That Old Buck Magic

We're telling you, the O's manager is older and wiser
October 13, 2014

In the ninth inning of Game 3 of the ALDS, with Baltimore leading the Tigers 2--1 and a runner on second with one out, Orioles manager Buck Showalter called for an intentional walk. He was trying to set up a game-ending double play—but he was also putting on the potential winning run, in violation of the conventional wisdom that has guided generations of dugout strategists. It worked: Pinch hitter Hernan Perez grounded into a 5-4-3, sending the O's to the ALCS. But that's not really the point. To understand why Showalter is turning this October into a managing clinic, look not so much at the moves he's made but at how he has made them—and how the O's react.

In a conference on the mound Showalter convinced closer Zach Britton that the IBB was actually an I‚ô•U; he told Britton that he knew he would force a DP with his sinker. In centerfield Adam Jones trusted his manager instinctively: "I don't challenge what Buck does." General manager Dan Duquette also watched appreciatively: "That told everybody that Buck was managing to win the series right there. It takes a lot of guts to do it. It's an admirable trait."

Showalter(right) arrived in Baltimore five years ago with a reputation for being so rigid that his baseball card should be made of steel. While managing the Yankees in 1994, he chastised Ken Griffey Jr. for wearing his hat backward—and Griffey didn't even play for his team. Baseball is no stranger to grumpy old men, but Showalter was something of a prodigy. "I'm starting to say things like, 'Back when I played....'" he told The New York Times Magazine in '94. He was all of 38.

Showalter has revived the Orioles by being a steady hand in an unsteady game. Jones calls him "a genius" for his bullpen management: Relievers all know their roles, which include being flexible. "He believed in me all the way back in spring training," says Britton, "when I didn't know if I had a spot on the team."

A cerebral, diminutive (Showalter is 5'9") master motivator with a knack for pressing the right in-game buttons—sound familiar, Baltimore? The similarities between this team and the O's squads that Earl Weaver managed between 1968 and '86 extend beyond the dugout. Weaver famously said the key to winning was "pitching, defense and the three-run homer," and no team followed that formula more closely than the Orioles this season (page 66)—even if hitting coach Jim Presley says, "I hate livin' and dyin' by the three-run home run." The Orioles emphasize situational hitting. It just so happens that they have a lot of low-average power hitters.

For most of his managerial career Showalter was the guy who laid the groundwork for a championship team, then got replaced with a softer touch. The Yankees won four World Series in the five years after they let him go, in 1995. Showalter built the expansion Diamondbacks, then watched them win it all in 2001, their first year without him. What happened to the guy who was good, but not good enough? "He is more in tune with the players," says Presley, Showalter's hitting coach in Arizona. "Buck has done a great job tailoring our style to the personnel we have."

This month Showalter may finally get the chance to finish the ride. At the very least, the Orioles know they are playing for one of the best managers in the game. The experience is so rewarding that someday some of them will inevitably play for lesser managers and grumble, "Back when I played for Buck Showalter...."

PHOTOANDREW HANCOCK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)