Tao of Buck: Why Buck Showalter is a mad genius
BALTIMORE – For all of his on-field strategic acuity, Buck Showalter's finest moments as manager of the Baltimore Orioles come behind closed doors, where he shapes minds almost as though he's telepathic. It takes some artistry to convince a roomful of millionaires that their wants and desires matter far less than the success of the team and then have those same millionaires lavish you with the sort of praise that would sound hyperbolic with any other manager.
"Wizard," Orioles reliever Darren O'Day said.
"Mad genius," Orioles first baseman Steve Pearce said.
"Mastermind," Orioles starter Bud Norris said.
As the American League Championship Series pitting the Orioles against the Kansas City Royals kicks off Friday night at Camden Yards, Showalter finds himself one of the series' stars, if not its main attraction, something rare with managers more marginalized than ever. Managers across baseball have blundered their teams out of this postseason, overthinking, underthinking or, most accurate, simply not knowing what to think. Showalter is the outlier, the purveyor not just of next-level tactical maneuvers during the game but the sort of clubhouse dealing that players agree warrants his wearing a brown robe over his uniform, because it's some Jedi mind trick stuff.
Take, for example, Norris. On July 10, Showalter summoned him into a meeting. He told Norris the team wanted to option him to the minor leagues to free up a roster spot. It was a procedural move, sure, but never the sort of thing asked of a veteran like Norris.
"Is this something you're willing to do?" Showalter asked.
"No problem," Norris responded.
Norris had four years, 171 days of major league service time. A full year of service is reached in 172 days. A player with five years of service can refuse a minor league assignment.
"One day," Norris recalled with a grin. "Buck knew it, too."
Showalter's baseball omniscience is a product of way-too-long hours spent at the ballpark and a mind wired to churn through the vast amounts of data and knowledge available in baseball and process it. Norris needed to spend 10 days in the minor leagues before the Orioles could recall him – and it just so happened the 10th day was July 21, the Orioles' first game in a series at the Los Angeles Angels, in a stadium at which Norris has pitched well.
That sort of thing matters to Showalter. He understands the vagaries of small samples. He also looks beyond them into other mitigating factors. Coming out of the All-Star break, Showalter shuffled Baltimore's rotation so Norris and Miguel Gonzalez would both pitch at Angel Stadium.
"I love the ballpark," Gonzalez said. "It's one of the best out there. I have family there, so that helps. Very supportive. That just gets you a little more motivated."
Since arriving in 2010, Showalter slowly slithered his tentacles into every part of the team. He won the trust of cornerstones Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. He convinced the pitchers, especially relievers, that the rote roles other teams assign would not exist in his clubhouse. He found a kindred spirit in general manager Dan Duquette and a transactional genius in operations manager Ned Rice with whom he could play real-life fantasy baseball, manipulating the roster with the sort of efficiency more often calculated by algorithm than mind.
And now he's in a place where he can stand over his fiefdom and appreciate what he has built. In the AL East, baseball's truest crucible, he has fashioned 93- and 96-win playoff teams over the past three seasons.
"It can be hard to make major league baseball players all buy in and play a this-is-best-for-the-team kind of game," Wieters said. "And he did it. He makes you absolutely feel like what's best for this team is going to be what's best for you individually."
It's not just the individual attention, the sessions in his office where he's watching five different baseball games on five different TV sets and can rattle an insightful comment off about all five, because even a whit of Buck Showalter's attention supersedes everyone else's undivided. Nor is it simply those moments on the bench where Showalter will strategize out loud, so everyone can hear, or approach a small group of players who might benefit from understanding his mentality.
"He shows you the game from his mindset so you can understand it and wrap your head around it," Norris said. "And it all starts to make sense. Those are the special moments where you think, 'Wow, this guy really is that good.' "
No, what ultimately the Tao of Buck entails is the entirety of the package. His opponent, Royals manager Ned Yost, draws warranted praise for his ability to work a clubhouse. And there is value in that – great value. Showalter works a clubhouse, and a game, and a bullpen, and an umpire, and if the beer vendor could pour more efficiently, no doubt Showalter would know how and teach him in a fashion that in the end prompted a simple response: "Thanks, Buck."
The little dictator persona Showalter fashioned with the Yankees and Diamondbacks and Rangers has softened into a 58-year-old man who knows himself, knows his strengths and limitations. And that self-awareness drives Showalter and gives Baltimore its in-Buck-we-trust ethos.
"You've either got to fit in or you're not gonna stay here," O'Day said. "There are guys out there who are super-talented … that are just too much of a distraction. The team has a way of self-correcting. And everybody's bought into it. That's what he does."
The most-repeated story of Showalter's ability to inspire this season concerns Pearce, the journeyman on his fourth franchise and in his second go-around with the Orioles. Prior to this season, Pearce never had more than 186 plate appearances in a season. At 31, he wasn't likely to find them anywhere, either. Toward the end of April, facing a roster crunch, the Orioles designated Pearce for assignment.
Showalter sat down Pearce, like he had with Norris, like he had with Game 1 starter Chris Tillman in 2012 after shuttling him back to the minor leagues following an 8 1/3-inning, no-earned-run performance. He didn't want to get rid of Pearce.
"Just get me back here," Pearce said.
How much did Pearce mean it? The Toronto Blue Jays claimed him on waivers, offering him a spot in the major leagues, and Pearce turned it down. He would've gone to the minor leagues with the Orioles rather than the big leagues with Toronto because of Showalter. And, of course, an injury to Chris Davis freed up a spot for Pearce, who in 383 plate appearances belted 21 home runs and slugged .556.
"If a player likes you that much after you designate him?" O'Day said.
It's the work of a mastermind, a mad genius, even a wizard. Or maybe it's just the modern embodiment of Oriole Magic, the manager who knows what you're thinking before you think it.
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