- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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It's quite a trick to be baseball's best turnaround artist in the past 20 years and still occasionally find yourself scrounging for work. But that's part of what makes Buck Showalter's Baltimore Orioles the most rib-tickling, preposterous story in baseball right now. They woke up Thursday morning (if they slept at all) still in a flat-footed tie for the AL East lead with the Yankees after pulling off another of their signature one-run wins the night before -- this one powered by a 20-year-old kid call-up named Manny Machado and a scrap-heap outfielder, Nate McLouth, who banged the winning hit off the outfield wall to earn a shaving-cream pie to the face.
Yet what's been hard to miss in the Orioles' spine-tingling present is just how much the past has been banging around the corners of Showalter's mind and coloring so much of what he says.
For Showalter, this isn't just a pennant race. He's rigorously trying to avoid acknowledging that there's a whiff of personal psychodrama to it as well -- especially if it's the Yankees the Orioles do take down.
But little clues leak into his conversations anyway.
If you know the whole star-crossed story of Showalter's managerial career, it's hard not to see some unspoken meaning in a pregame conversation Showalter had with a Washington Post reporter Wednesday night when Showalter conjured up a 17-year-old memory of his former Yankees boss George Steinbrenner -- the first owner to hire and fire Showalter despite the terrific job he did -- then added this: "My mother used to say to me, 'The good Lord won't give you more than he thinks you can handle.
"But I wish he didn't have so much confidence in you.'"
It's the sort of story someone tells when he's both happy as hell about what's happening yet aware it doesn't change all the stuff under the bridge.
With 20 games to play, the Orioles have shoved the Yanks to the verge of what would be a franchise-record collapse if the Yanks do end up squandering the 10-game lead they had and don't make the playoffs or win the AL East. Along the way, Showalter has tried his damnedest not to let the conversation veer toward the backstory of his career -- or more specifically, how the asterisk about this whole confounding, thrilling, outrageously unexpected run that the Orioles are on, the reason he's seeing the ghost of Steinbrenner now as his O's relentlessly stalk the Yankees, is Showalter has been in this position with three other teams before.
And every time he got a team to this sort of liftoff, it never ended well.
For him. Not them.
In his first job, Showalter had the Yanks looking like the best team in baseball for a long stretch of 1994 and '95. His second stop? He built the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks from infancy into overnight contenders. His third gig? He inherited a Texas Rangers club with Alex Rodriguez, then didn't always get along with his $250 million star. All three times Showalter's teams had double-digit increases in wins from the first year to second. And all three times he was shown the door, anyway.
Two of those clubs -- the Yanks and Diamondbacks -- went on to win the World Series without him the very next season.
Although Showalter told the Post reporter on Wednesday how Steinbrenner came up to him at the off-day workout before the Yanks' first playoff game in nearly 15 years, happily slung an arm around his shoulder and said nothing, just soaking the whole scene in, it's notable what Showalter didn't say. He was a 39-year-old whiz kid at the time, a career minor leaguer who had asked to become a manager at 28. He was so driven when the Yanks gave him a minor league team to manage that he'd go home at night and watch the big league club's games on videotape, managing pitch by pitch in his mind. He also could have mentioned this: Just a few weeks after that paternal gesture by the batting cage, Steinbrenner, still angry the Yanks blew their first-round playoff series against Seattle -- in part because Showalter was so uptight he didn't trust his closer, John Wetteland, in the climactic game -- unilaterally cut off contract negotiations with Showalter and issued a release saying he was leaving the team. Friends later said that when Showalter got the news, he broke down crying.
Showalter's other stops had equally painful endings. So now, it's no wonder that one of Showalter's pat answers to reporters who walk through his door now and ask how in the world his no-name Orioles are doing this is, "We have great players. I'm just trying to stay out of the way."
Showalter has a quiver full of similar self-deprecating remarks that he tosses out regularly. The effect feels like a sort of pre-emptive effort to spackle over the one fault line in what's been an otherwise stellar managing career: the rap that his personality and obsessive-compulsive attention to detail always got in the way before.
