If ever there was a time to put one’s professional life on hold, it might be after a period likened to four years of college in one semester.
That’s how Orioles minor league manager Buck Britton, who was set to manage Double-A Bowie for a second straight year, described a 2019 season that began with a terrible slump and ended in a playoff berth for the prospect-laden club. Then, the 33-year-old went to the Dominican Winter League as a quality control coach and ended up as one of the youngest managers in league history 10 games in, only to be fired before the playoffs.
For Britton, it was all invaluable experience. Mix in the birth of his daughter with his wife, Silvana, and it was a year the brother of former Orioles pitcher Zack Britton won’t soon forget. With baseball on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, he now has time to reflect on the whirlwind.
Note: This Q&A has been edited for length.
It seemed like you knew that it was going to be a pretty cool year ahead of you last spring training. How did the reality match up to what you were expecting as you were plotting out what your life would look like for the next year?
It actually worked out even better than I thought. Originally, I was going to go down to the Dominican as a second bench coach. They were trying to get some of the analytics stuff in there, and they wanted a hybrid — a quality control coach is what it would be called here. I went down there anticipating to do that, and Jayce Tingler was going to be the manager down there.
We were probably down there together for four weeks because we did a little training beforehand, and then he got that Padres [managerial] job. So I went from being that quote-unquote quality control coach, that second bench coach, to being the manager. There’s a lot of people who have wanted to do that for a long time, so for me to be able to kind of back my way in there, essentially, and being as young as I am — that’s unheard of.
Is there one story from being the manager that sticks out as what you’d tell people as an example of how invested people can be in that league?
Man, I don’t know if there’s one story. These fans show up every day. You’re not getting 40,000 people in a stadium, but it’s a party. They’ve got a drum team that sits up top and bangs on a drum for four hours, however long it takes to play nine innings down there — four or five hours. They’re screaming from the first pitch. From the first pitch of the game, they either love you or they hate you. It’s a roller coaster.
Did one of those things happen more frequently for you? Were you getting the love or were you getting the boos?
Being an American manager down there and being young, the fans didn’t trust me whatsoever. When Jayce was finally done being the manager, we had played 10 games and we were 9-1, and I had managed a couple in there but nobody knew because we were keeping things tight-lipped.
And sure enough, my first game in there, we’re losing. I go out to the mound — and we’re a team that’s in first place, we’re 9-1, we’re doing well — and I go out to the mound to take the starter out, and I think we’re down two runs and I get booed before I get to the top step of the dugout to come out. I’m like, ‘We’re 9-1. I have no chance here.’
How did it end for you?
We made the playoffs, which was nice, and then when we got to the playoffs, Escogido decided they wanted some more experience in the dugout to lead the team during the playoffs, so after the regular season I was gone — which happens a lot down there.
Were you able to draw on any of the things you learned from how things started in Bowie as you were taking this other new experience on?
100%. I think we were 7-23 at our worst, or something like that, in Bowie to start the year. There were times when I was questioning in not that I could do the job, but the strategy with which I was going about things. I remember having conversations with [then-Bowie hitting coach] Keith Bodie, and I would call [Triple-A Norfolk manager] Gary Kendall, and they would give me a lot of help — trust what you’re doing, it’s a process. I’d have conversation after conversation, and I learned so much in those first two months.
I had been there before. I had been back up against the wall, and I knew that it could turn around, so I think that was one of the things that I was most proud of — that I was able to stay positive through the whole thing and kind of keep guys energized when stuff like that does go wrong, especially in a short season down there where every game really, really matters.
There wasn’t a whole lot, outside the fundamental stuff. The in-game stuff, it was just let the guys go and see what happens. See what that does to players, and kind of start to understand what players like. Take away the schedule of the day — be here at this time, BP at this time, the structure in-game. What I really learned is you can’t assume the player knows what he’s doing at all times.
How do you think this experience is going to set you up for where you see yourself being in your career?
Just the value, the experiences I’m getting — you can’t replace them. You can’t replace being 33 years old and managing in the Dominican. There are guys who want to manage down there and go their whole careers and never got a chance. All the experiences together and working with different people, learning to get in touch with the Latin player and trying to take different parts of that game over there into the states to help these players here, it all just kind of molds you into eventually what I hope to be.
My dream would be to manage in the big leagues. But all these experiences, it’s the same thing with the opportunity to go to major league camp and be around [Orioles manager Brandon] Hyde and those guys, guys who have been in my situation where they were minor league guys and got opportunities, things fell into place for them and they took off. I think that’s hopefully how I like to think of it going. But the value I got this year — it’s like getting four years of college in a semester. I got a lot of stuff piled on me that was all really, really good, and I got to work with a lot of really good people.