Buck making young Orioles believe again
Showalter working to rebuild players' self-esteem, confidence
It seemed like such a simple moment Wednesday afternoon. Fifth inning, none out, Adam Jones on second thanks to an infield hit and a wild pitch, and Yankees starter Ivan Nova went 3-and-0 on Matt Wieters.
The Orioles catcher then saw something he didn't expect. The green light. Go ahead. Take a shot. Wieters, who came to Baltimore anointed as "Joe Mauer with power," was hitting .253, and they were losing. So Wieters zoned in on one pitch, one area.
He got it, a fastball out over the plate. Wieters put his best, easy batting-practice swing on it and the ball cleared the fence in left-center by 15 feet. O's 2, Yanks 1.
When he got to the dugout, Wieters was approached by Buck Showalter. "I just wanted you to think about getting the runner over," said Showalter. "Well, you got the runner over."
The Yankees eventually won the game, 3-2, on Nick Swisher's ninth inning walk-off piece, but the larger issue was Wieters. Showalter gets the reality -- the Orioles are 34 games behind New York, 19 games behind fourth-place Toronto, outscored by 180 runs for the season. But Wieters is important, a switch-hitting catcher who cares about winning and being good. So is pitcher Brad Bergesen, who went into Yankee Stadium to face the best offensive team in the game and threw 69.3 percent of his pitches for strikes -- the highest percentage of his career -- and left with a 2-1 lead.
Granted, the Orioles lost the final game in New York, but they'd won four straight against the Rays and Yankees. They still were 21-14 under Showalter after starting 32-73. "You know what?" said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "Buck's got them walking on the field differently. They know they're big leaguers again."
In the first three days of Showalter's tenure in Baltimore, he had players on the field for two-hour-long sessions in 100-something-degree heat. "I just want these players remembering how they played to get here," Buck said at the time, "and concentrate on the way they play, not the way the opposing teams play. I want them thinking, 'If I do this right, maybe we can win.' It's nothing magical. It's about self-esteem. These players have been losing for a long time."
The night after the second session, Brian Roberts called his father, Mike, who at the time was in the Cape Cod League playoffs managing Cotuit to an eventual championship. "Dad," Brian told Mike, "this man loves baseball the way we do."
Showalter has seen Camden Yards in its salad days, sold out every night, with one of the most passionate, knowledgeable and enjoyable fan bases in baseball, a fan base beaten down without a winner since a 1997 season in which the O's went wire-to-wire in first place and lost to the Indians in the ALCS in a series that could only be described as fluky.
There were those who suggested Showalter was unwise to take a job that has been turned over 11 times since Earl Weaver left for the final time after the 1986 season, in a division in which the Yankees and Red Sox are always going to be in the top three in payroll and the Rays and Jays have two of the best foundations of young talent in either league.
But Showalter took it, and jumped in the first week of August to begin the process of restoration. He started with the fundamentals, "ways to cut down the difference between us and the good teams we play." He needs two months to see what he has, "because, in the end, it all comes down to evaluation," and that includes working with scouting director Joe Jordon and the farm department, taking off nights to watch the Minor League teams and get his own view of highly regarded Draft choices like Manny Machado and Connor Narron.
Most of all, he is trying to restore self-esteem to players who have been looking up at the rest of the AL East, whose fans are outnumbered three- and four-to-one when the Yankees and Red Sox are in town. "There are some good players here," said Showalter. "They have to remember that, and concentrate on the winning part."
One night, Paul Konerko made a bad throw. Showalter went up and down the dugout, saying, "look at that -- the guy's an MVP candidate, great player who does it right ... he makes mistakes, too,"
Later in the game, Omar Vizquel dropped a pop-up. Buck traveled the dugout again. "Hall of Famer ... one of the greatest who ever lived ..."
A ball went between Josh Bell and the third-base bag one night. Buck asked him to evaluate his greatest strength. Bell said his arm. "Then why play even with the bag?" asked the manager. The Angels had first-and-third one night and Showalter alerted Cesar Izturis and Roberts that they might have the runner fake a dash at first to see who'd be covering second and that they, in turn, could fake the way they cover and then do it differently. "It's just a matter of going back to thinking about the game," said Showalter, "and not that the other team is better than we are."
Showalter preaches "if you were to read the opponents' scouting reports on you, you'd think you're Babe Ruth," a way of getting players to think about what they do, not what their opponents do. That particularly applies to pitchers, who were afraid to throw strikes and challenge opposing hitters. "Even All-Star players pop balls up in batting practice," he said. "Pitchers have to pitch to their strengths, not to someone else's supposed weaknesses."
When Buck took over, Baltimore starters were 17-55 with a 5.61 ERA. Since then, playing a lot in the East, they went into Friday's game in Detroit 16-11, 3.29. The walks per nine innings had been cut from 3.5 to 2.5. Just take Bergesen: almost 70 percent strikes in Yankee Stadium, 3-1, 2.81 in his past six starts.
For those of us who have known Showalter since he managed the Albany-Colonie Yankees and have watched games in television studios or at the World Series with him, we get it. He loves the game. He is obsessive in detail. He took a frayed Yankees team that finished 76-86 in his first season in 1992, had the best record in the league at the time of the strike in 1994, brought in guys named O'Neill, Jeter, Pettitte and Rivera, and handed Joe Torre the team that began the run in '96. He built the expansion Diamondbacks from the dust up, won 100 games in their second year and handed over a team that Bob Brenly managed to the 2001 championship. He rebuilt the mindset of the Texas Rangers.
If you love the game the way Buck loves the game, you want Orioles Magic to return to Camden Yards. It starts with the players' self-esteem -- Wieters and Nick Markakis and Jake Arrieta believing they can beat the Yankees and Red Sox -- and that theoretically will restore the trust and the confidence of that special fan base.
Wieters gets a green light and hits a huge Yankee Stadium homer. Markakis remembers he is one of the best players in the league. Bergesen throws strikes. Oh, those are the Orioles.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.