Showalter puts game in proper perspective
O's manager is a fierce competitor who knows there is life outside of baseball
ST. PETERSBURG -- Take a team that's been wallowing in mediocrity for years and there's nobody in the baseball managing business better at whipping it into a contender than William Nathaniel Showalter III.
Call him Buck.
Showalter did it with the New York Yankees, repeated the pattern with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and then the Texas Rangers. And now he's done it again with the Baltimore Orioles.
Under his guidance, the Orioles went to the postseason in 2012 for the first time since 1997. After winning, 3-1, on Thursday night to sweep the Rays in a three-game series, they remain atop the American League East.
I've known Showalter since 1992, when George Steinbrenner honored the lifetime Minor Leaguer's loyalty to the organization by hiring him as Yankees manager. The club hadn't been to the postseason since '81, but in '95, Showalter took them there.
Showalter won the AL Manager of the Year Award with the Yanks in the strike-shortened 1994 season, and again 10 years later with the Rangers in 2004.
That's enough for the background.
It's my belief that an era of big league managing ended when Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Jim Leyland left the dugout.
"You can say that, but I can't," Showalter answered directly as we sat in the visiting manager's office at Tropicana Field before a game the other night.
The answer was surprising because Showalter is incredibly cerebral and brings so much perspective to the game.
My thesis is that managers today are no longer the faces of their teams -- singular commanders of their ships, many times more important to the organization than their superstars.
Today, most managers are extensions of the general manager. Sabermetrics and computer evaluations are an integral segment of the "team effort."
Showalter pushed back in the huge leather chair behind his desk and glanced up at the wall, where all the managers who oppose the Rays are pictured.
"The great organizations that have been able to sustain success have had a very close relationship between the field manager and the general manager. They respect what each other brings," he finally said. "There are things that I don't want to do, can't do, don't have the time to do.
"Each person has to have respect for what the other brings. Instead of fighting sabermetrics like a lot of people do -- there are things sabermetrics can do, things I can't do. Yes, things we can do here."
The late Steinbrenner once told me he'd never known a manager who prepared more than Showalter did, who was more obsessed with details. That, of course, leads to micromanaging.
But when the subject of what I call "today's new era" comes up, Showalter said: "You have to mesh the two. Make both sides feel comfortable with delivering their knowledge. I don't want everybody to say, 'Well, he's old school.' I'll embrace the heck out of [added information], but you better be able to back it up.
"If they can sell it to me and show me why it'll work, that's fine. … You don't automatically say no to all of it and don't automatically say yes."
What about player evaluations?
"There's another part to the evaluation than the number," Showalter said. "I know what the player's all about -- what's going on in his mind if his dog died, what's his makeup is. … What's he's going to do when the finger's on the trigger in the ninth inning? A lot of things go into an evaluation. … You cannot make either party uncomfortable with what the other offers.
"It's up to the GM and the manager to bring all the parties together. The GM has to have a healthy respect for your knowledge of things he doesn't know, and you've got to have respect for the knowledge of things you don't know. Neither side has all the answers."
By now, I'd forgotten the question as Buck became philosophical.
"There's a certain covenant in the game about things you should be true about," he said. "You cannot cheat the process. … The baseball gods will get you. … Stay true to the covenant of the game and it will be very kind to you. Try to cheat it and it will not be kind to you.
"We all question the things that we don't understand, or that we're not willing to do. We always confuse change with a lack of respect for tradition. That's just not the case."
Showalter, who turns 59 on May 23, is signed through 2018. He's certainly not a baseball lifer in the true sense of the word, but I asked if he truly can walk away from the game.
"Yes, I can," he said. "There's another world out there. The world's full people who got away from something and have this bucket list. I can't tell you how many things in my bucket list I've done, and it wasn't such a big deal.
"I asked Jim Leyland, 'What made you walk away?' He said, 'The wins didn't offset the misery of the losses.'
"I tell my players all the time, 'The greatest thing you're going to do in your life is being a father and a husband. That's really how you're going to impact this world. Whether or not you struck out with the bases loaded is not it. That child you're raising and the wife you're trying to live with; I've been with mine for 37 years -- that's really going to be your test.'
"When they look at your slate at St. Peter's Gate or whatever, it's 'How did you impact the world?' You're not going to impact the world by beating the Rays. But that being said, for three hours, we're going grind the [heck] out of it."
Buck was 36 when he took over the Yankees -- the youngest manager in Major League Baseball at the time. I remember him being overly intense at times, aggressive -- maybe a bit arrogant -- and it seemed to me he was not at peace with himself.
That has changed, but it would be inaccurate to say that Showalter has mellowed.
"I'm very comfortable for the opportunities I've had and the honor it's been to do them," he said. "Wherever it leads me, I'm going to be OK with it. I've made a million dollars a year, and that's sinful. If I can go into Target and buy anything I want, what else does a man need? How much is enough?
"I told [Orioles owner] Peter Angelos, 'This may be a contract through 2018, but if you're ever unhappy with me, you don't owe me a penny. I'll walk in, shake your hand and say it's been an honor being here.'
"He said, 'You mean that, don't you?'"
And I believe Showalter does.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.