Thursday was a bad day at ESPN, especially at the baseball pod. We lost one of our best guys, one of our brightest guys, one of our funniest guys. But our loss will be an enormous gain for the Baltimore Orioles. They get a new manager, Buck Showalter, and starting Aug. 3 at Camden Yards against the Los Angeles Angels, everything in Baltimore will change for the better.
The Orioles are getting the most prepared manager I've ever met in 30 years of covering baseball. I remember walking into the visiting clubhouse in Baltimore a few years ago when Showalter was the manager of the Texas Rangers. It was the first game of a series, so the scouting report on the Orioles was written on several white boards, including detail such as in which count the Orioles like to attempt a steal of third. That was one of many such details.
"Every team does this," Showalter said of the intricate information.
Orel Hershiser, then his pitching coach, laughed and said, "No team does this."
The Orioles are getting one of the most observant baseball men I've ever met. I can't tell you how many times we've been sitting in the war room at ESPN, watching 15 games at one time on a wall of TVs -- all programmed perfectly by Showalter -- when he would look at me and say, "Did you see that?" And, of course, I hadn't seen it. No one sees what Buck Showalter sees. The latest example was last week when a shot from the dugout showed Cardinals manager Tony La Russa twirling his index finger for a split second to catcher Yadier Molina.
"Watch," Showalter said, "here comes the inside move."
And, on command, Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright made the inside move to second base.
I can't tell you how many times Showalter looked at me and asked a question that began with, "Have you ever noticed ?" I threw up my hands and laughed out loud when he once asked me, "Have you ever seen a great player with freckles?" I spent an hour thinking before I came up with Rusty Staub and Bobby Kielty, neither of whom was great.
My favorite segment on "Baseball Tonight" the past few years was the one in which Showalter told us what scouts look for in a player. "They're looking for high-butt guys," he said. "You don't want a low-butt guy." And, "You don't want a 10-to-2 guy," he said, referring to a player whose feet point outward, like the hands on a clock at 10 minutes to 2. "You want a guy whose feet point in, not out." And, he said, "Never draft an 18-year-old with a full beard. It means he is fully developed, and won't grow any more. I remember when we drafted Derek Jeter, he didn't even have to shave. I thought, 'We've got something here.'"
In Jeter's first spring training, the equipment manager asked Showalter, then the manager of the New York Yankees, what number he should assign Jeter. Something in the 60s for the kid? "No," Showalter said, "give him No. 2." The equipment man was nonplussed. After all, only the greatest Yankees get a single-digit number. "He is going to be special," Showalter said.
The Orioles are getting a manager who insists on things being done correctly, whether it's a rundown play or the way a player wears his stirrups. When things are done correctly, Showalter will make a point of acknowledging it, as he did one night managing in the minor leagues when he went to the hotel room of one of his players, infielder Andy Stankiewicz, who had played his heart out earlier that day in 100-degree heat. Showalter went to Stankiewicz's room after the game to tell him, "I just wanted you to know that I saw what you did out there today."
Showalter is the son of a high school principal, a stern taskmaster who scolded his son for lifting the football above his head after scoring a touchdown in a high school football game. Everything the Orioles do from now on will be done properly because Showalter, like his father, will insist upon it. Years ago, in a demonstration on "Baseball Tonight" of the proper way to execute a take-out slide, Showalter, in a suit and tie, told the camera crew, "Be ready, we're only going to do this once." Showalter then made a real slide into an astonished Harold Reynolds, knocking him to the floor, where he burst into laughter. A real slide came as no surprise: With Showalter, if we're going to do it, we're going to do it right.
The Orioles are getting one of the funniest, most engaging storytellers of all time. "Did I ever tell you about Deion Sanders in the rundown drill?" Showalter once asked me. "We did a rundown drill in spring training with the Yankees. We put Deion in the middle. And he was so fast, we couldn't tag him out. I had to take him out of the drill because it didn't simulate a real rundown because there was no one as quick and fast as Deion."
Without thinking, I once asked Showalter if he had ever managed pitcher Vicente Padilla.
"When we signed him with the [Arizona] Diamondbacks, he came to the signing [in Nicaragua] on a burro," Showalter said. "We signed him, but he said he needed another $2,000 because he had to give his burro away when he signed, and he needed $2,000 to make sure the burro had a good home."
The Orioles are getting a two-time Manager of the Year. They are getting the guy who helped rescue the Yankees from their doldrums of the early 1990s, and helped deliver them to the doorstep of a world championship in 1995; he resigned from the Yankees after the '95 season because Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wanted to fire some of his coaches. It was Showalter who helped build the expansion Diamondbacks from day one of their existence as a franchise; they won the World Series in 2001, a year after he left. And it was Showalter who brought a winning tradition to the Rangers, a transformation that began in spring training during his first year when veteran players packed up their stuff after three innings of the first exhibition game of the year, and Showalter looked at them and said, "I'll tell you when you're done for the day."
Not all the players liked Showalter, but every player who played for him would acknowledge that he learned a lot from him. Now he's on to Baltimore for the biggest challenge of his major league career, managing a team that is trying to avoid being the first team since the 2003 Detroit Tigers to finish a season with fewer wins than games finished out of first place. The Orioles will dismantle their team when the season ends and start over, and no one is better at doing that than Showalter. He likely won't win a division title anytime soon, but starting Aug. 3, the Orioles will play better, they will look better and they will be better. Good for them. Bad for us.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.