By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 12:12 AM
"Buck Showalter Jersey Night" came to Baltimore on Tuesday. To honor their new manager, the O's clubbed the Blue Jays, 11-3, to improve under Showalter to an almost unbelievable 25-15. Weren't the Birds the worst team in baseball when he arrived?
"Have you ever had your jersey given away before?" someone asked Showalter, who has, over a full quarter of a season, gotten the Orioles to play at a 100-win pace.
"Yeah, [every time] I got fired," said Showalter, who's gotten the boot three times. "But a lot of people didn't want it."
Two days earlier on Sunday in Washington, Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman called a 30-minute meeting after his team looked flat in a fifth straight loss. He "addressed the team." So did every coach. A half-hour chew-out is about 30 seconds less than "eternity" to a big leaguer: And now, a few words from our third base coach.
"Got to make them aware - this is what I see, this is what the coaches see, this is what [General Manager] Mike [Rizzo] sees, this is what the fans see," Riggleman said. "If anybody in the room thought that was acceptable, they need to be aware we certainly don't think it's acceptable.
"It don't go under the radar when you have lost 100 a couple years in a row. We're going to figure out who the keepers are and who is going to be a part of this club in the future that's going to help us get out of these doldrums."
The Nats responded, just as they did last September to a snap of the whip from Riggleman, by winning 6-0 and 4-2 on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon to take a series in Atlanta from the best home team in baseball.
Unless the Nats suffer a total collapse, Riggleman will keep his dugout seat in '11. He worries about his job, but shouldn't. The team is on pace to win 10 more games than '09 and, after being last in run differential the past two years, has actually moved ahead of nine teams in that basic stat, which often gauges basic progress.
"We've had to use 14 starting pitchers this year. You never want to lead the majors in that stat," said President Stan Kasten Wednesday. "That means you've had to use nine starters who weren't one of your five best. That's a big hurdle [for a manager]. I keep saying I'm surprised we've won 62 games."
Of 80 men since 1900 who've managed for at least 10 seasons, Riggleman has the worst career winning percentage (.442). But he's also managed the Pads, Cubs, Mariners and Nats. That may define "mitigating circumstances."
As the Nats face a Stephen Strasburg-less '11, they want stability and more of the solid development of rookies that Riggleman has overseen thus far. So, get used to the contrast, in personalities and baseball theories, on display 40 miles apart in Camden Yards and Nationals Park.
Showalter continues a baseball tradition of light-a-fire-under-'em managers from Leo Durocher to Davey Johnson to Bobby Valentine. They come in full of energy, brains, quips and opinions, and aren't afraid to step on toes. Twice, Showalter has won AL manager of the year. The first time, he lasted one more season. The second time, he stuck around two more years. Just one season after 100 wins in Arizona, he was gone. That's tough to do.
Now, after three years of TV announcing, has Buck mellowed? Do we want him to? Root for sparks. It'll be more fun.
One of Showalter's first tactics, to toughen his young Bird pitchers, was to leave the bullpen idle when they got in jams. The message, he says, "You created this. You get out of it."
Also, instead of obsessing about scouting reports on famous hitters and, thus, pitching out of fear, Showalter and pitching coach Rick Kranitz told their staff to trust their stuff, use all their pitches and dare those various scary Yanks, Rays and Red Sox to hit 'em.
The results: Seldom has a young staff gotten so much better so fast. Under Buck, Baltimore suddenly has 28 quality starts in 41 games. A complete game by Brad Bergesen on Wednesday capped a three-game sweep of the Jays, a team that had been 12-0 against the pre-Buck Birds. Can't make this stuff up.
All season, Kasten has praised the Orioles and predicted they'd turn. "They are a good young team about to get much better," he said. "But they are in a tough, tough division. For them, it can only be done with way above average pitching." Brian Matusz and powerful Jake Arrieta have blossomed fastest.
In a brutal AL East division that has dripped with swagger for decades, the Orioles have usually done best with chip-on-the-shoulder managers like Weaver, Johnson and Frank Robinson. So, we're from little Bal'mer. So, you're rich and famous. So what?
Showalter was born with that 'tude. When he approaches an ump, he'll say: "Yeah, I got the rule. I just want to know what you got." Each time an Oriole is hit by a pitch, he concedes that he debates retaliation. "Don't let your emotions rule you. It's real easy to show how big your tail is. How manly will you feel [if people get hurt]?," he says. But an eye-for-an-eye is part of his worldview.
Showalter exemplifies the extrovert, the brash innovator, while Riggleman is the gentlemanly introvert, dedicated to implementing the wisdom that's been handed to him through generations.
When it comes to baseball theory, Showalter is perfectly suited to the AL's big-inning style. He once managed a team that hit 260 homers, had only nine sacrifice bunts all season and seldom stole a base. If he has input, you can bet the O's won't remain last in the league in walks and homers, the core ingredient of the Big Bang.
Conversely, Riggleman comes out of the St. Louis Cardinal small-ball school that thinks pitching, defense, speed and one-run wins are essential. He once managed the Cubs in homer-haven Wrigley Field, yet had 83 sacrifice bunts and 176 stolen base attempts. If soon-to-be-free Adam Dunn ended up an Oriole, it would probably suit the strategic predispositions of both teams.
Ex-Orioles constantly compare Showalter's dugout appearance and intense demeanor to Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver. "They look so much alike, right down to their mannerisms, that it's almost scary," says former Oriole Mike Flanagan.
Their theories also mirror each other to a degree. "Earl called me after I got the job," said Showalter. Any tips?
"Something to do with 'three-run homers,'" said Showalter.
As the Showalter and Riggleman regimes play out at opposite ends of a parkway, baseball people will watch one extra element of spin: Rizzo and Showalter worked together in Arizona.
Among many possible managers, Rizzo talked to Showalter last year when Riggleman still had an interim tag. The Nats GM speaks well of Showalter, but he didn't hire him. Could Buck have been enticed? We don't know.
The Nats have played .375 ball for the last four months while the Orioles have played at a .625 pace in what Showalter calls "a new two-month season" for his team. One team has been playing like set their feet afire while the other, just days ago, had to be harangued for not playing harder. Those extremes won't last.
But with foils as perfect as Showalter and Riggleman, we can be sure that Washington and Baltimore have just begun this game of managerial "compare and contrast."