How did they steer the Triple-A Norfolk Tides to a winning record when Showalter spent the whole season stealing their players?
“My gosh, I never heard a complaint,” Showalter said, gushing over Johnson, the Norfolk manager, and Griffin, the team’s pitching coach. “It was just, ‘What do you need? What does the club need?’”
Johnson and Griffin were unsung heroes of the Orioles’ improbable season, handling a dizzying array of call-ups and send-downs as the major league club coped with injuries and the struggles of young pitchers.
Showalter asked the men to sit with him as he talked with writers on Tuesday so they could be recognized for their season-long juggling act.
“It was the funnest year I’ve spent in 36 in the game of baseball,” said the lanky, soft-spoken Griffin, who started six games for the Orioles in 1987.
The turnover was such that the Tides used 75 active players, believed to be a record for the International League, which has only played baseball since 1884. Norfolk used 25 different starting pitchers, and 15 Tides recorded at least one save. Former major league stars Miguel Tejada, Dontrelle Willis and Jamie Moyer suited up for the club. None of them, amazingly, got the call to Baltimore.
Johnson made such flexibility a point of pride. The club even had a special No. 75 jersey made for shortstop Sammie Starr, the last new player to suit up for the Tides this season.
“When you have so many moves, and God knows, we had a ton, you’ve got to try to create some kind of chemistry,” said Johnson, a former major league first baseman who came to the Orioles last winter after a stint as a Boston Red Sox coach. “That’s kind of the fun part of it, to see if you can pull it off and make it happen.”
Johnson, a burly man with an easy smile, said he hardly knew Showalter before this year. But he joked that hearing Showalter’s voice gave him flashbacks to the laundry room in the Norfolk clubhouse, where he would hide to take the Baltimore manager’s calls.
Usually, Showalter noted, he was asking Johnson to pull a player from that day’s game so he could have a fresh body for the Orioles.
“I don’t know why they’re still talking to me,” Showalter said, “with everything we did to them down in Norfolk this year.”
Despite the near-daily train to Baltimore, Norfolk finished 74-70, the club’s best mark since 2005.
Johnson said all the moves helped keep players motivated, because it was clear that major league jobs lay within reach.
“Guys, there’s opportunity,” he said, recalling his mantra for the season. “If you play well, they’ll take you.”