BALTIMORE — Seeking another makeover during what could be the worst season in franchise history, the Orioles have hired an experienced manager with a reputation for joining moribund or fledgling clubs and turning them into winners.
Buck Showalter, a former Mississippi State standout, will officially become the Orioles’ 17th full-time manager at a noon news conference Monday and will take over on the field Tuesday at Camden Yards against the Los Angeles Angels, kick-starting a three-plus-year contract that will expire at the end of the 2013 season.
Most recently an ESPN baseball analyst, Showalter, 54, will manage his fourth big league team in his 12th season in the majors. He’ll be the Orioles’ 10th manager since principal owner Peter Angelos took over in August 1993.
“My job with ESPN allowed me to follow this organization closely over the last several years, and although the current record may seem to indicate otherwise, I see enormous potential with this club,” Showalter said in a statement. “I look forward to the challenge of competing in the American League East. Baltimore is a tremendous baseball town with passion and pride in its club, and my family and I look forward to making it our new home.”
Showalter replaces interim manager Juan Samuel, the club’s third base coach who took over from Dave Trembley on June 4 and compiled a 16-31 record heading into Thursday night. Samuel was given the choice to return to the third base coaching box, but has not decided whether he will.
The rest of the coaches are expected to stay in their current positions — with the exception of interim third base coach Gary Allenson, who will return to manage Triple-A Norfolk if Samuel remains with the Orioles — giving Showalter time to evaluate the staff for 2011.
“One of the benefits of Buck coming in and finishing off the season is he can make whatever judgments he feels necessary” regarding the coaching staff, Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said.
MacPhail interviewed four candidates for the post — Showalter, fellow former big league managers Bobby Valentine and Eric Wedge, and MASN broadcaster Rick Dempsey. He said this week that a hire wouldn’t be made until after the trade deadline but said Thursday that he always felt the beginning of August would be a good time to bring in a new manager and allow him to observe and work with the club for two months.
“I think it is important for him to get a feel of the team, and it will be important this offseason for (Showalter) to be able to have made appropriate evaluations of our organization,” MacPhail said. “It will give him an opportunity to get comfortable with the staff, which will help us make better decisions.”
MacPhail remains the primary decision-maker in the organization, but his contract expires at the end of 2011 — two years before Showalter, his subordinate.
“It really doesn’t matter to me. I couldn’t care less,” MacPhail said. “What matters to me is getting this franchise to where it belongs, to make the proper steps to get back. (My contract) is the least of my concerns.”
Showalter hasn’t managed since 2006 with the Texas Rangers. He has had plenty of success, however, compiling an 882-833 record with the New York Yankees (1992-1995), Arizona Diamondbacks (1998-2000) and Rangers (2003-2006), twice being named American League Manager of the Year (1994, 2004).
“Buck’s baseball IQ is off the charts. He knows the game, and I think he would be great for that job over there,” Rangers third baseman Michael Young said this season. “He’s really good at building something up, especially with young players, and building them into something where they can be a contender.”
Showalter takes the reins of a team that has had 12 consecutive losing seasons and has the worst record in baseball this year. He has been at helm of struggling clubs in the past. The Yankees hadn’t made the playoffs in 14 years when he got them into the postseason in 1995.
A year after taking over a last-place Rangers team, he had Texas in playoff contention for most of the 2004 season. He built the Diamondbacks from the ground up as the first manager in club history, guiding them from 97 losses in their debut in 1998 to 100 wins in 1999.
“He understands how to create a winning atmosphere and a winning team, and I have no doubt he’ll have a lot of success in Baltimore,” said former major leaguer Jay Bell, who played for Showalter in Arizona. “He’s all you want as a player. All you want from a manager is somebody who will be prepared and understand the game. I never saw Buck get surprised in a baseball game.”
The son of a high school principal, Showalter is known for his discipline and expertly detailed preparation, something his former players say fostered confidence.
“I think the biggest thing I noticed about Buck is how prepared he was. There were a lot of things that nobody would even think about that he found out or knew about,” said Orioles starter Kevin Millwood, who played under Showalter for the Rangers in 2006. “I think, strategically, he is going to keep you in the game every time. I don’t think he is ever going to lose games by making unprecedented moves.”
