Buck Showalter has turned the Orioles into winners using the… (Jim Rogash, Getty Images )
Buck Showalter is in need of some coffee.
The Orioles manager pops a plastic cup into the well of a newfangled instant coffee maker in the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field, not hesitating to say it pales in comparison with the old-school percolating coffee pot back in his office at Camden Yards.
The season is long, and he's tired. His right knee hurts, and in a few moments he will have an ice wrap on it the size of large melon as he hobbles around on the second-to-last day of baseball's grueling 162-game regular season.
On this day, finality is on the 56-year-old Showalter's mind. In his second full season at the helm of the Orioles, he's taken the franchise to its first playoff berth in 15 seasons. And whether the season ends with him leading Baltimore back to the top of the baseball world with the Orioles' fourth World Series title and first since 1983, or it ends abruptly with a loss to the Texas Rangers in Friday's one-game American League wild-card playoff, he knows this memorable season will eventually end.
Showalter is uncomfortable with the thought. He's a creature of habit, and for the first time since he initially assembled his team on the back fields of the team's spring training compex in Sarasota, Fla., there's a possibility that this season will soon come to a close.
"I love this time of the year because all the individual stuff — it's a beautiful thing when it comes together — but it's really all about the Orioles, it's all about the team," he said. "You can be guilty by association or you can be successful by association. The cruel thing is that there's only one team that walks off the field this year that's going to have that continuously."
He'd like to end it with his first championship. In each of his three previous managerial stops — with the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Rangers — Showalter created a winning team but wasn't around to see it all the way through. At those first two stops the teams won the World Series the year after his departure, and the Rangers have captured back-to-back AL pennants.
This season, he's brought the Orioles — who entered the year with 14 consecutive losing seasons, the second-longest active streak in the major leagues — back from the abyss.
"You can see Buck right there on that top rail [of the dugout] all the time, and he don't miss anything," said Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, who orchestrated a similar turnaround with his club, going from the AL East cellar in 2007 to the World Series in 2008. "That man don't miss anything. Their players recognize that also. They kind of play like he's managing. He's all-out all the time."
But on this day, as Showalter is preparing to take the Orioles to their first playoff game since the Clinton administration, he deflects any credit.
"It's so much about the players," Showalter said. "They're playing the game. It's what I can do to make it better and easier because there will be another guy to come along, and that's fine. There are people who do this job as good if not better than me, and it doesn't make anybody better or less. It's just the way of the world. The reward for doing a job well is the opportunity to do it more."
A team built on trust
The way Showalter and the front office have assembled this Orioles team is artful. Building around cornerstone players like center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters, right fielder Nick Markakis and shortstop J.J. Hardy, they've added a stable of complementary players who know their role and its importance to winning.
The Orioles also have overcome several detrimental injuries. They lost starting left fielder Nolan Reimold in the season's first month. Second baseman Brian Roberts' comeback from multiple concussions lasted just 17 games. Markakis, the team's best hitter in the second half, has endured wrist surgery and is now healing from a broken thumb. Right-hander Jason Hammel, the team's best pitcher in the first half, has missed 12 weeks since the All-Star break with knee problems.
Showalter has masterfully maneuvered a bullpen that is a major reason the Orioles went 74-0 when leading after the end of the seventh inning and 29-9 in one-run games. The Orioles have won 16 straight extra-inning games, another eye-popping statistic.
"This team has its own identity of winning close games and executing in close games," said first-year Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. "A lot of that has to do with the bullpen. A lot of it has to do with the way Buck uses the bullpen and distributes the work."