Buck Showalter has never lasted more than four years at any of his previous managerial stops, but his tenure in Baltimore seems to be cresting as he prepares to manage the Orioles in the postseason.
Buck Showalter does not believe he's changed. Let's get that out of the way right off.
In fact, he's suspicious of anyone applying a sweeping narrative of transformation to his current success as Orioles manager.
"I think I'm just perceived different," he said in a hushed moment outside the clubhouse, three days after his team clinched its first American League East title since 1997. "It's funny how that changes."
The Orioles' 2014 postseason — which begins with Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday against the Detroit Tigers — likely represents one of Showalter's last, best chances at managing in his first World Series.
It comes at precisely the time things blew up during Showalter's three previous passes at managing in the big leagues, a job he does as well as anyone, according to observers.
That has not happened and shows no signs of happening in Baltimore, where the Orioles are peaking both on the field and seemingly in their relationship with the manager as he finishes his fourth full season. Showalter, who is under contract through 2018, has so surpassed expectations in this previously forlorn baseball town that he's even helped improve the standing of another guy known as brilliant but overbearing — Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
So what has changed? Well, maybe nothing. Or maybe Showalter prefers to bury that strain of self-examination beneath other layers of his complicated personality — part baseball obsessive, part doting family man, part exacting commander, part folksy observer of the human condition.
"There's a lot of traits that are the same as the day I met him," said Angela Showalter, his wife of 31 years. "And really, don't you want somebody who's passionate like that? If you're going to do a job, don't do it half way."
Those who reside in his small circle agree Showalter, 58, hasn't changed much from the tireless obsessive who was known for sleeping in the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and tinkering with uniform designs for the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks.
"I'm not that interesting," he likes to say, though it's not clear if he fully believes this or if it's just the hard-wired modesty of a polite Southern boy raised by a small-town school principal.
William Nathaniel Showalter III — Nat to his wife and longtime intimates — learned from his late father that you never leave a bit of work undone if it could gain you even a fraction of an advantage. He still arrives to the ballpark at noon and stays well past midnight.
If he hadn't found baseball, Showalter said, he'd have thrown himself just as completely into teaching, groundskeeping or farming — perhaps in Century, Fla., the one-barbershop, one-grocery town where he grew up.
"I tell people all the time: 'Don't be somebody's guy or be working on your next job. Do something so well that when it's done, everybody will want your work,'" he said.
So Showalter is resolutely himself. Yet change is essential to the story of how he found his way to Baltimore and the most comfortable situation of his career.
Showalter's history in other managerial stops has been consistent. After three or four seasons — at least a few of them spectacular successes — Showalter's boss would decide his rare command of the game was not enough to offset his overbearing tendencies. And he'd be sent packing, or walk away himself, before his team reached the promised land under someone else.
Showalter was forged as a baseball man in George Steinbrenner's win-now New York Yankees organization. When he became manager of the Yankees at age 35, he essentially skipped right to his dream job. Showalter brought direction to a rudderless ship and returned the Yankees to the playoffs, but he walked away instead of bowing to Steinbrenner's edict that he fire his coaches after the 1995 season.
Actually, that was his best ending. In Arizona, where he steered an expansion franchise to 100 wins in its second season, and in Texas, the powers that be grew tired of him.
"Buck Showalter is an intense guy in everything he does," Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo said in explaining his firing. "There are those who have an opinion that there's a time and a place for that. But you also need to have an atmosphere that's conducive for players to perform at the best of their ability."
Showalter said he doesn't spend much time reflecting on his past. But Colangelo's point isn't lost on him.
"Most of it's been self-inflicted," the Orioles manager said during a recent wide-ranging conversation in his office. "The same reasons people are good at these jobs are the reasons their shelf life gets shortened. You think about it … you wear on people, you do. There's not many people wound like you are. And it's a good thing that they aren't."
Showalter interviewed for the Chicago Cubs managing job a few years before the Orioles came calling. General manager Jim Hendry asked if he'd do anything different after his abrupt endings in other cities.
Not really, Showalter replied.
When Andy MacPhail flew to Texas to meet with him in 2010, the Orioles' president of baseball operations hoped for a new answer. He popped the change question about an hour in.
"Yeah, there are a lot of things I'd do differently," Showalter said.
"The fact he gave that answer alleviated any concerns I had based on his reputation," MacPhail recalled.
The meeting lasted eight hours, with Showalter interviewing MacPhail as much as MacPhail interviewed him. Showalter was known for his command of detail but still amazed MacPhail with the depth and specificity of his questions.
Also key was Angelos' faith in the candidate, based on his winning track record and the insight he'd demonstrated as an ESPN broadcaster.
Showalter met with the team shortly after he was hired with 57 games left in the season. He told them he knew his reputation and knew he was likely staring at his last chance.
If Showalter was mostly the same guy, he seemed less determined to fight inconsequential battles. He had once created a ruckus, saying Ken Griffey Jr. showed disrespect for the game by wearing his cap backward during warm-ups. But in Baltimore, Showalter lets his players take batting practice in shorts and T-shirts.
