As Buck Showalter's right-hand man, John Russell helps Orioles in many ways

Orioles bench coach John Russell, left, and manager Buck Showalter watch a game against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards.
Orioles bench coach John Russell, left, and manager Buck Showalter watch a game against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards. (Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports)

Orioles bench coach John Russell stands on the top dugout step, elbows resting on the padded railing in front of him. The tanned, rugged face of an eternal boy of summer is expressionless. His calculating eyes are masked by a pair of reflector sunglasses.

He's watching, observing, strategizing.


For those who don't know him — even for some who do — Russell is a tough read. It's difficult to know what he's thinking. But, rest assured, he's thinking.

"When I first came over here, I didn't know how to take J.R. He is a quiet guy," Orioles catcher Steve Clevenger said. "But getting to know him, he opens up a little bit more, and you can really see the baseball guy in him. He's a great baseball guy and is here to teach guys the right way."


When the Orioles hired him before the 2011 season, Russell was looking for a fresh start. He had spent the previous three years as the manager of the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates, trying to teach the game to a revolving door of journeymen and prospects caught in a constant cycle of losing.

Russell's Pirates lost 299 games in three seasons, including 105 in 2010. But winning was supposed to be secondary. He was there to gradually build a consistent contender from the bottom up. And when a strong nucleus began forming — future stalwarts Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker debuted under Russell — he was fired.

"Spent three years in Pittsburgh, wish it had been longer. I think we were doing some really good things there trying to get it turned around," Russell said earlier this week. "Unfortunately, some people figured we needed to win more games while doing it. And it's not always that easy to do."

On Tuesday night, Russell returns to PNC Park as the Orioles begin a two-game interleague series in Pittsburgh. It's his second time back since being fired, but the first since the Pirates, indeed, turned things around, making the 2013 playoffs and breaking a 20-season losing skid.

"I can't treat it, job-wise, any differently. I can't go in there and sulk and mope around [and say], 'Shoot, I wish I was still here and look what they've done. I wish they had done that when I was here,' " Russell said. "It's all water under the bridge. I will go in there and do my job and help the Orioles try to kick their butt a little bit."

Russell may choose his words carefully, but he speaks his mind when asked direct questions. It's one of the reasons he and Showalter have become close, even though they really didn't know each other personally when Russell first was hired.

So when asked about his feelings concerning the Pirates' situation, Russell, who was hired and fired by current Pittsburgh general manager Neil Huntington, doesn't sugarcoat things.

"It hurt. It did. Because I felt like I gave everything I had for three years," Russell said. "It is something I took a lot of pride in, and to get it taken away was something that hurt a little bit. But it's four years later, and it's time to move on."

Triple-A Norfolk reliever Evan Meek, who was an All-Star for the Pirates in 2010, said Russell's contribution to Pittsburgh's current success shouldn't be dismissed.

"Whoever was coming in to that role in 2013 was going to look like a genius. Honestly, there should be a lot of credit — most of the credit — given to J.R. And there wasn't any," Meek said. "He was there for the groundwork, getting these players ready to be a part of everything, and then he was run out of there."

'The intensity of the fist bump speaks'

Since coming to Baltimore, Russell has served two crucial roles.


Initially hired as third base coach, he moved to the bench during the 2011 season and has become the primary sounding board for Showalter.

The trust factor is so strong that Showalter, universally known for his lack of a baseball "off button," attended his daughter's law school graduation in Texas on Saturday, putting the Orioles' game in Kansas City in the managerial hands of Russell.

One of the most prepared men in the sport, Showalter doesn't need much help making decisions. But he is always seeking second opinions.

"He's just a good guy to bounce stuff off of, and he's not afraid to voice his opinion if it is different than mine, which I really want," Showalter said of Russell.

Russell's other job responsibility has changed fairly dramatically in the past month.

During most of his tenure as the club's catching instructor, Russell has tutored two-time American League All-Star Matt Wieters. It's akin to being Adele's voice coach — the talent is off the charts. Russell only needed to make some tweaks while continually challenging his prized pupil.

"Matt was a great student. He had a good head start, he's got a great mind," said Russell, a 1982 first-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies who caught for parts of 10 major league seasons. "He'll tell me things. I'll tell him things, things that I'll see, and he'll ask me certain questions. It's just a different level because he has elevated his game to that level."

With Wieters on the disabled list and his immediate playing future uncertain, Russell must now shape the tandem of Clevenger and rookie Caleb Joseph into viable starting catchers; both are basically still learning the nuances of the position.

"It's coaching. That's why you like to be here," Russell said. "It's always fun with [Wieters] because there's so much you can talk about with him, because he knows so much. So that was a different fun. Now this fun is watching these guys try to develop at the major league level."

Joseph said he was intimidated at first by Russell's demeanor and vast knowledge of the game — the guy, after all, once caught a no-hitter by Nolan Ryan.

In the past six months, though, Joseph has become much more comfortable with his coach.

"He is instilling in me confidence. It doesn't have to be with words," Joseph said. "When we have a good solid inning, he'll give me a fist bump. And the intensity of the fist bump speaks. It's not just a little eyewash fist bump. He puts some effort into it."

During the organization's annual spring training talent show in March, Joseph did imitations, mimicking the voices and mannerisms of front office and staff members. For Russell, Joseph walked on stage, put up a lineup, and marched away stiffly — to the laughter of his audience.

"I did his walk. I couldn't really say anything because he doesn't say much," Joseph said. "So that was the whole point of the imitation. I basically just walked out on stage, posted a lineup and walked back off. It's kind of speaking without words."

The chance to manage again

Although the Orioles understand Russell, there's a perception within baseball circles that, despite his baseball IQ, he is too reserved to be an effective big league manager. One official from a major league club said Russell lacks the fire and charisma needed in today's media-driven environment. Another questioned his communication skills.


Those assessments didn't sit well in the Orioles' clubhouse.

"I think he communicates great with his players. And that is your main priority as a manager is to be able to communicate with your players and get your knowledge through to them," Wieters said. "I know the right situation is going to come around where he can [manage again]. And I know he'll do it well.'"

Said Showalter: "Are you looking for substance or style? I think John's substance is his style. … I think he is very charismatic, but I look for different qualities that are attractive to me as opposed to someone who is doing handstands and saying, 'Look at me.' "

Russell has heard it all before. As the losses mounted in Pittsburgh, he was criticized for his stoic nature. While he was winning games in the minor leagues and named Baseball America's top managerial prospect in 2002, though, there were no concerns about his personality.

"If we had won 90 games … or whatever [in Pittsburgh], then I would have been a calming effect, I would have been what the players needed," Russell said. "I know I'm not a real talkative guy, but if people ask me questions, I have no problem talking to anybody. But to say, 'He is stoic or has no personality or no charisma,' what is that?

"If you win games, nobody really gives a crap what your personality is, as long as you're doing the right thing."

At age 53, Russell is in his 32nd year of professional baseball. He has pretty much done it all. And he'd like one more chance to manage, but he's not campaigning for it.

That, also, isn't Russell's style.

"Managing is a part of my life that I enjoyed, and it is a part of my life I'd like to do again. If I don't, being in baseball and being with Buck has been a great experience, and it is something I thoroughly enjoy," Russell said. "I'd like the opportunity again, sure. But if it doesn't happen, it doesn't."


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