Is This Man Too Smart for Baseball?
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We were sitting in a restaurant in an upscale mall, talking till they closed the place down. On TV screens, over the course of two decades, he'd come off as a clench-jawed field commander, the dispassionate mover of men. Across a table, however, he proved anything but, speaking soulfully about the game he still worshipped even after it kicked him in the teeth three times. Built like the minor-league catcher he once was, he seemed ageless somehow at 54, though his hair was going from blond to white without ever pausing at gray. "My dad once warned me about caring too much," he said of his fervor for the sport. "I think I've gotten better at that over the years, but don't try and hold me to it."

If he's any less obsessive and detail-driven, though, I saw no sign of it. His cell phone kept throbbing every 15 minutes, and he had a stack of files needing attention at home – mostly reports on minor-league free agents. Somewhere in that pile was an uncut gem, an aging prospect whose undervalued skills will win the O's several games this year. "One of Buck's strengths, maybe his best one, really, is the ability to spot talent that people miss," says Don Mattingly, the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who played for Showalter's Yanks in the early '90s. "He could tell, from an instructional camp in Florida, which guys had the traits and the demeanor."

"I remember in 1990, he showed me the stat line of a kid who was a marginal prospect in low-A ball," says New York Post columnist Joel Sherman, who's covered the Yankees for 22 years. "He pointed to K's and walks and said, 'Forget the other numbers; that kid's going to be a star.'" The kid, of course, was Mariano Rivera, whom Showalter twice kept out of trades.

But when he stepped in last August to run the dreadful O's, he hadn't the luxury of a spring or off-season to hand-pick and polish young finds. He was the team's third manager in less than five months and inheritor of the dead-last staff in the American League. The club had little speed, only occasional power, and was built on the backs of promising kids (Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones) who'd stumbled out of the blocks and lost their way. Late in a lost season, Showalter could've sat back and staged auditions, sizing up the roster for future plans. Instead, on day one, he met his players in front of a whiteboard bearing the names of their replacements at Triple A. "It was strategically placed to remind them all that it's a privilege, not a right, to be in the majors," he told me. "I wanted them to hold each other accountable; if a player doesn't want to please his teammates first, then, sorry, he's gotta go."

After instilling a healthy fear of God in them, he told them to stop playing scared. Don't give the other team that much credit: Screw the Yankees, screw the Red Sox, he said. "The first time we went to Yankee Stadium, I screamed at Derek Jeter from the dugout. Our young guys are thinking, 'Wow, he's screaming at Derek Jeter' – well, he's always jumping back from balls just off the plate. I know how many calls that team gets – and yes, he pisses me off."

Soon, he sat with each player privately and told them, in blunt terms, what he expected. To Brad Bergesen, a second-year starter with a habit of eyeing the dugout when things unraveled: "Trust your stuff, be the big dick in the shower – and if you look in the dugout once, you're coming out." Bergesen hadn't won a start since May, but went 5–3 from then on, with an ERA under three. Something like that happened with the rest of the staff as well. Pre-Showalter, they went 32–73, with a five-plus ERA. Post: 34–23, 3.54.

His in-game cunning is a subtler advantage. Ordering, say, a decoy pickoff move, he'll closely eye the plate while his pitcher throws to first. "If the hitter's leg twitches, I know the hit-and-run's on." He'll keep mental lists of opposing skippers who get their relievers up early and bait them with moves in the middle innings so he can "pound their tits" in the eighth. "No one in the game can steal signs like Buck or catch a guy tipping his pitches," says Bob Klapisch, a columnist for The Record in Bergen County, New Jersey. "But the drawback is, he couldn't back off, loading his players with information instead of letting them play on instinct." Adds Gene Michael, the ex-GM of those Yankees teams: "I had to tell him sometimes to stop with all that. He's great at strategy but takes it too far, and the guys tune him out after a while."

To this day, he's at his desk long after a game's over, jotting notes and watching the playback till 1 am. "I know I make people uncomfortable with that, but it's all about evaluating. On tape, I'm watching away from the ball, 'cause that's where the story's being told. I'm seeing who on our bench jumped up to look when we hit a fair ball down the line. If guys don't look, it tells me they don't care" – and Showalter's fixed on finding players who care, building a core of obsessive-compulsives who don't take mental days off. Wherever he's been, he's traded for vets who think the game as fiercely as they play it – Paul O'Neill, Wade Boggs, Curt Schilling – and sprinkled in heady utility players to serve as coaches on the field. As that other unloved genius, Billy Martin, used to tell him, it's the dumb players who always get you fired.