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Showalter has given O's a new energy
My brother-in-law Brian, a die-hard Orioles fan, kept sending me text messages during the team’s 4-0 start.
“Feeling the magic?” he would ask. “What’s our magic number?”
Brian lives in Baltimore. My family recently moved from Baltimore to New York. And when I related Brian’s excitement to my 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, she just rolled her eyes at her uncle and said of the Orioles, “Ah, they do this every year.”
Well, maybe this year will be different.
The Orioles, breaking their usual pattern, actually finished well under Buck Showalter last season after starting miserably under Dave Trembley. And the 2011 edition, while unlikely to contend, certainly stands a chance of breaking the franchise’s streak of 13 consecutive losing seasons.
Alas, my brother-in-law’s dream of a 162-0 Orioles season ended Wednesday night with a 7-3 loss to the Tigers. Injuries and illness already are thinning out the starting rotation. And the schedule is about to turn vicious — the Rangers, Yankees, Twins, Red Sox and White Sox will be the opponents in six of the next seven series.
No question, though, these Orioles are better. The quality of the team’s young pitching is one reason. The additions of veterans such as designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, first baseman Derrek Lee, third baseman Mark Reynolds and shortstop J.J. Hardy are another. The biggest difference, though, is Showalter, the no-nonsense manager the players needed — and the 21st-century version of Earl Weaver that the fans craved.
I lived in Baltimore for 23 years. Orioles fans, recalling the glory days under Weaver, relish feistiness in their manager to a greater extent than fans in most cities. Showalter doesn’t challenge umpires the way Weaver did — who does? — but his critical comments about Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter in a recent magazine interview played to the crowd, both in his city and his clubhouse.
Showalter’s message was clear: We’re tired of being second-class citizens in the AL East. When I asked Showalter on Wednesday if that was indeed his thinking, he said, “I’m not quite as calculating as everyone thinks I am.” His friends, however, say that Showalter knew exactly what he was doing.
A new mind-set goes only so far; players win games. But the Orioles were 15-39 under Trembley and 17-34 under Juan Samuel last season. Since Showalter took over Aug. 2, they are 38-24, the best record in the AL with a rotation ERA of — get this — 3.00.
The feel in the clubhouse is different. Even the look of the clubhouse is different. I heard in spring training that Showalter was back to his micro-managing ways, completely redesigning the home clubhouse at Camden Yards. He chuckled when I asked him about it, saying no, the redesign had been planned as part of the ballpark’s three-year, $30 million renovation project, that the kitchen needed to be brought in line with the health code, and so on.
The players, though, don’t necessarily see it that way.
“Ever since Showalter has come here, the thing that has been noticeable has been our preparation,” center fielder Adam Jones says. “They changed this whole clubhouse around.”
A players lounge was converted into an advance scouting room where players and coaches prepare game plans. The coaches write opponents’ tendencies on white grease boards, and Jones says the boards are more effective than the Inside Edge scouting reports that many teams use, and that the Orioles previously distributed to their players.
Showalter downplays the significance of the room, says that every team has one. Well, the Orioles didn’t have one when he took over. They held their advance meetings in a weight room, and Showalter says you actually could hear the weights “clanking” while the team discussed how to pitch, say, the Yankees’ Robinson Cano.
Another difference: The Orioles expanded their tiny video room by moving their interview room down the hall to an auxiliary clubhouse. Again, Showalter says, no big deal.
“For us to get a video room I had to walk another 100 yards?” he asks. “That’s a good tradeoff.”
Showalter acknowledges that he endorsed making the clubhouse smaller. “It was like a cavern. I’ll be less than honest with you if I told you I didn’t want to close it up a little bit.” But surprise! Mr. Control Freak Manager allowed a ping-pong table to be placed near one end. The players engage in spirited competitions before games. The coaches dress in their own locker room. Jones says that Showalter rarely is seen.
“He doesn’t worry about all the irrelevant stuff,” Jones says. “He’s focused on the game, the game and the game. All that other stuff that goes on, we’re grown men. He doesn’t need to sit in here and police every single step we make. He allows us to police our own clubhouse.”
Showalter’s influence extends in other, more meaningful ways. The pitching improved, catcher Matt Wieters says, when Showalter encouraged the pitchers to become more aggressive, throw more strikes earlier in the count, force hitters into pitchers’ counts.
“It’s the attitude of, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, what we’re doing,” Wieters says. “If we don’t win that day, it’s not going to be because we’ve shied away from anything. We’re going to go out and give ‘em our best shot.”
That attitude alone is different — the Orioles spent too many years resigned to the idea that they could not compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, wallowing in self-pity even when the Rays won the division twice in the past three seasons and reached the World Series in 2009.
Second baseman Brian Roberts, an 11-year veteran and the senior member of the team, often has imagined what it would be like to win in Baltimore.
“I don’t know,” Roberts says. “I’d like to find out.
“I still think this can be a great baseball town. I still think it is a great baseball town. I just think we need to give them a reason to spend their hard-earned money to come watch the games. I could never blame ‘em for not spending their hard-earned money to watch the team lose.”
Showalter also looks forward to a renaissance. He talks excitedly of seeing Orioles orange in the stands at Tropicana Field during the team’s opening series, of one day seeing O’s fans at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park the way fans of those clubs often are seen at Camden Yards.
Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t. But it’s a daring vision, a hopeful vision, a vision this franchise has lacked for too long.