"You don't want players feeling like you're staring at every little thing they do," he said. "You want them to feel freedom to be themselves. Everybody who comes in here, I want them to feel freedom to have their personality. I don't want a bunch of robots."
Some might have expected Showalter to clash with center fielder Adam Jones, as strong a personality as he was a gifted young player. Jones had certainly heard tales of Showalter's strict ways.
But they rapidly struck up a rapport, and
Jones still makes him laugh just about every day.
"To be honest, he's a lot easier to play for than you would think," the Orioles star said. "You police yourself. He lets you go be a grown man. At the end of the day, all he wants … it's your career and your job, so all he wants is for you to be prepared. He'll be prepared, so if you're prepared, success tends to follow."
'Ahead of the other guy'
As an onfield general, Showalter blends the old and the new.
Baseball historian Bill James likes to group managers into families. Viewed this way, Showalter learned from Billy Martin, who was a disciple of Casey Stengel, who was a disciple of John McGraw, who was a disciple of Ned Hanlon.
Hanlon was the first great manager in Baltimore baseball history. As Showalter might say — pretty cool.
He surrounds himself with baseball history. A photo of Babe Ruth's father, tending bar, decorates one corner of his office in Camden Yards. On the wall directly overlooking his desk are media guide covers featuring past Orioles managers, from Hank Bauer to Frank Robinson to the late Johnny Oates, whom Showalter played for in the minors.
He famously ordered Orioles prospect Josh Hart to prepare a one-page paper on Robinson during spring training after Hart admitted he didn't know the Hall of Famer's history. Showalter hated that the homework assignment became a national story, however, because he never wanted Hart to feel belittled.
The dominant feature in Showalter's office is a rectangular board, covered with color-coded magnetic strips bearing the names of every player in the organization. "I have certain little codes that nobody but me knows what they mean," he said.
But he laughs at those who regard the board as some Machiavellian reminder to players that they're all replaceable. "I ain't that calculating," he said.
At his home in Dallas, he keeps a similar dry erase board. When he gets home from the long season, his son Nathan said, he erases it and begins scrawling out the new list for next year.
In his typical resistance to tidy narrative, Showalter dismisses the idea he had a chief mentor as he transitioned from minor league veteran to young manager.
"I think you learn more from people about what not to do than what to do," he said. "Everybody's looking for somebody's mentor, and I had some great people around me — Johnny Oates, Billy Martin. But I also learned a lot about what not to do."
Nonetheless, he often references the late Martin, who blended self-destructiveness and tactical brilliance to become one of the most compelling characters in baseball history.
Martin was in his fourth stint as Yankees manager when he took a liking to Showalter, using him as a de facto chauffeur during spring training. Though Showalter couldn't keep up with the older man's prodigious drinking, he observed Martin's absolute conviction in knowing which players fit his program.
"He was a brilliant baseball guy and a gut guy," Showalter recalled. "He'd tell me, 'Let those stats verify your gut. Don't let your gut be developed by these stats.'"
To this day, Showalter expresses skepticism toward baseball's statistical vanguard.
But in practice, he's hardly a hidebound traditionalist. Under Showalter, the Orioles haven't attempted many stolen bases, have started above-average defenders at almost every position and have remained ahead of the curve in using defensive shifts. Showalter would tell you none of these approaches are new. But they are firmly endorsed by the stat-minded.
These tactics might create bruised egos in other places, but the Orioles have bought in, partly because Showalter explains his motivations clearly and partly because they trust his thinking.
"You've kind of got to fit in here," said reliever Darren O'Day, one of the most cerebral of the 2014 Orioles. "My favorite part about playing for him is you know he's going to be more prepared than anybody else. He's two innings ahead of the other guy."
Situating Showalter historically is difficult, because he doesn't have the postseason success normally associated with an all-time great. But he might be on his way to a third Manager of the Year award, and former players Don Mattingly and Matt Williams are adding their own branch to the managerial family tree.
"He's absolutely regarded as one of the top minds in the game," said ESPN Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech, who became friendly with Showalter when they were working together. "Guys who played, like John Kruk or Harold Reynolds, they speak of him reverentially."
'Always ... trying to learn'
The snippets you read in coverage of the team hardly do justice to Showalter's pre-game briefings. He often answers seemingly straightforward questions with extended digressions that may or may not circle back to the original issue. He recently answered a query about how baseball captured his imagination with a 5-minute, 665-word soliloquy that touched on the fallibility of mentors, his Florida high school team, Orioles prospect Christian Walker's first hit and the cruelty of life's many disappointments.
It's like talking to a slightly offbeat uncle who happens to be one of America's great baseball sages.
He's never more amusing than when he strays into a line that could be misconstrued as politically incorrect. "Can I say that?" he'll ask the assembled media. "Is my face red right now?"
