In Mets manager Buck Showalter’s office, one hour before the game changes

Feb 21, 2023; Port St. Lucie, FL, USA; New York Mets manager Buck Showalter during spring training workouts.
Feb 21, 2023; Port St. Lucie, FL, USA; New York Mets manager Buck Showalter during spring training workouts. / Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

WEST PALM BEACH -- It is a few minutes past noon on Saturday when the reporters walk into Buck Showalter’s tiny office. We’re on the road for the Mets’ Grapefruit League opener against the Astros.

Showalter is standing, because he does not like the chair provided. He is looking at a diagram on his white board that attempts to define the new baselines.

If you have seen only one of Showalter’s news conferences, you know that he always has questions. He sees more detail, and devises more spontaneous inquiries, than perhaps anyone in a uniform. A great many of his sentences begin with, “Let me ask you this …”

But this day is different. A baseball lifer is an hour before his first experience with a transformed sport -- this game will represent the first time that Showalter, 66 years old and 44 years removed from his debut in professional baseball, will see the game as the commissioner's office envisions it for a future that begins now.

A pitch clock, a ban on infield shifts, a limit on pickoff throws, larger bases and shorter baselines -- it all compels a baseball obsessive to wonder how best to use these new rules to his team’s advantage.

Gripping a black marker, Showalter draws on a diagram of the infield to mark a spot in shallow right-center. This is to indicate the possibility that a team can move its left fielder over to create a shift-like dynamic against a lefty pull hitter.

“Will teams do that?” a reporter asks. After all, the risk of a two-man outfield is its own calculation.

“It depends on if your left fielder is a second baseman by trade,” Showalter says with a small twinkle. We all know that one of his left field options is second baseman Jeff McNeil.

“Say it’s the eighth or ninth inning, winning run on second base -- I think you’re gonna see more five-man infields,” he says.

“The question is going to be, are you going to take your right fielder and put him over in the shortstop hole? How many right fielders are capable of playing [there]?”

A short pause. “[Starling] Marte tells me every day he’s a shortstop. We may find out.”

The Mets are testing new defensive strategies on back field drills, but will not do so in Grapefruit League games, Showalter says. Why tip off opponents?

To make the point, he gestures to Mets radio broadcaster Howie Rose. Part of Rose’s job is to paint verbal pictures of a team’s defensive alignments.

“When you’re advance [scouting] another team, it’s amazing how much you would get from Howie if you listened to the broadcast,” Showalter says. “If you were getting ready to play the Mets over the next week and you assigned someone to listen to what he said on the air …”

It’s not like Showalter hasn’t tried that himself.

“Jim Palmer,” he says. “I used to kid Jim, ‘I used to go right to you when we were playing the Orioles to get something that we shouldn’t have.’ He said, ‘That’s why I’m not talking to you.’”

The Mets had a quick look at the pitch clock in a three-inning intrasquad game the day before. This left Showalter wondering if the new rule would disrupt the timing of hitters more than pitchers.

“The biggest complaints from yesterday are questions from hitters about the rhythm of their pre-pitch -- ”

A reporter has leaned on the light switch, and the office goes dark. The reporter flips the switch back on, but the light does not immediately follow.

“It might be one of those lights that has to warm up,” Showalter says. “I’ve got one at the house I’m living at -- all of a sudden at two o’clock in the morning the light will f---- come on. Really? I think I’m having a moment.”

Now the light is back. Rose asks how different the intrasquad game had felt from the sport to which Showalter was accustomed.

“It was definitely different but not like we were playing sprint golf, like George Bush does,” Showalter says. “The caddies at his place, they love him. He plays for like an hour and a half. It’s like polo. He barely gets out of the golf cart.”

Showalter has another question. He has already run this one by Harrison Friendland, the Mets replay analyst who Showalter has come to trust.

“My question -- I asked Harrison about this today -- [Francisco] Lindor is this far over the line on the shift. Okay? And the umpire sees it. Do you have to challenge it in order to get it, or can he go, ‘Ball. Lindor is over.’ Can he initiate it? Or does it only come if the other team challenges it? Or can the umpire initiate the penalty? We’re gonna verify it. We’re not sure.”

[I called an MLB official a short while later. The answer: An umpire can in fact call the violation if he sees it, and does not have to wait for a challenge. However, he is not solely responsible for doing so because he is also focused on the pitch in that moment.]

There is some discussion about whether the line that a middle infielder cannot cross is at the edge of second base or in the middle. It is in the edge of the bag, but this required some discussion to verify.

This is not a normal scene: A Hall-of Fame-caliber manager and a group of baseball writers an hour before a game, asking one another basic questions about what is allowed to happen on this field.

Showalter is wondering how consistent the umpires will be with what he calls “preventive officiating.” If Lindor is over the line, will they say, “Francisco, get out of there?” in order to avoid a violation?

Back in the ‘80s, Showalter used to earn extra money by working as a high school basketball referee. Now someone asks if he used to call the sixth foul on the star player late in the game.

Showalter smiles. “I did,” he says.

He is reminded of a story.

“I used to do Emmitt Smith’s high school games when I first started out,” Showalter says. “He would always foul out of the first two games after football season, because he was still in football mode. I saw a guy take a charge from Emmit Smith one night underneath the bucket. I said they won’t do that again. They took him off in pieces.”

There are a lot of minor leaguers on the travel roster today. Showalter looks back at Rose and asks if he has all the bios together.

“Let’s see if we can give you a tidbit,” he says, before Rose can answer. “[Luis] Guillorme lives in Miami, so he loves playing here so he can go home after the game. That’s really why he’s over here. [Omar] Narvaez is over DHing so he can catch Max [Scherzer] tomorrow night.”

“Have you done all your bios on the extra guys?” Showalter asks again.

“Not yet,” Rose says.

Showalter looks at the clock and the wall and lets out a guffaw.

“You better get going!” he says.

There is a little more chatter about the rules. Showalter shakes his head. “There’s so much sh-t flying around right now …” he mutters.

Game time is drawing closer. It’s time to end the chit-chat, save for a brief detour about the team talent show that Showalter is planning.

We leave the office. Within the hour -- at 1:07pm, to be precise -- Astros pitcher Brandon Bielak will throw the first pitch of a game like none other that Buck Showalter has seen.