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Buck Showalter: A Manager For All Seasons

February 15, 2016

Buck Showalter loves scouting reports -- except when it comes to assessing the personalities of people he's never met.

In that regard, the Orioles' manager insists upon formulating his own opinion.

"People will start to tell me about a player that's coming," Showalter said, "and I stop them and say, ‘I got this. We're starting fresh. I'm going to make up my own mind about him.'"

Issue 218: Buck Showalter (with bat)
Photo Credit: Todd Olszewski/Baltimore Orioles

The point is: Perception is not always reality. Take, for example, the unexpected manner in which Showalter has run the Orioles since accepting the job in August 2010.

Showalter's reputation preceded his arrival in Baltimore. Taskmaster, drill sergeant, disciplinarian -- those words were often associated with him during his tenure as manager of the New York Yankees (1992-95), Arizona Diamondbacks (1998-2000) and Texas Rangers (2003-06).

So when the feisty skipper was hired by then-president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail to turn around a franchise in search of its first winning season since 1997, the players knew what was coming.

Or did they? Turns out, the scouting report of William Nathaniel Showalter was way off base.

"I definitely think he's different than what I expected," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "He called me right after I was traded over here [in December 2010]. I'd heard what he was like with the Diamondbacks, with Texas, from guys who had played for him before. He communicates a lot better than I expected. He definitely likes to know what's going on with every part of everything, which is true of what I heard before, but it's different in a good way."

It took a while for the Orioles to realize that there actually is a lighter side to Showalter. That's why his memorable prank on reliever Darren O'Day in June 2012 -- which has since received more than 175,000 hits on YouTube -- played so well.

O'Day thought he was conducting an interview to extol the virtues of a self-propelled electric unicycle when Showalter emerged from the dugout tunnel and ripped into the pitcher for his bad judgment.

"You guys got to get your priorities in order!" Showalter barked on cue. "You've got to be kidding me!"

When the joke was revealed, Showalter smothered O'Day with a big old hug.

Make no mistake: Showalter is still a no-nonsense kind of guy -- but not to a fault. Times have changed since he was running the Yankees for owner George Steinbrenner in the early 1990s, and the veteran manager has made the adjustment.

Issue 218: Buck Showalter (closeup)
Photo Credit: Todd Olszewski/Baltimore Orioles

"He's still a drill sergeant. It's just a modern-day way of doing it," center fielder Adam Jones said. "The way it was orchestrated back in the day wouldn't fly too well these days because players are sensitive at times."

No one would have blinked if Showalter ran the Orioles with a my-way-or-the-highway approach. Instead, he's been quick to ask Hardy to share his view on bunt coverage or to consult with Jones about everything from outfield depth to the mood within the clubhouse.

"He asks my advice because he's into the team," Jones said. "He wants to know what's going on with his team. That's the control freak in him. And beyond that, say what you want about him, he's still got the passion for winning."

Showalter, 59, insists he's consulted with his players about strategy ever since his days with the Yankees.

"I've always wanted to talk to them about the reasons why," he said. "I love it when players ask, ‘Why are we doing it this way?' I always did that with [Derek] Jeter, with [Don] Mattingly. I really am sincerely interested in their opinion. We tweak something every spring."

That includes the manner in which he motivates his team for the upcoming season. In addition to a speech, Showalter might show the players a movie with highlights from the preceding year. There's also a talent show; an Olympic-type competition among the clubhouse attendants, and whatever else he might think up to make camp a little bit less humdrum.

"In the locker room, that meeting we have in the spring, players look forward to it," Showalter said. "I was thinking about taking them to Ringling Brothers, taking them to the beach. And the talent show, they've been practicing all winter."

The goal is to mix it up, keep it fresh and make things interesting.

"Everything changes," Showalter said, using a phrase that could well apply to his managerial technique. "I know you've got to throw something new in there, but you're trying to get to the same end game. You don't want to do the same thing every spring. You don't want to get too predictable. My first year with the Yankees, we brought a comedian on Day One. Dressed him as a coach. I don't take things nearly as seriously as everyone thinks I do."

Really? So he smiles all the time now?

"Like once a year, right?" Hardy said with a wry grin. "I think he's having a lot of fun, especially when we're winning. Last year, I don't think it was much fun for anybody. But when we're winning, he's able to relax a little bit and have fun."

"He's As Intense As Ever"

Who could have predicted that Showalter's pregame sessions with the media would be so off topic? Sure, there's talk about baseball, but the conversation sometimes strays to college football, the Ravens and rock or country music. He's also complained on several occasions about the loud, screeching owl that was tormenting his dogs outside his expansive estate in Greenspring Valley.

Perhaps all those years dealing with the New York media, as well as his stint at ESPN, made it easier for Showalter to deal with beat writers.

"I'm sure his comfort level around the media is because, like anything in life, you become more comfortable when you're doing it day in and day out," said Brady Anderson, a former Oriole and now vice president of baseball operations. "His media obligations are more than anybody in the organization, so I would guess that just doing it every day would lead to a level of comfort, and that would come across as being more comfortable or mellow."

But suggest to Showalter that he's grown comfortable in his job, and you might as well insinuate that he's ready for a rocking chair. 

Issue 218: Buck Showalter (anthem)
Photo Credit: Todd Olszewski/Baltimore Orioles

"Comfortable is a bad word," he said. "Makes you sound as if you're complacent."

Anderson was asked if it's possible that Showalter has mellowed. He snickered, pulled out his cell phone and played a snippet from the movie "Cape Fear" in which Robert De Niro is laughing hysterically without pause.