Showalter is relentlessly curious, often asking reporters as many questions as they ask him. It's a trait he possessed even as a young minor leaguer, said former Yankees manager Stump Merrill.
"He was always around my office, talking about something, trying to learn," Merrill recalled. "Why do this? Why do that?"
Showalter's thirst has only intensified.
"The other day I was looking at something about Madagascar," he abruptly noted during a recent conversation about the Orioles. "And I went, 'I don't know anything about Madagascar.' I spent about an hour looking at it. You know how many kinds of plant life they have, how many animals that are only indigenous to that area?"
Perhaps because his interests range so wide, Showalter swears he was content during his last two stints away from baseball.
He worked three weekends a month for ESPN, but that left plenty of time for him to watch his daughter, Allie, graduate school and to mow the grass before Nathan's baseball games. He and Angela traveled to Europe and saw the beach at Normandy where Showalter's father landed in World War II. He lowered his golf handicap to six.
"I worried about him the first time he didn't go to spring training," said Showalter's friend, Russell Aldrich, who's known him since they were college roommates at age 19. "But he got to see what was really going on in life. It was a blessing in disguise."
You might expect Showalter's wife and children to feel slighted by all the energy he's devoted to baseball. They convey no such feelings.
"If I'm not complaining about the hours, why is anyone else?" said Angela, who met her future husband when he was playing for the Double-A Nashville Sounds and she was working a summer job selling programs as a "Soundette."
Nathan, 22, seems amused when people describe his father as overly serious. He remembers cackling at many shared jokes or fleeing from his dad's gleeful ambush during a rare snowstorm at the family's Dallas home.
After the Orioles play afternoon games on Sundays, the Showalters often stop at a sno-ball stand near their Lutherville home and cruise around for a few hours of family chit-chat.
Sure, if a swing set needed to get built at Christmas, Buck would be the one to say, "We've got to get this perfect." But they all laughed at him for that as well.
"I never felt he put baseball before us," said Allie, 27, who inherited her father's urge to plan everything and his sentimental side. She described her family as homebodies who never took a real vacation but made sure to view holiday lights in their Christmas-themed pajamas every year like clockwork.
Middle age has made him ruminate on mortality. Showalter and his daughter recently tried to figure how many games he's played and managed in nearly four decades around professional baseball.
"It's staggering," he said. "No wonder I had to have my knee replaced."
'My last rodeo'
The toll is real. For the first few days after a season ends, Showalter said he slumps at his desk with a zombified expression, the adrenaline of a long quest no longer propping him up.
"I know there's days I leave here, and I've lost X number of hours off my life," he said. "I get a few of them back now and then, on a good day. I know I'm not going to live until I'm 100, but I wouldn't trade it."
Showalter maintained he has no idea how much longer he'll manage, though he often refers to his current stint as "my last rodeo."
Friends thought he was crazy when he said Baltimore seemed the perfect spot for a return to managing. "Guys we played with were calling me up, saying, 'What is he doing?'" Aldrich recalled with a laugh.
The Orioles hadn't posted a winning mark in more than a decade and carried a horrid reputation for front-office disarray. But Angelos seemed genuinely supportive, and Showalter liked the idea of sharing his hard-earned wisdom with a young team.
"I think he enjoys that part of it as much as anything," Ravech said.
He also loved Baltimore from the jump — the unpretentiousness of its residents. "I've felt very comfortable about dropping my guard here," he said. He's even contemplated buying additional land in Baltimore County, though experience has taught him not to put his roots too deep.
The night the Orioles clinched the AL East for the first time in 17 years, Showalter hung back as his players rushed the field, much like two years ago when the club won the wild-card game in Texas. He took in the scene with his arms at his sides, the slightest grin crinkling the corners of his eyes and mouth. Later, he watched a replay of the game, listening to the announcers as they put his team's ascent into glowing perspective. It's something he wouldn't usually do.
You could view this as a wiser man stepping back to appreciate a moment as he might not have in his raging youth.
But that's not it, Showalter said. "I've always been able to kind of step back and take in a moment, not get caught up in the emotion of something."
It's true. He often spotlights little scenes that strike a chord with him — could be the evening everyone in Century, Fla., turned out to greet Showalter and his high school teammates after they won a state title, could be 20-year-old second baseman Jonathan Schoop running down the carpet for his first Opening Day at Camden Yards. Ravech and Kruk used to laugh when they played golf with Showalter because he'd always pause at some bubbling stream and say, "Just look around guys. Take this in."
The years have taught him that often, these moments eclipse the ones you expect to be the biggies. Like managing in your first World Series perhaps?
Well, Showalter would still like the chance to find out how that rates.
Family: He and wife Angela have two children — daughter Allie, 27, just graduated from law school at Southern Methodist University and son Nathan, 22, is a scout for the San Diego Padres. His mother Lina Showalter still lives in Century, Fla.
Managerial history: New York Yankees (1992-1995), Arizona Diamondbacks (1998-2000), Texas Rangers (2003-2006), Orioles (2010-present).