Said current Rangers starter C.J. Wilson: “He takes the job very seriously. He is like a lawyer, where he has contingency plans for each way a game can go. That’s the way we always felt about it.”
With that attention to detail, however, comes criticism that Showalter is a micromanager, a control freak who wears out his welcome after instilling discipline and fundamentals.
In New York, a clash with management cost Showalter his job in 1995, and the following season the Yankees won their first of four World Series in five years. The Diamondbacks won the World Series — beating the Yankees — in 2001, the season after Showalter was fired in Arizona.
After not getting the Rangers out of third place in the American League West, Showalter was let go in 2006 and hasn’t managed since.
“He stuck his neck out there and said we need to rebuild and that we weren’t going to be competitive immediately because we needed to trade some guys,” Wilson said about Showalter’s departure in Texas. “From what I understand, that didn’t take well. But the reality is that’s what we had to do, eventually.”
The Orioles see Showalter as a fit not just because the club has demonstrated a lack of discipline and an inability to grasp fundamentals, but also because of his reputation for working with inexperienced major leaguers, who make up a large chunk of the Orioles’ roster.
“He’s great for a young player,” said Yankees first baseman and Severna Park native Mark Teixeira, who spent his first few years in Texas with Showalter managing. “Buck understands how tough it is to play in the big leagues. He understands what young guys go through, the ups and downs, the struggles, the mental grind. And one thing he did for me is that he had faith in me through ups and downs, never switched me in the lineup, never tried to change the way I played. … I had some really productive performances with Buck because he understands it’s tough to play this game.”
Showalter was an All-American at Mississippi State and was drafted in the fifth round by the Yankees in 1977. He spent seven seasons in the Yankees’ system as a first baseman and outfielder. He even pitched in two games. A career .294 minor league hitter, he rose as high as Triple-A but never made the majors.
Showalter began his managerial career at Single-A Oneonta in 1985 and took over the fabled Yankees in 1992 at the age of 35. Being a baseball lifer, and having his share of success and failure, has given him perspective to handle all types of players, especially young ones.
“What I love is that if you see a guy struggling, there’s going to be two or three of the analysts pouring it on. ‘Oh, he’s doing this, he’s doing that, he’s doing this.’ ” Teixeira said. “Buck always goes: ‘Well, wait a second. This guy is 23 years old, he’s making a name for himself in the big leagues, he’s feeling his way out. He’s going to be fine.’
“He’s never going to lose confidence in you. If you lose confidence in yourself, he’s going to pull you in and say, ‘Hey, I’m with you.’ And that’s what’s great for young players.”
Wilson remembers Showalter as the man who put him into tight late-inning situations as a rookie and second-year player, breeding confidence. In the three seasons after Showalter left, Wilson had 50 total saves before eventually moving back to the rotation.
“He was the first manager I have ever had to really trust me as a closer. And he instilled in me that I could do that, be a closer,” Wilson said. “When a rookie comes up as a middle reliever, as a lefty specialist, that’s a really big compliment (to pitch the ninth). He has had a lot of really good players, so that really meant a lot to me.”
In perhaps one of the biggest challenges of his managerial career, Showalter will be tasked with bringing the Orioles together as a team and teaching them to win. Very few players in the clubhouse have been on a winner.
Showalter, Young said, is all about team unity, and the club will see that almost immediately.
“Every spring, he’d get us fired up to start the season,” Young said. “He’d have a highlight video from the year before, and he’d put the new players we got in there. And he made sure everybody was warmly welcomed. We had a kangaroo court. He did everything to make sure we were a team.”
As for the micromanager and control freak labels, Young believes those knocks were overblown.
“One of the unfortunate parts of the major leagues is people have to find a chink in someone’s armor. That’s an unfortunate part of the business, and no one is immune to it,” Young said. “I have good memories of Buck because I think one thing we both did was focus on each other’s strengths. And that makes a good, easy working relationship.”
Don Connolly/The Baltimore Sun (MCT)