But when [Showalter] 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.”
Showalter won the Manager of the Year Award in 1994 and 2004. And, he has a great shot to win it again this season.