BALTIMORE – Buck Showalter would rather his story not be about an air mattress. He says this even after divulging the fact that there is indeed an air mattress tucked in his Camden Yards office and that, yes, he has spent a handful of nights on the mattress and will do so again before the Baltimore Orioles' season is done.
He is not ashamed to admit he sometimes sleeps in his office. But he is wary of talking about it. Discussing the air mattress means the old conversation will start again about the overbearing manager with his lists of rules and obsession with details. Then, once again, the narrative will get away from him. It will be about Buck the clubhouse troll who lives under his desk and not about the man who has inspired the Orioles to survive in this pennant race despite lacking any tangible qualifications for doing so.
"I long ago gave up," he says of fighting an image that has festered for most of his 14-year managing career with the Yankees, Diamondbacks, Rangers and Orioles. "I live 40 minutes from the ballpark. We get through the night and the work and the press conference, whatever, and by the time I drive 45 minutes home, unwind and everything and drive back, I'll get another hour of sleep in my office."
He shrugs. He is sitting at his desk in the very office in question and rolls his eyes.
"There's a lot of managers who do that," he continues, his voice still carrying a touch of its Florida Panhandle twang. "They do. But nobody talks about that. I guarantee you Kirk [Gibson] and Jimmy [Leyland], they have all done that, stuff like that."
He slumps in his chair. Impressions will just write themselves.
The baseball story of this year has nothing to do with a manager sleeping in his office or lists of rules or regurgitations of minutiae. The baseball story of the year is about a team that doesn't hit, field or pitch well and yet finds itself a half game out of first place in the American League East. Buck Showalter's Orioles have used 50 players this season due to injury and ineffectiveness, so many that Ron Johnson, the manager of Baltimore's Triple-A team in Norfolk watched the parade of players to the majors with amazement.
"I know the guys I sent up [to the Orioles], and not everybody is going to be a superstar when you send them up," Johnson says. "To see how they've all been used is amazing."
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Johnson pauses for a beat, thinking why Showalter has been able to do so much with the flood of modest talent sent north. The answer, he decides, lies not in obsession but in something far more secular.
"I think it's because he knows the game," Johnson finally says. "He knows situations and key players. He's got a feel."
A man's reputation will almost always precede him and the Orioles players heard plenty about Showalter before he was hired to manage the moribund franchise in August 2010. Baltimore was chugging toward another last-place finish in a division where aspiring to anything higher seemed an impossibility. Before he even walked through the clubhouse door, the old criticisms rose again in the players' cell phones. "Watch out," they were told. Their new leader would be obsessive. He would control everything. They would be treated like children. He would annoy them. The game would stop being fun.
"I think the perception of him coming in was: It's going to be Buck's way or the highway," catcher Matt Wieters says. "We heard the stories on how intense he was going to be."
Then Wieters laughs.
"Since he's been here, he's been a player's manager." Wieters says.
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Here's a Showalter thing: He likes to discuss situations. At random points during a game he will turn around, look at a player and ask what he'd do at that moment; say with one out and runners on first and second. Sacrifice? Swing away? There's no wrong answer, just a demand that they are always thinking, forever ready.
"He'll let you answer and respect your answer," Wieters says. "We're in a kind of school setting where he is the teacher and we're trying to learn what he knows."
The manager who would be domineering turned out to be nothing like what they expected.
"I had players that had played for him in the past say, 'You're going to love him or hate him,' " said shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was traded to the Orioles before the 2011 season.
Only when Hardy arrived, the manager he met was enthusiastic. He told jokes. He laughed with them. He seemed patient. He understood the growing a young team needed to have. He tried to build a personal relationship with each man on the team. They were stunned.
But not as much as the day he blew into the clubhouse during spring training, looked around and said: "Where is the Ping Pong table?"
Soon a Ping Pong table appeared in the home clubhouse at Camden Yards. And players took turns whacking the little plastic ball, laughing and shouting the way young men do when they are fooling around.
Hardy glances at two of his teammates playing Ping Pong and gives a small smirk.
"From what I've been told the old Buck Showalter would not have allowed a Ping Pong table in the clubhouse," he says.
So why does this have to be so scientific, Showalter wonders as he sits at his office desk. All season long he's hoped the Orioles would be lying "in the weeds," away from baseball's prying eyes. He figured most people would have expected their run to have burned out by now.
"And by you being here we aren't in the weeds anymore," he says.
This is a reality of baseball, he adds. If you keep winning, sooner or later someone is going to find you. Now comes all the explanations for why the Orioles are winning and Showalter chuckles at each of them. He's been told of the calculations, made by smart men of numbers, who say his team should be at the bottom of the division. Baltimore is 27-8 in one-run games and 13-2 in extra innings. It has been outscored by 20 runs. The statistics say the Orioles should be in fourth place, not holding a spot in the wild-card playoff.
Those who study this stuff have a difficult time assessing Baltimore. To Showalter the answer is simple.
