said. Which is 0.2% of the more than 4,000 outs a team gets over a season.
Showalter began forming his managerial ethos as a kid watching Alabama coach Bear Bryant. At 4:30 on Saturday mornings he and his dad, Bill, would drive from the Florida panhandle to Tuscaloosa. Bill, a high school principal, would tell Buck to keep his eyes on the Bear, who rarely spoke to his Crimson Tide players along the sideline. "Son," his dad said, "when you see guys doing a lot of coaching during the game? They haven't done their homework." Showalter lives for the homework.
Says Jones, "The one word to describe this camp is efficient. Everything he does has a purpose. He's on top of everything. And the thing I really like is he likes to win. Too many people around here got used to losing. At the end of the game if we lost and they played good, they were O.K. with that. He won't be."
Since their last winning season, in 1997, the Orioles have lost more games than every AL team except the Royals and their average yearly attendance has dropped by two million fans. After owner Peter Angelos and president Andy MacPhail fired Dave Trembley last season, they decided to hire someone who had managed a playoff team. They picked Showalter over Bobby Valentine and Eric Wedge.
Showalter helped build the backbone of pennant winners in each of his three previous managerial jobs, with the Yankees (1992 to '95), Diamondbacks (1998 to 2000) and Rangers (2003 to '06). But he could never stick around long enough for the payoff. He has the most wins among active managers who haven't won a postseason series and ranks 20th alltime on that list.
Showalter walked away from the Yankees' job after a 1995 ALDS defeat rather than acquiesce to owner George Steinbrenner's mandate to fire members of his coaching staff. Arizona handed Showalter carte blanche to build the expansion team (everything down to the shade of purple in their uniforms) then grew uncomfortable with the arrangement as the club matured. His ouster was accompanied by leaks from the club that portrayed him as a control freak. "I lost my naiveté," he says. "It was the first time—and it was sad for me—I kind of went, Really? That's what was going on? I was just so trusting of everybody and everything. I wish I could get that back."
The end came in Texas when the team transitioned from general manager John Hart, a veteran who preferred to delegate, to John Daniels, a young executive who needed room to succeed or fail on his own. "The last job [with the Rangers] beat me up pretty good physically," Showalter says.
Away from the field, and in between thrice-monthly trips from Dallas to Bristol, Conn., to do studio work for ESPN, Showalter participated in a family life he never knew during baseball seasons. He grew roses and kept bird feeders stocked in his backyard. He convinced himself that if another managerial offer never came, he'd be "fine with that."
"I was in a great place in my life," he says. "I got to see my son's junior and senior years of high school baseball. I was the groundskeeper, basically. Had a blast. I got to [do] all the things I missed over the years. I wouldn't trade that for the world. I remember being in the backyard one day and saying, 'Man, look how red that cardinal is.' And my daughter said, 'Dad, it's always been that color.' The wind going through the leaves ... I remember sitting in the back on a swing and going, Geez, this is pretty cool—you know?"
After Showalter was fired in Texas, 32 managerial jobs opened up before he was hired in Baltimore. He immediately began logging observations in his notebook. Only some things needed immediate attention; one time he pulled a player into his office after a game—stopwatch in hand and tape cued up—to watch the video of a lackluster effort running to first base. The point was not to embarrass the player but to let him know such lapses could cost him the support of his teammates.
Another time Showalter made certain that the Orioles were aware of comments made by pitcher Matt Garza, then with the Rays, who vowed payback against Baltimore after the Orioles roughed him up. It was classic bulletin board gamesmanship, and Showalter, who served as an apprentice under Martin with the Yankees, was from a school whose graduates would have bunted up the first base line just for the chance to collide with Garza.
But Showalter heard nothing in his dugout. "He's sticking it to us, and they're taking it," Showalter says. "Really? Really? You've got your finger on the trigger—fire it! Make them adjust to you. That's one thing I kept telling them last year: Let's not constantly be reacting. Let's take it to them."
Says MacPhail, "I never dreamed he would have the impact he did just by walking through the door."
The Orioles played .305 baseball before Showalter and .596 with him. They became interesting again. Telecasts suddenly became the most-watched show in Baltimore on some nights, beating network prime-time lineups. Although attendance declined 9% for the year at Camden Yards, local viewership rose 10%.
"We have to tap into their passion to get them to come to the ballpark," Showalter says. "I don't want to hear Yankees fans and Red Sox fans at our ballpark.
"We've done enough to take that trust away. And I take the fans' trust very seriously. It may sound hokey, but that's why we do this. And I tell the guys, 'I don't want to hear it. You're in Seattle, it's 12:30 at night back in Baltimore and somebody is sitting in front of the TV living and dying with everything you're doing. And you better take that seriously.'"
Before a recent game in Sarasota, Showalter found out that the visiting Pirates were not taking pregame batting practice, so he changed the Orioles' schedule to have his team hit after the gates opened, so early-arriving fans had something to watch.
During spring training he is in bed by nine and at work before six. He makes sure to shave on the days he has to cut a player. And he takes delight in seeing signs of progress. "I have an emotional moment every day where a guy gets it," Showalter says. "Every day that goes by, I say, 'Really? How great is this?'"
Asked if he has changed since he last managed, Showalter replies, "Hell, yeah. We all have. We're a product of things we've been exposed to over the years."
The proof may be on the wall of his spring training office, where hitting coach Jim Presley keeps a daily log of the position players' work. After three weeks of writing with a black dry-erase marker, Presley switched to a blue one when the black one ran out. In Showalter's world—where as MacPhail says, "I don't think there's a lot of spontaneity"—having two colors on the board would seem to reflect an egregious lack of order. And yet the next day, the one row of numbers remained blue.
"In the past it wouldn't have bothered me," Showalter says. Then, after a pause, he admits, "But I would have changed it."
He was raised in the game by men such as Martin and Clete Boyer, old Yankees who knew there was "a covenant you had to live up to—loyalty not just to the organization but also to baseball." And at the end of these full spring training days, when the sunlight comes in low and golden and the complex is abandoned, Showalter likes to hop in a golf cart with the groundskeeper and set off for the back fields. In such quietude, the covenant, like the wind whistling through the leaves, becomes almost audible. He is on the lookout for anything he might have missed—the cut of the grass, the texture of the dirt—any small detail that might help the Orioles win a ball game.
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