Buck Showalter was 28 years old when he got his first managerial gig in professional baseball, with the short-season Oneonta Yankees of the New York-Penn League in 1985. It took him just seven years to take over at the major-league level in New York, and he's now managed parts of 18 big-league seasons.
Now in his seventh season in Baltimore, Showalter has overseen an Orioles renaissance; following 14 straight losing seasons, the O's have finished .500 or better every year since 2012. When Baltimore visited Boston for a showdown three-game series in the American League East last week, we talked to Showalter about the challenges, the misperceptions and the changes of modern major-league managing.
Tim Britton: You were 28 years old when you started as a manager in Oneonta.
Buck Showalter: Yeah. Back then we had a real consistency of instruction. I'd go to spring training and run extended spring, go to Oneonta, and then go to instructional league back when instructional leagues were real instructional leagues and you did them for two months and players stayed there the whole time. It was considered a great feather in your hat to be invited as a player or a staff member.
So for two years, I went to spring training, ran extended spring with players that didn't make the club and were going to half-season clubs, and then I went to Oneonta in the New York-Penn League and then I'd go to instructional league. So I had two years to find out if I really wanted to do this.
TB: What did you find out in those two years?
BS: That it's an ongoing learning experience. Sometimes you learn as much about what not to do as you learn about what to do, by watching situations develop and get handled. That's what people who don't have the luxury of managing in the minor leagues and going through the relationships—I kind of feel for some of the guys with really good big-league backgrounds that don't go to the minor leagues for a little while. There's going to be some things they have to learn on the job. We're always still learning. They carry some things that initially I didn't.
TB: How important is it early in a tenure to establish your credibility? How'd you go about that?
BS: If you're trying to establish credibility, you're not going to establish credibility. You get credibility from having good players. It's not really complicated. We don't have much impact. You can have an impact negatively, but it's about how good your players are—and mostly your pitching.
And you don't set the—the word that's overused is culture or environment. You don't set it; the players set it. Now you might set it by trying to surround yourself with certain players. The players set that. Some of the front offices today don't recognize they're just putting together 25 guys by analytics. There's a place for that and I embrace it. But the teams that are the most successful organizationally are the ones that mesh the two, where you get really good statistical analysis and really good—I don't want to say makeup, you know what I'm trying to say. If those things match up, then you've got a real good player.
And the ones that come from your own organization, you should be able to assume those things. I don't want to get a player who has come through our system and not be able to do the things that have to be done, to do it the way we have to do. We can't do it the way Boston does it or New York or the Dodgers. We can't, and that's okay. But you've got to know who you are more than anything and know who you're not.
TB: You say you don't set the culture, but do you feel there is an organizational culture—an Orioles Way?
BS: Well, you want your way to be winning. Every day, nobody's got to tell us how we're doing. There's a scoreboard and there's standings. It's really a lot simpler than they make it. I always chuckle when I hear someone say, 'We're on a five-year plan.' Look out. Somebody's just trying to cover their ass. We're on today. Let's try to win something today. It may not be on the scoreboard, but let's win something.
TB: I remember when you were named Manager of the Year by the Boston BBWAA, and you said the guy who wins that award is the guy whose team everyone thought was bad and they were better than that.
BS: If that guy's team wins one more game the next year, did he do a better job? But he won't win it. That tells you the credibility of it.
When you win an award like that, it's because you have good players. I'm not saying it as a cliché. It's true. It's usually given to the team that surprised the most. Someone wants to say, 'Well that's why they did better than we said they were going to do. He was so good.' We all know that's a crock.
TB: To you, how do you judge the job you've done as a manager?
BS: I don't overthink it. You just try to impact—it's more about in here now and after games, before games. The games are the best part of the day. But you know you have three or four little get-togethers. We may have one or two team meetings a whole year—maybe not at all. Last year I don't think we had one. You have little ones all the time. The culture of the team comes from the players. They set the tone.
You've got to realize you're a ship passing in the night, all things considered. Understand the weight of your words. Your voice, if you use it too much it doesn't work. The shelf life of managers and head coaches in today's world is very short. You don't take it personal. You just grind the heck out of it while you're here and hope you make somebody's path a little easier and keep them from stepping on their tail like we all did.
The problem a lot of coaches and managers have is they forget how tough the game was to play and how bad they were on a given night. But there's a fine line between sympathy and empathy. We try to eliminate the sympathetic ear to things that aren't conducive to winning. We have our nights where we look real bad. But they hold themselves to a high standard.
