Even in an era of garden gnomes, Orioles Manager Buck Showalter does things his own way.
baltimore— All weekend here, reigning NL manager of the year Matt Williams of Washington is facing reigning AL manager of the year Buck Showalter of the Orioles. If you want worlds, even baseball centuries, to collide, you’ve got it.
Williams will find a hundred ways to say “we play ’em one at a time.” He’ll work to give pleasant factual answers that reveal nothing proprietary about his team or personal about himself. He is the 21st century manager: part of a smart workaholic chain of decision-making who knows the latest trends but keeps his methods and clubhouse dynamics on a CIA need-to-know basis. ( You don’t need to know.) He’s privately amusing, publicly expressionless. He makes drying paint look exciting.
Showalter is every memorable manager who got his first gig in the 20th century. Or the 19th. He played the game at the squadouche level, got fired three times but kept evolving. He loves modern chilly analytics but also embodies baseball’s warm past, the desire to draw in fans as friends, the press as their portal, in a way that’s being lost. He’s openly amusing, strategically expressive and makes you want to paint his house, then stick around until it dries, just to hear him keep talking ball.
Three hours before Friday’s game, Showalter strode into his interview room carrying an orange-and-black Orioles fungo bat like a general’s swagger stick. Planning to hit grounders to the media? No. But as accessories go, perfect. In his other hand, a cup of joe for aesthetic balance. Caffeine and cudgel. It’s a look.
Once, managers, if they wanted to be special, had a public persona that wasn’t too far from who they actually were — a tweak on their personality but not a full twist. From Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox back to Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda and Earl Weaver— and for generations before that— big league managing was performance art. They pitched themselves— all different but all vivid— and their game. They led men and had theories. They were keepers of the wisdom, the secrets, how it’s done, plus those unwritten codes.
Who’s left to carry that tradition? How many managers talk the game at length every day, free associating, proud to know the historical wrinkles of how things got the way they are, as well as the quirks of anybody who ever wore a uniform in Class AA. About three. “Who are they? Showalter asks mischievously.
Joe Maddon with his random python or parrot in the Cubs’ clubhouse and his symposia on batting the pitcher eighth, not ninth. (Did Buck just wince? Darn geniuses du jour.) Who else, he wonders? Sorry, can’t remember which one fit the mold.
“I’ll look through the [MLB] guide,” says Showalter, in search of that other fellow who hasn’t gone bland, isn’t the GMor team president’s amanuensis and doesn’t give off the aura of a fasttrack upper-management corporate executive.
Maybe Buck isn’t sure there is a third in his category.
Showalter “news conferences,” before and after games, are a time-machine experience. They’re often free-association conversations, like the ones that traditionally took place in dugouts during BP or the manager’s office after games.
That is, before MLB, the players’ union and PR departments conspired in the past few years to sanctify the clubhouse and sanitize the sport by creating a six-hour no-quote zone from about 4:15 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. Some teams, like the Nats, embrace this airtight bubble. The O’s, not so much. The Nats go for benevolent corporate; the O’s, underdog familial. The Nats don’t feel cold. But the Orioles are definitely the warmer ethos. Showalter’s temperament is at the center of that difference.
For example, on Friday, reporters agitated (that’s a baseball term) Showalter about a recent “Buck Gnome Night.” That’s MLB’s big give away gimmick now: garden gnomes. How did we get here, Showalter’s face asks?
“Do [the fans] even know what Bat Day is? They used to give everybody a real baseball bat once a year,” said Showalter, knowing that kids then used those bats in their pickup sandlot games (Google: pickup + sandlot.)
“Guess that might not work too well now— like Disco Demolition Night.”
What? Was that a reference to a White Sox promotion (36 years ago Sunday) between games of a doubleheader (Google “doubleheader”) that turned into an anti-disco rock-n’-riot after a pile of records (Google “records”) were detonated in the infield.
“‘Halter Top Night,’ another bad idea,” Buck muses.
The Orioles’ atmosphere, one that GMD an Duquette doesn’t discourage, allows the time on the hands of baseball’s clock to drift back 20, 30 or 40 years, maybe more like 130 years. And Showalter is permitted to reprise John McGraw’s Little Napoleon role as smartest pit bull in the room from the 1890s— except with tape recorders, cameras and instant tweets.
The word “tan” is mentioned. Buck’s off. “You always knew when Billy Martin was coming back to manage the Yankees again because one of the [tabloids] would describe him as ‘ looking tan and fit,’ ” said Showalter, who was in the Yankees’ chain during some of Billy’s five reigns in the Bronx. “‘ Tan and fit’ was George Steinbrenner III’s planted code for Firing Dead Ahead.”
Baseball needs to be taught to be loved. Professor Buck tends toward the Socratic Method. He takes questions. But he asks ’em, too. Can anybody name all the toll booths on the way to play in Port Charlotte in spring training?
In what game situation does the “third base coach actually become the manager” in the NL but not the AL? ( When a runner is rounding third with the bottom of the order and the pitcher’s spot coming up. “To wave him home or not, the third base coach needs to know every factor that the manager knows.”)
What does it mean to say a pitcher has “a good hand?” Tim Hudson had it. Now the O’s Miguel Gonzalez does. It means his fingers have “feel” for the ball so he can subtly change one pitch — a slider, a sinker, a change-up — into several pitches simply with touch, more or less pressure on some part of the ball.
“You can’t teach it. And ‘analytics’ can’t quantify it,” says Showalter, who loves advanced stats but teases his beloved nerds with tough questions. Challenge plays are usually decided by six inches or less: “How does analytics capture that?”
Or how can you tell whether a Class AAA infielder ever will have that special “clock in his head” that lets him know exactly how much he must rush to make a play or whether he dares to gamble for a force out on a lead runner. It’s split-seconds.
“That clock was the last thing to come for Manny Machado when he was 19,” Showalter said. “We had [a coach] working on it in the minors for a month— like hard topspin grounders, glove side. You don’t see those often in the minors. . . . Brooks Robinson, best ‘clock’ ever.”
Recently, Showalter and his wife were shopping at the Amish farmers market in Annapolis. Funny, the Amish don’t recognize him much. That’s nice. Also, “what do I like to eat at that market? Everything,” he says.
On the way out, he met three Orioles fans. “You just have to meet these ladies,” Showalter’s wife insisted.
“They’re all about 85,” Showalter said. “They all know everything about the team— strategy, injuries. One of them says, ‘My favorite part of the game is afterwards when you come on TV and [act like] you can make some sense of it.’
“They mademy day,” Buck said with a laugh.
And for many, visa versa.