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For Turnaround Artist Buck Showalter, Fourth Team Is A Charm

October 16, 2014

Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter has had a career full of near misses and untimely exits.

Orioles 2014: Buck Showalter (ALDS Game 1, warmup)
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

During his first three stints as a major league manager, Showalter spent time laying the groundwork for his teams' future successes, only to be let go before he could reap the benefits.

He began his MLB managerial career with the New York Yankees in 1992 and won American League Manager of the Year honors in 1994, guiding the team to an American League-best 70-43 record before the players' strike wiped out the remainder of the season. In 1995, Showalter led New York to the postseason, snapping the Yankees' 13-year playoff drought. But after a first-round loss in the American League Division Series, the Yankees dumped Showalter for refusing owner George Steinbrenner's demand to fire his coaches. The following year, the Yankees won the World Series under Joe Torre, beginning a dynasty of four championships during a five-year span.

Then Showalter landed with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks in November 1996, more than two years before they played their first major league game. Building the organization from the ground up, he not only helped to construct the Diamondbacks' roster from scratch, but also had a hand in designing the uniforms and the ballpark. The Diamondbacks were an almost-instant success. Showalter managed them to the postseason during their second year of play in 1999, the quickest an expansion team has ever made the playoffs. But Showalter was fired after the 2000 season, and Arizona won the World Series a year later under Bob Brenly.

Showalter's next stop, from 2003 to 2006, was with the Texas Rangers, a team with an inflated payroll but precious little pitching depth. The Rangers posted losing records during three of Showalter's four years. The exception was an 89-win season in 2004, for which Showalter earned his second American League Manager of the Year award. Showalter was several years gone by the time Texas played in back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011, but a few key members of those teams -- including second baseman Ian Kinsler, lefty pitchers Derek Holland and C.J. Wilson and current Orioles outfielder Nelson Cruz -- broke into the majors or joined the Rangers' organization during Showalter's tenure.

In every case, Showalter left his teams better than he found them, but wasn't around when they took the final step. Showalter has likened the experience to watching someone else walk his daughter down the aisle.

Now, for the Orioles, Showalter finally is getting a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor. His playoff appearances with the Birds in 2012 and 2014 mark the first time he's taken a team to the playoffs more than once. And with a contract that runs through 2018, Showalter is in it for the long haul.

"There's been a lot of great things I've been allowed to be a part of," Showalter said. "Each day's an honor. I mean that. Every day I get up, I go, ‘I can't believe I'm getting another day at this.' You don't manage players, they allow you to manage them. You've got to keep that in mind.

"So it's been enjoyable for me because I've got a lot of really good people around that are easy to pull for, and you get to see a lot of things through their eyes. I've got a great seat, and it allows me not to miss some really good things that are going on."

The Orioles' organization has undergone a renaissance under Showalter. When he took over managing duties Aug. 2, 2010, the Orioles were the worst team in baseball -- holding a 32-73 record -- and were on pace to shatter the Orioles' franchise record for losses in a season. They were in the midst of their 13th consecutive losing season and had already cycled through two other managers that season -- Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel -- before Showalter took the reins.

The Orioles immediately improved under Showalter. The Birds won eight of their first nine games with Showalter in charge, going 34-23 the rest of the season. Showalter instilled a winning attitude and established a culture of accountability in a once-hectic O's clubhouse. He helped developed the team's young, homegrown core, first working with vice president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail and then with his successor, Dan Duquette. By 2012, the Orioles were a 93-win team, making the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

"Buck obviously has the resume in the past where he had big success in New York, Arizona and Texas -- turning three ball clubs around," reliever Brian Matusz said. "And he's done the same here. Him and Dan have done a great job at bringing in good players -- not only good, talented baseball players, but good guys, too. We all have a good team camaraderie in here."

Showalter deferred credit for the organizational improvement, focusing on the work that had been done before his arrival.

"Whether it'd been me or somebody else, the groundwork had been set for a lot of good things to happen," Showalter said. "If you look at any situation that's gotten better, I guarantee you I can show you a bunch of people that took some bullets and did the right things to get it going in the right direction, whether it be Dave Trembley, whether it be Andy MacPhail or whether it be the scouting director, Joe Jordan.

