SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — The meeting came about a week into Buck Showalter’s tenure as Baltimore Orioles manager.
Tasked with turning around the once-proud franchise with two months left in the 2010 season, Showalter pulled the team’s franchise player aside and suggested it was time to “take the gloves off” and take control a little bit.
The thing is, Matt Wieters already had the reins firmly in his hands.
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Heralded as a savior from the second he was taken in the first round of the 2007 amateur draft, Wieters knew if the Orioles were going to compete for the playoffs, he needed to set the tone. All he’s done in his three-plus seasons in the majors is become the stoic cornerstone for one of baseball’s most promising teams.
Baltimore made it to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
The “can’t miss” kid hasn’t.
And while he just laughs when asked whether he feels like the old guy in the clubhouse at the still tender age of 26, there’s little doubt Wieters has grown into the clubhouse leader. Even if he does it with a polite smile and measured words.
“His words carry a lot of weight,” Showalter said. “He’s a guy that his teammates want to please.”
Even if Wieters simply thinks he’s doing his job. As the one calling the games and hitting in the middle of a potent lineup, Wieters understands he needs to speak his mind even when the words might hurt a little bit.
“When something needs to be said (the catcher) is going to have to be the one to say it,” the two-time All-Star said.
Don’t let the still babyish face fool you. When things aren’t going well on the mound, Wieters will let the pitcher know. He just won’t do it in front of the whole world. Wieters has made a habit of pulling a pitcher aside between innings in the walkway behind the dugout.
That sense of privacy was invaded during the AL playoffs, when a TV camera was mounted in the hallway. Funny thing is, the camera was mysteriously turned around — Showalter insists he doesn’t know how — so Wieters could do his thing.
Perhaps the most notable aspect to Showalter is Wieters’ manner. The catcher doesn’t make it personal. And he doesn’t tell the pitcher one thing and the coaches another.
“He doesn’t say something to (bench coach) John (Russell) or I that he’s not going to say to the player,” Showalter said. “It’s very seldom. He picks his spots. It’s not like he’s going to talk to us and not talk to them. Sometimes he talks to them before he talks to us.”
Wieters handles Baltimore’s pitching the staff the way he’d want to be handled himself. Though he’s been pegged for stardom for years, he never acted like anything more than one of the gang.
Pitcher Brian Matusz came up through the minors with Wieters, and hardly notices a change between the guy hanging out at the edge of the clubhouse now and the fresh-faced kid he met in the Arizona Fall League in 2008.
“I thought right away `this guy is a big league catcher,'” Matusz said. “He’s so smart back there behind the plate and knowledgeable of the game. He’s always learning, picking up new things.”
Even coming off a season in which he won his first Gold Glove, Wieters is intent on improving. Asked by Showalter what he’d like to work on during spring training, Wieters rattled off a handful of items on his `to-do’ list.
Showalter prefers to toss the list entirely and let Wieters progress at his own rate.
“I wouldn’t put limitations on him, `Well this is what I want him to do and this is what the limit is,'” Showalter said.
Maybe because Wieters has stopped astonishing his manager. Consider it a mark of respect and maybe just a little bit of awe.
“I’ve found he doesn’t surprise me anymore,” Showalter said. “I just go `Oh, really, that’s Matt.'”
When a weakness does appear, Wieters attacks it relentlessly. There were periods where the switch-hitting catcher struggled hitting right-handed. So Showalter stocked spring training with every left-handed pitcher he could. Wieters hit .323 against lefties last season.
Things weren’t quite so great on the left side, where Wieters hit just .224. Still, he managed to be productive thanks to his discipline. Showalter made it a point to mention Wieters led Baltimore in getting runners home from third with less than two outs, a sign he is adept at situational hitting.
Then again, Wieters is accomplished at a lot of things.
“He’s a threat from both sides,” Showalter said. “I don’t feel bad about somebody turning him around either way. Especially when the game is on the line. He likes being in that situation.”
Even when it doesn’t turn out the way Wieters wants. As fun as Baltimore’s ride to a wild-card spot was last fall, it also made the end that much more difficult.
Wieters made the last out of the season, a soft grounder to back to New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia in Game 5 of the division series. Wieters quickly trotted back to the dugout, packed up and bolted for the clubhouse. No reason to watch the celebration.
“You sit there and think, `All right, it’s over now,'” Wieters said. “We’ll just keep those feelings of disappointment and use it to drive us to get better and take the next step.”