SARASOTA, Fla. — Often, it was an inconsequential detail to the average fan — the positioning on a bunt play, the depth of the secondary cutoff man — but to Orioles manager Buck Showalter's eyes and mind, it was the type of thing that wins or loses baseball games.
"OK, that's a spring training thing," Showalter would say to himself.
That time is here, and Showalter punctuated that point Monday in Sarasota during the first spring workout for pitchers and catchers. Wearing a black Orioles jacket over his uniform and carrying an orange bat, Showalter walked from field to field, listening to his coaches go over things like pickoff moves, fielding come-backers and bunt plays. He mostly stayed in the background, but asserted himself several times to make a point.
Showalter took over an Orioles team last August that was flirting with historical ineptitude and guided it to a 34-23 record, a turnaround nearly as shocking as the first four months were demoralizing.
Not wanting to further deflate a roster that had already been through two previous managers, numerous trips to the disabled list and far too many losses, Showalter reminded himself often that the final two months of the 2010 season were about observing and evaluating.
The next five weeks in Sarasota will be about teaching and preparing to win as Showalter continues shaping the club into his own.
"First of all, it's a fresh start, a very hopeful, upbeat time," he said. "We have to put a lot of things behind us from last year, the good and the bad. Whatever happened or didn't happen, it's a clean slate for everybody."
The 2011 Orioles will still carry plenty of baggage into a new season. The organization hasn't had a winning year since 1997, and while most baseball pundits view the Orioles as an improved club, they still project them as a fourth- or fifth-place team in the American League East.
That hasn't diminished the enthusiasm among fans, energized by a busy offseason in which the Orioles completely revamped their lineup, adding sluggers Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Reynolds, among others; solidified their bullpen; and overhauled their coaching staff. But the biggest reason for fan optimism is the presence in the dugout of Showalter, a proven hand at engineering quick turnarounds. He was given a standing ovation at last month's Orioles FanFest, and spectators who watched Monday's workout also applauded Showalter for the transformation he spearheaded.
"It was like night and day, like somebody turned the lights on," said Fred Perkins, a Mid-Atlantic transplant who lives in Sarasota. "I think everybody needs a boost once in a while. When you get knocked down a lot, you lose heart."
Said Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail: "I knew that Buck didn't have an off button, but I was surprised to learn that he didn't have a pause button either. Most of us have a pause button. He goes at it 24-7, in-season, offseason. ... He has made an impact on this franchise from the moment he first walked into this clubhouse."
Showalter's impact will be all over spring training, which in some ways marks a new beginning for the organization. The $31 million renovation of the Ed Smith major league complex and the Buck O'Neil minor league facility, a project that won't be complete before next spring, gives an organization that had long played in substandard spring facilities one of the better arrangements in the Grapefruit League. The Orioles have also added more talent and significantly reshaped their roster, raising their payroll by nearly $20 million from last season.
"We have a lot of new things going on — new stadium, new minor league complex, which they really needed. We're going to try to take advantage of this separation of some of the failures we've had in the past," Showalter said. "Hopefully, the players will look around and say, 'You know, there is something different going on here, and I need to get with the program.'"
Showalter, who loves the teaching aspect of being a manager, calls spring training his favorite time of year. It's a venue where his fondness for coaching, and his well-documented organizational skills and attention to detail, flourish. Case in point, on the same day he works with his star players, he can aide the organization's top prospects simply by walking to a nearby field.
While previous Orioles managers, like Sam Perlozzo or Dave Trembley, preached getting things done the right way, Showalter's resume and reputation suggest that an even greater emphasis will be placed on the little things and this year's spring training will be more intense than those of the past.