Like Parcells said, you're expected to cook the dinner but you can't pick the groceries. We all have input. The greatest accolade you can pay somebody is to ask their opinion. I ask the players' opinions all the time because they're the ones playing the game. People forget that. It's hard. Man, this is hard what they do. They're the best 600 in the world. Keep that in mind. There's not another level. And the chasm between the minor leagues and big leagues is the biggest it's ever been — the skill level. It's so hard to project players up here. But they're not robotic pieces of meat. They're human beings. They have wives and children and things going on in their lives.
You've got to be very careful as a manager about telling a truth that hurts innocent people. So you wear it. Every manager you talk to will tell you how many things you wear every day. It comes with the job. Keep your mouth shut and wear it. Everything I do, I say this is what's best for the organization. You have to be careful about the weight your words carry.
TB: Why do you think the gap between the minors and majors is bigger now than ever before?
BS: Pitching. The two leagues are different; they're really different now. You may see one or two pitchers that would be similar stuff and command [to the majors] at the most. You may go a whole series and not see one. A guy on rehab down there, you may see one hitter who would be on the bench up here. It's so hard to evaluate what's going to play up here. What's going to play up here is defense. Catching the ball is catching the ball. The balls do get to you a little faster here. Guys run better so your clock is different. It's hard.
A smart organization knows how to evaluate who is ready and who's not, and it's not a statistical evaluation. It's unlike any other sport. In football, a guy comes out of college and is All-Pro his first year. Heck, LeBron James got out of high school and played in the NBA. Tiger comes off Stanford campus right out of the chute on the Tour. It doesn't happen in baseball. There's an apprenticeship. There's a process you have to go through to get to the end game, and sometimes it doesn't look too good out there. Young pitchers, you have to suck it up and get through it and hope they all mesh at the same time. Some of them don't. Nobody's that good to say, 'This is exactly what this guy is going to be' and try to smugly act like it. Evaluation is an educated guess, is what it is.
TB: Is managing today much different than when you started 25 years ago?
BS: Not as much as people think. It's still about people, relationships. It's about a certain humbleness that the game always provides for you. You're never as good as your best days and you're never as bad as the bad days. You just kind of try to remain consistent in a world that's really—they're trying to make this series [big] here. We've got 100 games left. There's a question a guy asked me last night about setting a tone or making a statement. '100 games left? Setting a tone? Making a statement? We won a game. Let's see what tomorrow brings.'
We play in a sport where everybody wears the same uniform, and you don't know who the enemy is. Is it Toronto? Is it Boston? Is it Tampa? Is it the Yankees? They're all wearing the same uniform. You can't say right now who it's going to be. We're trying to make sure we're not the enemy of ourselves.
TB: Managing is still about managing people; are players different now?
BS: Not near the way people think. They have a short memory of other things people did. It just wasn't so public. Let's face it: Our locker room is an interview room. Football and basketball coaches I talk to laugh at us because of our accessibility, but they also tell us that's why our sport is very popular. 'Could you guys draw 35,000 playing a game every night? Not for your ticket prices.'
That's why you're so protective of the places where they can actually be themselves and be a team. That's why spring training is so important and so special, or the time until they open up the media doors here and then all of a sudden they have to put up a certain…. The one thing I tell them is to be careful and understand the weight your words carry and how they reflect on your teammates, so think about that before you say something.
But I don't filter them. I want them to have personality and have fun. I don't want them to be a bunch of robots. Manny's different from Schoop, Schoop's different from Hardy. Think about how boring it would be. You want them to have that imagination and that free flow. I want them to go for it every night. I don't want them to ever go back to the hotel or apartment and say, 'God I wish I had thrown caution more to the wind there.' You can't play this game like that.
Two weeks from now we can be a piece of shit. We know how it goes. It's fleeting. You try to shorten the bad times and stretch out the good ones. I've managed teams that won 100 games and there were times during that season you didn't think you'd win another game. Then there are times in a bad season where you didn't think you'd lose another game. But you will.
I don't know. I'm getting too deep here. There's other good people in this game. You've got to keep in mind there are a lot of people who do the same thing you do as well if not better. They'll mourn you for five minutes and then wonder who the next dumbass is coming in behind you and how it's going to affect them. So treat people like you want to be treated. The golden rule works real well in this job. It usually comes back to you. I'm not always a constant example of that, but I try hard. Right?