By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun
6:22 PM PDT, October 4, 2012
Buck Showalter is in need of some coffee.
The Orioles manager pops a plastic cup into the well of a newfangled instant coffee maker in the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field, not hesitating to say it pales in comparison with the old-school percolating coffee pot back in his office at Camden Yards.
The season is long, and he's tired. His right knee hurts, and in a few moments he will have an ice wrap on it the size of large melon as he hobbles around on the second-to-last day of baseball's grueling 162-game regular season.
On this day, finality is on the 56-year-old Showalter's mind. In his second full season at the helm of the Orioles, he's taken the franchise to its first playoff berth in 15 seasons. And whether the season ends with him leading Baltimore back to the top of the baseball world with the Orioles' fourth World Series title and first since 1983, or it ends abruptly with a loss to the Texas Rangers in Friday's one-game American League wild-card playoff, he knows this memorable season will eventually end.
Showalter is uncomfortable with the thought. He's a creature of habit, and for the first time since he initially assembled his team on the back fields of the team's spring training compex in Sarasota, Fla., there's a possibility that this season will soon come to a close.
"I love this time of the year because all the individual stuff — it's a beautiful thing when it comes together — but it's really all about the Orioles, it's all about the team," he said. "You can be guilty by association or you can be successful by association. The cruel thing is that there's only one team that walks off the field this year that's going to have that continuously."
He'd like to end it with his first championship. In each of his three previous managerial stops — with the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Rangers — Showalter created a winning team but wasn't around to see it all the way through. At those first two stops the teams won the World Series the year after his departure, and the Rangers have captured back-to-back AL pennants.
This season, he's brought the Orioles — who entered the year with 14 consecutive losing seasons, the second-longest active streak in the major leagues — back from the abyss.
"You can see Buck right there on that top rail [of the dugout] all the time, and he don't miss anything," said Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, who orchestrated a similar turnaround with his club, going from the AL East cellar in 2007 to the World Series in 2008. "That man don't miss anything. Their players recognize that also. They kind of play like he's managing. He's all-out all the time."
But on this day, as Showalter is preparing to take the Orioles to their first playoff game since the Clinton administration, he deflects any credit.
"It's so much about the players," Showalter said. "They're playing the game. It's what I can do to make it better and easier because there will be another guy to come along, and that's fine. There are people who do this job as good if not better than me, and it doesn't make anybody better or less. It's just the way of the world. The reward for doing a job well is the opportunity to do it more."
A team built on trust
The way Showalter and the front office have assembled this Orioles team is artful. Building around cornerstone players like center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters, right fielder Nick Markakis and shortstop J.J. Hardy, they've added a stable of complementary players who know their role and its importance to winning.
The Orioles also have overcome several detrimental injuries. They lost starting left fielder Nolan Reimold in the season's first month. Second baseman Brian Roberts' comeback from multiple concussions lasted just 17 games. Markakis, the team's best hitter in the second half, has endured wrist surgery and is now healing from a broken thumb. Right-hander Jason Hammel, the team's best pitcher in the first half, has missed 12 weeks since the All-Star break with knee problems.
Showalter has masterfully maneuvered a bullpen that is a major reason the Orioles went 74-0 when leading after the end of the seventh inning and 29-9 in one-run games. The Orioles have won 16 straight extra-inning games, another eye-popping statistic.
"This team has its own identity of winning close games and executing in close games," said first-year Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. "A lot of that has to do with the bullpen. A lot of it has to do with the way Buck uses the bullpen and distributes the work."
Above all, Showalter has set a new standard for the long-suffering Orioles, one that was forged on the back fields in Sarasota, where he made players repeat drills until they were done right, pointing the orange fungo bat he always carries toward perfection. He continued enforcing that standard throughout the season, sending players down to Triple-A for more seasoning because, in his words, "it just wasn't good enough."
"There's a description now: That's a guy who can play for Baltimore. Not play for me, but play for them," Showalter said. "I mean it. ... If you ever think you have something to do with it, you've missed the boat. I think they know I feel that way. Quite frankly, I've never felt that. What you are kind of responsible for is creating the environment that fits them. You don't cram stuff down their throat. It's got to be stuff they buy into."
At the same time, Showalter has forged a trust in his players. He understands they're not going to be perfect, that they are going to struggle through the peaks and valleys of a six-month season.
"I noticed it last September," said Hardy, the top defensive shortstop in the AL the past two seasons. "The moves he was making when we had that expanded roster, he was so on top of things. I really noticed it. Before, I didn't pay attention, I just played, but I really noticed it the moves he made then.
"The stretch we had in September, that wasn't just coincidence. Buck had a huge part in that. And then in spring training you see the guys who are in here in the locker room, and you kinda say, 'Oh, we've got a good team.' Ever since then, it's been a different team."
Even the newer players — like Nate McLouth, who was signed to a minor league contract in June after being released by the Pirates and has become the everyday leadoff hitter and left fielder — noticed quickly that Showalter's managerial style is based on trust.
"He lets you do your thing and he trusts you to be a pro," McLouth said. "I think people appreciate being treated like they know what they're doing, not that you've got someone breathing down your neck. I definitely appreciate it as a player.
"I think that lets you play in a way where you're not afraid to make a mistake," McLouth added. "It's comforting. He keeps on an even keel regardless of the way the game's going, I think it rubs off on us. To have the same demeanor in tonight's game that I'm sure he had in the middle of May is important."
A baseball man to the core
In his previous stops, success didn't equal longevity for Showalter, as his hands-on approach made higher-ups weary and led to his departure.