In a lot of ways, Showalter, 56, spent what should've been the prime of his career with the same rap sheet that Bobby Valentine did. Both of them have always heard they're great baseball minds who inevitably wear out their welcomes. Unlike the 62-year-old Bobby V., who is on his way to another fiery end -- this time in Boston -- Showalter has so far succeeding in doing his damnedest not to let it happen again.
When Showalter is asked how the Orioles can still be in a dead heat with the $195 million Yankees, who are outspending them almost 2½ times this year, he is liable to say, "We have great respect for the Yankees. But I like my team, too. Let's see how this goes."
Mention his forced exits from the game, though he was twice AL Manager of the Year -- a distinction not even Valentine shares -- and Showalter doesn't volunteer anything about the pang of watching 32 other managerial jobs get filled between when Texas fired him and when the Orioles hired him. Instead, Showalter has talked up how fantastic and centering those 3½ years he spent on ice were for him.
Showalter has repeated the same little anecdotes about the rare but disorienting treat of spending summer at home for a change, and noticing for the first time how red a cardinal was in his backyard, or the sound of the wind rustling through the tree branches -- things he was too driven to notice before.
It all sounds nice. It's just not totally convincing.
Because the real Buck is also the one who showed up in Baltimore as Dave Trembley's midseason replacement and privately told his downtrodden club, which hadn't contended since the mid-'90s, enough of this deferring to the Yanks or the Red Sox; "Let's take it to them." The real Buck is the one who did a straight-talking magazine interview with Men's Journal last year in which he mocked Boston's front office for acting so smart when it had so much money to spend, then seemed to brag about screaming at Derek Jeter and the Yanks from the dugout the first time he took the O's to Yankee Stadium for a game.
Showalter said: "Our young guys are thinking, 'Wow, he's screaming at Derek Jeter' -- well, he's always jumping back from balls just off the plate. I know how many calls that team gets -- and yes, he [ticks] me off."
People who don't know Showalter speculated he made an off-the-cuff mistake. Friends said Showalter knew exactly what he was doing. If he was going to ask his team to believe it could stand up to the bullies and poke them in the eye, he might as well do it first.
To some of the hard-driving players in his own clubhouse -- guys like Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy -- this was music to their ears. Jones, the Orioles' most gifted player, has said he loves how Showalter brought accountability to the team. And Hardy says Showalter's attention to detail, his insistence that players prepare right for games and then play the right way, is a good thing. Which had to be music to Showalter's ears after years of being told his personal style can be unbearable. Hardy's reasoning? "It's helped us win games."
By all accounts, Showalter has somewhat tamed his infamous stridencies and obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. And if it wasn't already clear how much his and Valentine's careers have gone in opposite vectors this season, one brief and easy-to-miss moment recently underscored it.
Bobby V., when asked about the Orioles two weeks ago during his usual weekly spot on Michael Kay's ESPN Radio show in New York, said the Orioles have been "lucky" this season to contend because they've given up more runs than they've scored. "You're not good, you're not good when you have that kind of differential," Valentine blurted.
When the remarks were relayed to Showalter, who just happened to be appearing on the same show a little later -- what do you know? -- he resisted dropping a bomb on Valentine to reassert who's the smartest guy in the room. Instead he calmly said, "I'm sure there's some truth to what Bobby's saying. But I certainly wouldn't go out in that clubhouse and say it, I can tell you that."
This was different. Was it not?
If this Buck lasts, it could have beautiful consequences for him and the Orioles. It might finally let Showalter close the loop on that lingering feeling that he, not Joe Torre, should've been the skipper who presided over the Yanks' dynasty in the 1990s. Or that he deserved to be there when the Diamondbacks won their first ring over the Yanks.
Showalter doesn't say any of that. So somebody should say this for him: The last thing he's doing is staying out of the O's way. He's leading yet another team on a spirited charge up the standings, same as he always has. But this time -- after all this time -- he's just hoping for a different ending. Goodbye, cautionary tales. Quiet, all you ghosts.
If this Buck Showalter lasts, it could have beautiful consequences for both him and the Orioles. It might finally let Showalter close the loop on that lingering feeling that he should've been the skipper of a champion.