"[The] farm system got better. Some guys started to develop, and players like Adam [Jones] and Nick [Markakis] and [Matt] Wieters and guys that were here have kind of graduated and grown up and taken real ownership, and the Orioles are doing better. Surround yourself with good people and get out of their way while they do it. And I think there's a certain accountability and standard that they want to be about, and it's more than just lip service."

Knowing how to communicate with players -- and when to give them their space -- has been a key to Showalter's success in the Orioles' clubhouse.

"He treats you like a man," said first baseman Steve Pearce. "He has trust that you're going to do the right thing, get the job done, and that's why he's respected. … He doesn't put the pressure on us [and say], ‘Hey, we need to do this. We need to do that.' We know. He trusts us that we know. So that's kind of all we need."

In 2014, the Orioles tied for the second-best record in the majors, going 96-66 -- an exact reversal of their 2010 record, and emblematic of the organization's 180-degree turnaround under Showalter.

"It's not just as simple as changing the culture," Showalter said. "You change it by winning more games. People don't understand. They talk about chemistry. I've never heard a team having a great time and having great chemistry and it's fun to play, and you're getting your brains beat in. It doesn't work that way. So you've got to keep the endgame in mind and try to figure out what we've been lacking.

"I think one of the mistakes people make when they come in a situation that hasn't been winning as much as you'd like is that everything there is wrong, everything is bad, and you want to clean [house]. It's players playing better and getting better players, and better pitching, usually. And it's like I say every year: If we pitch better, we get deep in the games with our starting pitching, then we'll have some fun this summer. It's pretty simple. We're at a good point in the process of pitching, and that's why it's been a little more consistent."

It's not lost on Showalter that the great Orioles teams from the past were built on pitching, too. During his four years with the team, Showalter has immersed himself in the history of the Orioles, inviting many O's alumni to speak to or work with the team. It's a value he aims to share with players throughout the organization. When minor league outfielder Josh Hart didn't recognize Orioles Hall of Famer Frank Robinson at spring training this year, Showalter asked him to write a one-page report on Robinson -- not as punishment, but as a learning opportunity.

"We just want to do some things that make those people prouder," Showalter said. "It's more than just putting pictures up. First, it starts by doing something on the field that is even close to the example they've set. I've spent a lot of time talking to Jim [Palmer] and Flanny (Mike Flanagan) and Scotty [McGregor] and Boog [Powell] and Brooks [Robinson] and Frank. What are their thoughts? What's different? … Because a lot of people have been here longer than I have."

Throughout his career, Showalter's strict attention to detail has garnered him a reputation as perhaps the most well-prepared manager in the game -- but also caused some of his critics to portray him as a stiff, humorless control freak. In reality, though, while Showalter may be all business on the field, he welcomes a fun atmosphere in the clubhouse.

"I never have taken myself nearly as seriously as people think," Showalter said. "I have a good belly laugh here every day. This is hard to do for the players … because there's just so few places guys can really drop their guard and be themselves, and I want them to. I want them to have personality. I don't want a bunch of robots.

"This is too hard to do without having some levity now and then. So they're serious about the right things, and I'm real proud of them."

The feeling, it appears, is mutual.

"All the guys respect him," said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who has been with the Birds for each of Showalter's four full seasons at the helm. "He's very baseball smart, manages the bullpen well, manages the players well. He's able to communicate with everyone. [He] keeps it loose."

Showalter is already shaping up to be one of the most successful managers in O's history, becoming the third skipper -- along with Earl Weaver and Davey Johnson -- to lead the Birds to multiple postseason appearances. Showalter achieved a milestone Oct. 5 when the Orioles clinched a spot in the American League Championship Series, the furthest Showalter has advanced into the postseason during his career. And if Showalter's early tenure with the Birds is any indication, it may not be the last time he guides an O's club to a deep run into October.

After a career of near misses, Showalter might finally be able to walk his own daughter down the aisle.

Issue 202: October 2014