Showalter acknowledges he's changed since his early days managing in New York. He's learned an honest lesson in humility throughout his managerial career — "The old expression 'Don't be so humble. You're not that good' really resonated with me," Showalter said — but some of those who have known him the longest hold Showalter in the highest regard as a dedicated baseball man who cares about his players and truly knows how to make them winners.
Orioles roving infielder instructor Bobby Dickerson played for Showalter for three seasons with the Fort Lauderdale Yankees in the Florida State League and for years has been one of Showalter's most dedicated loyalists.
"I met him 10 days into my pro baseball career," Dickerson said. "I was a utility infielder, and I felt like I was the four-hole hitter. I felt like I was the Most Valuable Player by the way he treated me in the dugout and off the field. I was just a 23rd-round utility player, and I just felt like the team couldn't function without me. That's just how I felt. I had 40 at-bats my first year, but I would run through a wall for the man."
As a player, Dickerson saw early on that Showalter was a stickler for detail, that he wanted to set an example of dedication to the game and wanted everyone around him to share that work ethic.
This season, when an early afternoon game followed a night game, Showalter stayed at the ballpark and slept on an air mattress in his office. He half-jokes that a double-wide trailer parked in Lot A at Camden Yards would be a better place to live than his home in Baltimore County. Showalter spent the only true off day of the season — the day after the All-Star Game in mid-July — driving to one of the team's lower-level minor league affiliates, the Delmarva Shorebirds, to watch reserve outfielder Endy Chavez play a rehab assignment game.
"It makes some people uncomfortable, because he's at work every day," Dickerson said. "Not a lot of people can bring it every single day. It makes people who aren't bringing it every day uncomfortable around him. You're either in or you're out. You've got to be prepared. He's going to ask your questions and put you on the spot. He's definitely looking at everything we're doing as an organization."
Showalter does his research. He knows players' statistical splits going back to college. He pores over media guides to find any personal connection to his players.
And in many ways, Baltimore was the perfect fit. He received several offers during a managing hiatus when he worked for ESPN as an analyst, but none felt right until former team president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail talked Showalter into taking over a floundering Orioles club in July 2010. The team had been outscored by 190 runs when he was hired but finished the season by winning 34 of its final 57 games.
"You look at what they've done the last couple of years since he's come aboard," Maddon said. "You can see his ability to flip their culture over there. They had to get rid of some people. They had to bring in a different style of play. They never assume anything other than the fact that they have to play to the next out. There are no assumptions going on there."
'A reason for everything he does'
With the Orioles, Showalter was given a clean palette — much as he was with the expansion Diamondbacks in 1996 — to put his imprint on the franchise. And one of his main goals was eliminating excuses. Some of it involved a physical makeover, such as the renovation of the team's spring training complex in Sarasota. Some was remaking a roster full of players who had an intangible sixth tool, hardworking players who would buy into a team mentality.
"It wasn't by accident," Showalter said. "People kind of shake their heads about us statistically and how's this happened. But people who evaluate that sixth tool know what's going on. Put that on a pie chart. I look at the wOBA [an advanced metric that stands for weighted on-base average]. I look at the WAR [wins above replacement]. There's all those tools, too. It started with ponying up for the spring training complex. That woke people up to say, 'Hey, there's something going on here.' There were no more lowly Orioles. It's all part of it, a part of our presentation."
Part of that presentation is playing fearlessly in the moment. Showalter doesn't want his players to doubt themselves or one another. He says it often: "They're no robots. I want them to be themselves."
So if a player thinks swinging on a 3-0 count can lead to a hit, or that he can steal a base, Showalter's message is clear: "Let 'er rip."
"I think that's why we've been able to overcome so many things this year," said Orioles utility man Steve Tolleson, whose father, Wayne, played for Showalter in Fort Lauderdale. "We know he's got our back. ... That's what gains respect."
Added Hardy: "Not once have I questioned a move that he's made. It makes you kind of relaxed. You trust it. You know you're playing for a reason, that you're in a certain spot for a reason. It's not all just, 'Let's put these guys in the lineup and see what happens.' There's a reason for everything he does."
The key is knowing each of his players well and which buttons to push. On Monday night, 20-year-old rookie third baseman Manny Machado — who has stabilized the position since he was called up from Double-A Bowie in early August — made an error that led to three unearned runs, the difference in a 5-3 loss to the Rays.
"Yeah, I'll go up to Manny Machado today and go, 'Hey kid, I made three errors in one game in Triple-A and lost a game,' " Showalter said before Tuesday's game. "That's the thing. Guys are out there every day, and you try to go out there and put yourself in their shoes because you're here to protect an organization's precious commodities. These guys are ours, so why would you make it tougher on them?"
Steve Tolleson tells a story from late May, when the Orioles were in the middle of a season-long six-game losing streak and Showalter called a rare team meeting inside the visiting clubhouse in Toronto.
"He told us, 'We haven't played well lately, but if you look at the standings, we're in first place. You belong here even though we've struggled a bit,' " Tolleson said. "I think that put it in perspective. He's kept us even keel. There hasn't been sense of urgency that we have to get it done or else, or any added pressure."
Even after Wednesday's loss to Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale — a defeat that forced the Orioles to play a do-or-die wild-card game on the road — the mood in the clubhouse as players packed their equipment bags for Texas was one of calm.
But the feeling of finality was there. The Orioles' dream season is nearing its conclusion —whether it ends in celebration or frustration.
Then Hardy strolled over, his right shoulder wrapped in ice.
"Like Buck says," Hardy said with a smile, "we're just going to roll the dice."
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