"He hasn't mellowed. He's as intense as ever," Anderson insisted. "Some people's reputation before you meet them is not the same after you get to know them. I had heard certain things about Buck when I was a player. He took exception to Ken Griffey wearing his hat backward on the field and things like that. He might have been worried about the way players wear their pants and socks. But when he came here, I never saw any of that. He had total understanding that players of different generations prefer different styles, prefer different ways of doing things."

During the past 25 years, baseball has changed. So have the players, and so has Showalter.

"I think the longer he's been in the game, the more he's understood the players' side and the more he's kind of become sensitive to that," Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. "He understands what it takes to be successful, but he also understands that when times are tough and things aren't looking so good, the kind of chemistry you have on the team -- the clubhouse atmosphere -- really dictates how you handle that kind of pressure."

"I Don't Apologize For Taking It Seriously"

Showalter appreciates the value of keeping things loose. Regardless of his technique, past or present, there have always been these constants: His ability to turn a franchise into a winner and an unyielding loyalty to his coaching staff. It started in New York, where he debuted with a fourth-place finish in the American League East before directing the club to three straight winning seasons, one of which was interrupted by a work stoppage in 1994. After taking the Yankees into the playoffs in 1995, he quit over a rift with Steinbrenner.

"I had to make a stand in New York after 19 years with that organization," Showalter recalled. "I had two contracts offered to me and both were with three to four coaches being fired. I couldn't do it. It was tough sitting out there without a job. That worked out. But I told my wife, I would be perfectly happy going back to Double-A or Triple-A. My dad told me at some point you're going to have to plant your feet and make a stand. You'll know when it is. That was one of those moments. Steinbrenner called me a stubborn blankety-blank, but he relented and let me have one back. I said all of them."

His allegiance to his staff has not waned in Baltimore.

"That's one of the reasons we got in the playoffs [in 2012] for the first time in years. All of these coaches," he said. "I would lose credibility in the locker room with the players if I give up coaches. To this day, I can't understand how managers give up coaches just to keep their job. You're going to pay the piper. You're going to tell these guys you've got their back, but you're giving up, say, [pitching coach] Dave Wallace? Really? How does that work? If I'm a player, I'm going, ‘That's not right.'

"You're here to deliver a product, and it starts in April, so I don't apologize for taking it seriously and being unrelenting about certain things."

Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette was general manager of the Montreal Expos when Showalter was with the Yankees.

"Working for George presents its own challenges," Duquette said. "I came to know Buck was a taskmaster and strong fundamentalist. He's still that way. He prepares his team especially well defensively to win games."

After leaving the Yankees, Showalter built the expansion Diamondbacks into a first-place team in the National League West in 1999 before being fired after his third season. Three years later, he latched onto the Rangers, but moved on after three successive third-place finishes in the AL West in 2004, 2005 and 2006. 

And now, here they are -- Buck and Dan -- the duo most responsible for ending Baltimore's run of 14 straight losing seasons and turning the Orioles into a contender in the AL East.

"I enjoy working with him. We share the same passion for a winning baseball team," Duquette said. "I think he has developed as a manager and still embraces fundamentals. But he has gained experience along the way, and his players understand his passion and his pursuit of excellence."

Although he's put Davis on the mound during a 17-inning game and risked occasionally moving Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado to shortstop to shake things up during a losing streak, Showalter's main goal is to focus on a player's strength and put him in position to succeed.

"A guy like Steve Pearce, a guy like Ryan Flaherty, it's up to me to put them in a situation where their skills will come out and keep them away from things they may not be good at," Showalter said. "There's no agenda here. They know we're trying to win. It's like, ‘You're real good at this, but this may not be your forte, so we'll try to keep you away from that. In the meantime, I want you to work on something that may not be your forte and see if we can get rid of that.'"

"You Just Grind Like Hell And See Where It Takes You"

Asked point-blank if he's a different manager than earlier in his career, Showalter wonders aloud why everyone simply assumed he was so gruff and unrelenting before coming to Baltimore.

"When you keep in mind that people are writing that and saying that, who's that a reflection of?" he said. "That's the world we live in. It's actually quite lazy when people don't want to figure it out themselves."

Upon further introspection, Showalter concedes that perhaps he's not the same, after all.

"I don't how much has changed, but I guess it comes with age. We all learn from our experiences in life, and it never stops," he said.

"Maybe I'm not quite as guarded about it," he acknowledged. "Every situation calls for a little different approach. Plus, it's nice to be 59, 60 and not care about what somebody might think. I think you become more confident in right from wrong and realize there are some battles you can't win. We all change by the things we've been exposed to, right? I lost my mom, my wife, Angela, lost her father and stepfather [in 2015]. Tough year for the Showalter household. That changes you. We ain't getting out of this alive."

The current version of Buck Showalter is the culmination of all the coaches he's known, all the players he's mentored and the lessons he's learned during several decades. He won't be doing this forever, but he will always do it his way.

"You don't go around shooting from the hip. I never did. You think things through," he said. "You realize the weight your words carry, and you pick them as carefully as you can. I've had my moments where I do fire from the hip, but it's sincere.

"I've had plenty of help here along the way. There are lots of people who can do this job as well, if not better, than me. You just grind like hell and see where it takes you. When the time comes and my shelf life is up, I'll tell everybody thank you for the opportunity, it's been a hell of a ride, good luck and call me if I can help you with the next wave." 

Issue 218: February 2016