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Richard Justice

Showalter's steady hand just what O's needed

Justice: Buck's steady hand just what O's needed

Showalter's steady hand just what O's needed
It's fair to say that Orioles manager Buck Showalter isn't everyone's cup of tea. Showalter is very, very smart and very, very organized.

Showalter also can be a little bit of a control freak. There have been times in his past stops when he wanted to control more than the baseball team.

For instance, everything.

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As a result, there are people in Major League Baseball who don't exactly love Showalter, and that's being kind. Here's the thing they'd probably also tell you about Buck Showalter: He's a terrific manager.

He's so intense and so obsessive about doing things a certain way that he may not be a guy who can last a decade in the same job. Maybe that's why he has never lasted more than four years in any of his previous managerial stops.

That could be why he was out of work four years after he and the Rangers parted ways after the 2006 seasons. At least a few general managers apparently didn't want a guy as strong and as opinionated as Showalter.

All that said, virtually everyone in baseball agrees on a couple of things. He knows how the game is supposed to be played. Even more important, he knows how to teach how the game is supposed to be played.

He has taken over three other losing teams and had an immediate impact. For instance:

• The D-backs improved by 35 games in Showalter's second season on the job (1999).

• The Rangers improved by 18 games in Showalter's second season (2004).

• The Yankees improved by 12 games in his second season (1993).

At the moment, the Orioles are on pace to win 88 games, which would be a 19-game upgrade over last season. Overall, he's 163-167 with the O's.

These Orioles have the look and feel of Showalter's tough-love touch. Despite an inconsistent starting rotation, they're 23-6 in one-run games and 39-17 in games decided by one or two runs. They've won 12 straight extra-inning games, the second-longest such streak in the Majors in 27 years.

For the Orioles, he was exactly the right man at the right time. They haven't been to the postseason since 1997, and that's just the beginning.

Once upon a time, the Orioles ran the smartest, most efficient operation in Major League Baseball. For about two decades, beginning in the mid-'60s, the Orioles did a great job at identifying and signing talent.

And they did a better job than almost any other team in developing that talent, getting it to the big leagues and putting it in position to succeed. They had great men in charge of the baseball operations, especially Frank Cashen and Harry Dalton. They had one of the great managers of all-time in Earl Weaver.

They also had a man named Cal Ripken Sr., who absolutely demanded that things be done right in player development. He's got a couple of famous sons, Cal Jr. and Billy, but he was a father figure to a couple of generations of Orioles.

For sure, Eddie Murray saw him that way. So did Don Baylor and Bobby Grich and a long list of others.

The Orioles lost their way in the mid-'80s, and even though Pat Gillick and Davey Johnson constructed a pair of playoff teams in 1996-97, the Oriole Way wasn't really back.

So Showalter's first goal was to get the Orioles back to doing the basics. That is, making plays, executing pitches and putting the team first.

Thousands of little things go into something that sounds so simple. It comes down to changing the environment and making players sweat the small stuff.

Showalter is a stickler for details: for hitting the cutoff man, for running the bases smartly, for not giving away outs.

When he took over the Orioles two summers ago, he let every player in the organization know that things that had been acceptable yesterday or last season would no longer be acceptable.

This kind of transition isn't always pleasant, and Showalter had to show some guys the door. He also found a really good nucleus of guys who were sick and tired of losing and wanted to be led in a different direction.

Star center fielder Adam Jones wouldn't sign his new contract without assurances from Showalter that he intended to stay around awhile. Catcher Matt Wieters bought in, too, and so did shortstop J.J. Hardy, who, like his manager, is obsessive about playing the game right.

Into the mix last offseason came Dan Duquette to serve as general manager. He and Showalter are both strong men, both opinionated, both really good at what they do.

It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall for some of their conversations. Theirs may not be a 20-year marriage, but they're off to a flying start.

Duquette gave Showalter a fighting chance last winter by acquiring two starting pitchers, Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel. They've won 18 games between them, and if Hammel comes off the disabled list and is effective, they could both wind up pitching more than 200 innings.

It's still too early to guarantee the Orioles of anything. At 60-51, they're 4 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the American League East and in a four- or five-team dogfight for one of the AL Wild Card berths.

Regardless, Showalter has been part of making this a really interesting baseball summer in one of America's great baseball cities. It's the highest of compliments that some O's fans are comparing him to Weaver and adding to an already impressive legacy.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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