"The thing about baseball, it's a great exposure to weakness," he says. "There are no Cinderellas in baseball. You play so many games all strengths and weaknesses show up. There's something about our society, sports society. We all want to know about something – having been at ESPN – we all want to know about something before it happens."
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Can't everyone just accept that the Orioles are winning? Isn't that enough? What calculations do you need to explain why a player gets a hit at a certain time? He just does. As long as the players practice the right fundamentals and do the proper preparation shouldn't everything take care of itself?
Billy would have had a laugh at all this. Many of Showalter's stories are sprinkled with Billy Martin references. For a young manager growing up in the Yankees' farm system in the 1980s, the image of the irascible Martin – forever fired and rehired – has locked itself in Showalter's mind. Talk to him long enough and the Billy stories spill out.
Like the time in spring training one year when the Yankees were doing the same drills Casey Stengel's Yankees used to do and Martin said: "You can all have more coaches or better machines but we're all trying to do the same thing – catch the ball, pitch it well and score one more run than the opposition."
Showalter tells this story and then smiles.
"How do you define that?" he says.
Perhaps the best advice he ever got came from Billy.
"Try as you may, Martin once told him, "you can't [expletive] up the good ones."
Seems simple now.
The air mattress doesn't get used as much as it did in New York. The manager isn't the same. Buck Showalter does go home. He knows the narrative of sleeping in the stadium is juicy, an irresistible metaphor about the man who can't let go, who has to pine over every detail, every scouting report, every rumpled locker or misplaced chair.
He also doesn't see this as himself.
"I'm in the backyard one day and I'm listening to the wind whistling through the trees and look at how red that cardinal is and it's always been like that," he says. "[Managing] takes a toll on me. There are days I walk out of here and I say, 'That's X amount of days off my life or what I do for a living,' but I wouldn't trade it for the world."
When he was with the Yankees he held daily player meetings that lasted for as long as 45 minutes. But that was back when he was a young minor league manager suddenly thrust in the furnace of working for George Steinbrenner. The organization was a mess in those post-Howie Spira days. Windy meetings seemed appropriate.
Now he sees them as a waste of time. He knows nobody wants to listen to the manager go on and on about tendencies and situations and which teams like to bunt with less than two out and a runner on second.
He has a phrase he likes to use. Captain Obvious. Once, he was Captain Obvious – the manager telling everyone what they already know. He fights hard not to be that man. Nobody wants Captain Obvious whispering in their ears.
So, yes, he has learned to let go. When you've been hired four times and fired three, you realize there is little permanence to your ideas. You might drop an air mattress on the floor of your office but you don't get to consider that room your home. In the end, you're just passing through. And if in that time you can add to the lives of your players, show them a few things about getting along in the big leagues and win more games than you lose, well then you are probably doing well.
Sitting at his desk, Showalter smiles.
"Obviously the shelf life of managers and coaches has shortened up because of that win today mentality," he says. "I got it. I got it. Believe me, I got it. And I'm OK with it. It's like I told [management], 'If you get tired of my shtick thanks for the honor of doing it and how can I help the next guy coming in?' It's OK. I know there are a lot of people out there who can do it as well or better than me so you enjoy it and you treat people the way they want to be treated."
The hard part is winning once the weeds have parted and the team is exposed. To Showalter this is the great challenge: winning when everyone expects it. Crawling through the weeds is easy compared to succeeding when the lights are on.
Last year, as the Orioles struggled to rebuild and one of the young starting pitchers had a game worth celebrating, he listened to the party through his open office door. Another time he might have been tempted to walk across the small hallway that separates his office from their lockers. He might have reminded them that it was but one start in a season of many starts and that their full body of work didn't warrant many shouts of joy. But he didn't.
He sat at his desk, listened to the whooping and thought to himself, "When they get it handed to them, what are they going to do?" The game would teach them, not him.
He sees this all like that scene in "Braveheart" when Mel Gibson stands before his troop of vagabonds about to storm the hill. The men are anxious, ready to charge at the approaching horsemen. But Gibson keeps shouting "hold," in waiting for the perfect moment when finally he bellows "Now!"
"What we're trying to do is get to the point where we can go, 'Now!' " Showalter says. "You can't cheat the process. People think you can cheat the process. We live in an instant gratification [world]. Do it now and then we examine this."
He shakes his head.
He glances toward the clubhouse. No shortcuts here. No mathematical tricks. No free-agent superstars; just a room of ballplayers who somehow have fit into a team that wins just about every one-run or extra-inning game it plays even when probability says they should be losing them.
Why ask, he wonders? Why try to analyze the undecipherable? Give the men in the clubhouse a chance, tell them how to play and then let them go.
Why think more than that? Why spend endless hours assessing, writing new lineups, staring at tape after tape of games in the hope of finding answers?
Why not leave the air mattress in its box, get into the car and enjoy the drive home in the middle of the best season that will never make sense?
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