KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Asked recently to describe his first year at the helm of the Orioles, manager Buck Showalter searched for the perfect word or phrase.
Has it been frustrating? Exhilarating? Draining? A mixed bag?
Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of when Showalter sat at a Camden Yards' dais and was introduced as the club's newest skipper — the Orioles' 19th overall, sixth since 2003 and third last season, following Dave Trembley and interim manager Juan Samuel.
The next evening, the Showalter era began impressively with a 6-3 victory over the Los Angeles Angels. It ended a three-game losing streak and a stretch of 14 defeats in 17 tries. The moribund Orioles, who were 32-73 and on pace to shatter the franchise record of 107 losses, were suddenly a force. They won four straight, eight of nine and went 34-23 from Aug. 3 until the end of the season.
The "Buck Factor" seemed to make a swift impact.
"It showed right when he showed up last year. Before he got here last year and after he got here. You could see it in the attention to detail, the accountability. That's his biggest thing," said left-handed reliever Mark Hendrickson, the Orioles' eldest statesman at age 37.
"It's one thing if we, as players, get beat by somebody who is better," Hendrickson said. "But if we keep beating ourselves, which we were doing, that's not tolerated at this level. And you saw it. It was obvious. There was a lot more urgency in the way we played."
Showalter became the first manager in modern baseball history to take over in August and lead a team to more wins that season than it had amassed before the change. It was an incredible turnaround — and Showalter was lionized for it. He got his own T-shirt giveaway at Camden Yards last year and was the lone cover subject of the 2011 Orioles media guide.
This June, the Orioles gave out Buck Showalter bobbleheads, which featured the manager on the top step of the dugout. Given his popularity in Charm City, the figurine could have been positioned walking on the Chesapeake Bay.
The no-nonsense manager, of course, was uncomfortable with the fanfare. He kept pointing to other reasons for the Orioles' late-season surge: Offensive catalyst Brian Roberts had returned from injury, the defense tightened and the young rotation flourished.
"A lot of things happened that Dave and Juan didn't have and Andy [MacPhail] didn't have," Showalter said.
He also cautioned that the run was just a snapshot in a lengthy season and meant little toward what he and MacPhail, the club's president of baseball operations, were trying to accomplish long term.
"I couldn't have told you what our record was last year. It's not the end game," Showalter said. "It's about winning a world championship. You're never as good as it looks nor as [bad] as it might look. I'm trying to define reality. Trying to evaluate yourself honestly without rose-colored glasses. Evaluate yourselves and be realistic. Be honest."
A grueling 162-game schedule is a pretty effective microscope.
The Orioles began 2011 winning six of their first seven, and the vibe around Camden Yards was about as optimistic as it had been at almost any point in the previous 13 years of continual losing. Soon enough, though, the giddiness faded.
With two months remaining this season, the Orioles are owners of the worst record in the American League at 42-63. Combined with his two-month stint in 2010, Showalter's managerial mark through 162 games is 76-86. That .469 winning percentage places him 12th of 19 managers in Orioles history, just behind Lee Mazzilli's .480.
The team's tumble has created growing criticism of Showalter's decisions, something that didn't exist in September. The bashing from Internet message boards and talk-show callers contains the same themes that were present during Trembley's and Sam Perlozzo's tenures: The manager shows too much deference to veterans, doesn't give younger players an extended look and mismanages his bullpen.
Showalter said there's a simple way to quiet the critics: win.
"I always look at things with realistic eyes. I don't want sympathetic ears. I don't want 'woe is me' stuff,'" Showalter said. "Get better. … Managers, coaches, nobody's got all the answers. Every day passes, I get better."
It's that attitude that has afforded Showalter respect within the clubhouse. That and his track record, which includes 958 big league wins, two Manager of the Year Awards and winning seasons with the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers.
"I think it is important to know you have a manager that has 'been there, done that' before. That plays a big part, especially with young teams," Hendrickson said. "I think that just enables us to trust him, and I think that is important because, with the amount of young guys that are here, you want to have someone that's got a little bit of a presence to him as a manager."
The Orioles' four skippers before Showalter had never managed in the major leagues; they seemingly were learning on the fly. That's not the case with Showalter, and that hasn't been lost on the field or in the clubhouse.
"Definitely a difference. Strong leadership from the top, from the manager's spot," said Orioles veteran starter Jeremy Guthrie, who has been managed by four men in his five seasons with the team. "And a clear direction, a clear goal each and every day of what we are trying to accomplish, not just as individuals, but as an organization.
"I think there has been a huge improvement there, and I think everyone knows where we are trying to go now."
The question is whether they can get there under Showalter. In each of his three previous managerial jobs, Showalter has been viewed as the captain who rights the ship. But he has been jettisoned by the time those clubs have reached the promised land.
The three men who have replaced Showalter as manager — Joe Torre in New York, Bob Brenly in Arizona and Ron Washington in Texas — have gone on to manage a World Series. Torre and Brenly won world championships in the year after Showalter departed.
At that Camden Yards news conference a year ago, Showalter jokingly compared the situation to raising a daughter, then watching someone else walk her down the wedding aisle.
The championship altar seems particularly distant in Baltimore these days, and Showalter's contract expires after the 2013 season. The daily grind of a baseball season, including the constant travel and its pressure-cooker nature for someone so intense and committed, could be taking its toll on Showalter, 55. His trusted sidekick, Mark Connor, resigned as Orioles pitching coach in June because he felt he no longer could give his all to the position.
There has been speculation that perhaps Showalter would be more content leading the club as general manager if MacPhail, whose contract expires at season's end, steps aside or is forced out.
Showalter quickly dismisses that talk — "I got my hands full here. … I'm just trying to be a manager" — and praises MacPhail: "He's a good man with a rich track record. … He's my boss, and I've enjoyed working with him. I'd be happy to continue with that."
Ultimately, Showalter said, the job is what he thought it would be when he was introduced last August. It's a challenge, and one that has no specific timetable — just an end goal.
"I don't think you can say, 'at this date' and 'at this date.' You've got to look at it the way fans look at it, and so do I at the end of the day. I don't want to make one excuse, and there's one around every corner," Showalter said.
"We want to put something together to stand the test of time. Just about every great situation — New York, Tampa, Atlanta, Arizona — there were times where it looked pretty tough and some things started clicking."
Notes: Double-A Bowie outfielder L.J. Hoes was named Eastern League Player of the Week after going 12-for-26 (.462 average) with a double, four homers, seven RBIs and seven runs. … Short-season Single-A Aberdeen left-hander Trent Howard was chosen as New York-Penn League Pitcher of the Week. The Orioles' seventh-round pick out of Central Michigan in June, Howard pitched 11 scoreless innings last week, going 1-0 while striking out 15 batters and allowing four hits and four walks.
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