Thomas Boswell

Even in an era of gar­den gnomes, Ori­oles Man­ager Buck Showal­ter does things his own way.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Thomas Boswell thomas.boswell@wash­post.com For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell.

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.

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