The Orioles on Thursday hired a baseball lifer – a man with small-town roots, a work ethic forged by his father, and an unshakeable conviction in the fundamentals of the game, born of long heart-to-heart talks with his old man.
The description fits Cal Ripken Jr.
The job goes to Buck Showalter.
A two-time Manager of the Year, with the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers, Showalter is the best man to lead the worst team in baseball, those who know him say.
"It's a real good fit," said John Hart, onetime Orioles' coach who hired Showalter at Texas in 2003 when he was general manager. "Buck is undaunted. Whatever the challenge, he'll work through it. He understands the tradition of 'The Oriole Way, The Ripken Way' – do things simple, but do them right – and he'll get Baltimore back to that."
Now, it's The Showalter Way.
"Buck is old school. He demands discipline, structure, and he holds players accountable," said Brian Jordan (Milford Mill), whose 15-year career included a season with the Rangers, under Showalter, in 2004. "The Orioles need somebody to make rules for them to follow, to push them to another level and to believe in themselves.
"Hopefully, Buck will redefine their attitudes, put a dent in the (won-lost) record and get them on the right track."
Meticulous to a fault, Showalter, 54, has been both hailed and assailed for his attention to detail – as well as his hands-on demeanor. In Arizona, where he managed the Diamondbacks from 1998-2000, he did everything from teaching bunt defenses to choosing the colors for the clubhouse walls.
"Buck can be very involved in all aspects of the team," said Davey Johnson, onetime Orioles second baseman who managed the club to its last winning season in 1997. "I don't see that a negative. I'd rather have a manager who has eyes in the back of his head than one who doesn't."
Showalter's fame as a repairman is legend. He fixes new or broken teams and moves on – though not always by choice. He was 35, the youngest manager in the majors, when the woebegone Yankees hired him in 1991. Showalter rebuilt the club and reached the playoffs but, in 1995, resigned rather than fire a coach as ordered.
A year later, New York won the World Series.
On to Arizona, where Showalter led the expansion Diamondbacks to a division flag in their second year (1999), only to be fired the next season after finishing third.
A year later, Arizona won the World Series.
Showalter's last stop was Texas, a ghost town when he rode in. His first year, the Rangers finished 20 games under .500. The next, they were 18 games over. But the turnaround stalled and, in 2006, Showalter was ousted again.
He was an ESPN analyst when the Orioles called.
"Buck wants to get out of the studio and back onto the field. He still has the fire in his belly," said Ron Polk, his coach at Mississippi State. "You can see it when he's on 'Baseball Tonight' – the analytical mind, the discipline, the eye for detail. He's a lot like his dad."
William Nathaniel Showalter III grew up in Century, Fla. (pop. 1,700), where the town's lighted ballfield sat next to the Showalters' two-story home. Nat, as he was then known, played Little League there. On hot, sultry nights, his folks set their lawn chairs in the back yard, beyond the outfield fence, shooed away the bugs and watched their only son whale the tar out of the ball.
Showalter's father was a high school principal and former coach – a stern, structured father of four who taught his brood that life had no short cuts.
"He made you want to do things right, and we learned that it paid off," said Malinda Williford, Showalter's sister. "Our father said that setting boundaries gives you courage and security. So we worked hard and played hard. That's how we've lived our lives."
Early on, when he was learning to play, Showalter would pout when the older kids who chose up sides left him out of their pick-up games.
Showalter's complaints didn't fly with his father, said Russ Aldridge, a longtime friend:
"His dad said, 'Don't come moping home to me. Go out there and get better. Then they'll let you play.' "
Showalter got better. His dad saw to that. Like Ripken and his father, Cal Sr., the Showalter men spent hours discussing the nuances of the game.
"From a young age, Nat and my father talked baseball," Williford said. "Back then (in the 1960s) life had a slower pace. They did a lot of pensive thinking. My brother studied the game and asked questions, and my father was a good sounding board.
"I know Nat misses that, still."
Fittingly, William Nathaniel Showalter II happened to catch his son's first Little League home run.
"My husband and I were sitting there, just past the fence, when the ball flew by," Lina (cq) Showalter, 82, recalled. "Bill was halfway out of his chair when he caught it. But instead of throwing the ball back, he had one of girls go into the house and get a new one for the players to use."