Is This Man Too Smart for Baseball?

Mj 618_348_is this man too smart for baseball
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If you took an informal sample of baseball’s chattering class, the advance scouts and beat guys and assistant GMs, they’d tell you there are maybe a half-dozen managers now who actually make a difference in games won. The names you keep hearing? Joe Maddon, Terry Francona, Mike Scioscia, Bruce Bochy, and, depending on who’s talking, Ron Gardenhire.

Then there are two – perhaps the best of the bunch, based on their preparation, smarts, and laser-guided eye for young talent – who have had a hellish time getting hired. One is Bobby Valentine, who by general acclamation is as brilliant as he is noxious, and who watches each winter as soft-skulled retreads gobble up the jobs he covets. The other is Buck Showalter, the two-time Manager of the Year (Yankees in ’94, Rangers in ’04) who took over the Baltimore Orioles last August and, during the last two months of the season, turned the worst team in the majors into the AL East’s best. In New York and Texas, he’d likewise taken teams in shambles and rebuilt them on the fly, making them models of market efficiency. In Arizona, he presided over the birth of a franchise, designing each detail of the organization, from the color of its jerseys to its clubhouse layout, and then guided the Diamondbacks, in their second year of life, to 100 wins and a title in the NL West. Both the Yankees and D’Backs went on to win the World Series within five years of his arrival; the Rangers took seven but were owned by Tom Hicks, a meddlesome fool.

You’d think that someone so effective would inspire a little love and stable employment. But Showalter never made it to even one of those Series, being axed by the D’Backs and Rangers and allowed to leave by the Yanks before he could finish the job. The stated reasons for his departures varied, but the whispers were the same at every stop: For all his savvy, he wore people ragged with a slakeless thirst for control. Players groused that he called each pitch and changed signals three times a game. Suits in the front office bitched that he tried to undermine them or invade their turf. Fairly or not, a reputation grew and attached itself to him: He’d fix your team but drive players and employees batshit.

And so it was that when Texas canned him in ’06, he waited almost four years for another shot – and a chance, maybe his last, to clear the record. If history is any guide, he will reconstruct the Orioles for a quantum leap in 2012, if not this year. And then maybe we’ll get an answer to a pointed question: Can he change his spots in middle age and see a job through to completion?

“I’ve had my heart broken so much,” said Showalter when I passed through his winter town of Plano, Texas, a couple of weeks prior to spring training. “Every stop I’ve been to, I’ve approached like it was my last. Invested in it to the point where…”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.Showalter concedes he can be a load, even on a so-called off-night. “My wife will come out, 1:30 in the morning, and say, ‘Really, Buck? Still?'” he says, frowning. But she doesn’t get it; no one does. There’s always much more to be done. Take the spring-training park in Sarasota, Florida, that’s being remodeled, on his orders, to the specs at Camden Yards; that way his fielders will know it backward and forward before they break north for Opening Day. Or the clubhouse he’s having reduced by a quarter so his players can’t hide after a loss. That’s another virtue Showalter brings: He’ll make a dozen subtle decisions to improve a team before he even deals for a star. With the Yankees, for instance, he changed the infield sod, which was dreadful and produced bad hops, then turned the indoor batting cage from a sty to a shrine so his players were proud to hit there. “I mean, who else studies umpires’ schedules and plans his rotation around them?” says Sherman of the New York Post. “The guy just has no off switch.”

He’ll need more than home improvements, though, to make the O’s contenders in the big-dog AL East. He certainly can’t match the Maybach budgets in Boston and the Bronx, and for now must get the most out of midlist players who come with gaping flaws. His GM, Andy MacPhail, traded this winter for a thumping third baseman in Mark Reynolds, who’ll hit 40 homers in that bandbox stadium – and shatter the AL record for striking out. He brought in vets Derrek Lee and Vlad Guerrero, who’ll either be anchors or dead weight. And aside from Brian Matusz, the O’s don’t have a starter or a closer they can count on. But Showalter’s fine with an uphill fight; in fact, he seems to prefer it. Without him, the Birds were 8–16 against the Yankees and Red Sox; with him, they served notice, going 6–6 against their longtime tormentors. “I’d like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll,” he jeers. “You got Carl Crawford ’cause you paid more than anyone else, and that’s what makes you smarter? That’s why I like whipping their asses: It’s great, knowing those guys with the $205 million payroll are saying, ‘How the hell are they beating us?'”In his years of soft exile after Texas fired him, Showalter worked for ESPN, classing up the dais on Baseball Tonight and rarely tempering his sometimes-withering critiques. It surely burned him to trade opinions with dopes like John Kruk while managing jobs went begging in prime markets, but Showalter wouldn’t bite when I raised the question. “A couple of teams called to kind of kick my tires, but the fit wasn’t right either way,” he said. Nor was he disposed to take my bait when asked how it felt to fix three teams, then watch them go to the Series with someone else. “If that’s my epitaph, I’m OK. I think Joe Torre was the perfect guy to take the Yanks to the next level. I consider all those guys my friends.”

Really? Even Bob Brenly, who replaced him in Arizona and won the World Series his first year? Didn’t he take the rule book Showalter wrote and toss it into the garbage in front of the players?

“He did that to promote himself, and probably pissed a lot of people off,” said Showalter. Moreover, he clarified, it was a manual, not a rule book, that was trashed. “I’ve never had a set of rules. I take the senior players and go, ‘You make the rules – but when you leave here, they’re your rules.'”

But his tough sangfroid had chipped a bit, a spider-crack in the ice. And if it happens with Baltimore, too, I persisted, that they go on and win without you?

He began by saying that Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos had been gracious and supportive thus far, even offering to spend on big-ticket stars. Then he paused and, after a moment’s reflection, said, “Look, I’m at a state now where I’m not naive. I lost that when I left New York. To this day, that breaks my heart.”

And here I recalled that parting in ’95, after he’d taken the bedraggled Yanks from worst to first. He’d just lost an indelible playoffs to Seattle on a game-five, walk-off double, and stood in the dugout, scribbling notes, as the Mariners and their fans went bonkers. Later, when the Boss barged into his office, presumably to skin his hide, he found the skipper slumped over the desk, sobbing into his hands. Quietly, Steinbrenner slunk from the room while Showalter wept for a half hour. A man can only stand so much, said those tears; he needs to see a return on all his labors. No one in baseball has worked harder than Showalter and gotten less back for his toil. It’d be something other than human not to wish him luck on his last push up the mountain.

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