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Showalter: O's 'lying in the weeds' in AL East

Skipper not ready to concede division to big spenders
MLB.com @MikeLupica

JUPITER, Fla. -- One night before, Buck Showalter had made yet another drive across Florida -- a long time and a long baseball life after making his first drive like it, over 40 years ago, in August 1977.

"Fort Lauderdale to Tampa," Showalter said while in his office in the visiting clubhouse at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, a few hours before his Orioles would play the Cardinals. "Tell you why I remember it. When I got off the bus in Tampa, I found out Elvis had died."

JUPITER, Fla. -- One night before, Buck Showalter had made yet another drive across Florida -- a long time and a long baseball life after making his first drive like it, over 40 years ago, in August 1977.

"Fort Lauderdale to Tampa," Showalter said while in his office in the visiting clubhouse at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, a few hours before his Orioles would play the Cardinals. "Tell you why I remember it. When I got off the bus in Tampa, I found out Elvis had died."

All Showalter had found out the night before as he and his pitching coach, Roger McDowell, had made their way from Sarasota to Jupiter was that during Wednesday's Orioles-Yankees game, Aaron Judge had told Manny Machado that the O's star would look good in pinstripes.

"Interesting," Showalter said, smiling. "I wasn't aware that [Didi] Gregorius and [Brandon] Drury [the Yankees' new third baseman] were going anywhere. At least [Judge] wasn't trying to recruit anybody from our team to play his position in right field."

Of course Showalter's long baseball life -- his own long journey from being a Yankees prospect to what is now his fourth managing job in the big leagues -- continues with the Orioles. In his time there -- and even with the way his starting pitching betrayed him last year -- he has done a managing job and a culture-changing job as meaningful as anyone's in baseball.

Showalter, more than anybody, made the Orioles a team of consequence again, eventually winning more games over a five-year span than any club in the American League East. That included the Yankees and the Red Sox, who spend so much more money on baseball players than the O's do it makes you lightheaded just thinking about it.

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If you know anything about Showalter -- even after the way the Yankees and Red Sox have spent again this season -- he is going to go ahead and play the season and not concede anything to anybody. He has always been rather stubborn that way. Showalter isn't just a good baseball man. He is a great baseball man, one who doesn't quit.

"We're lying in the weeds," Showalter said on Thursday morning. He grinned then and said, "I just don't know how deep the weeds are."

The Orioles' starting pitching will be better this season, just because it can't possibly be any worse than it was last season. Showalter will try things with a new closer after all the years when Zach Britton was one of the very best in the sport. Britton blew out an Achilles tendon in an offseason workout the week before Christmas and had surgery. He will be out for a long time. Showalter's plan is to replace him with Brad Brach. Once it was Britton who got a battlefield commission as the O's closer. Now it is Brach. If Buck likes him, you like Brach's chances.

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The O's still have Machado, who moves from third base to shortstop, as their great star, for one more season before he becomes a free agent. They have Jonathan Schoop, who would hit an early home run against Jack Flaherty of the Cardinals on this day, who is one of the best young players about whom people outside Baltimore don't talk nearly enough. They still have Adam Jones. They still have Chris Davis. And they have Buck Showalter.

"I don't know where people say we're supposed to finish," Showalter said. "Don't know and don't care. Play the season."

He had been talking about the day's batting order with one of his coaches, John Russell, who once managed the Pirates, and McDowell. Then there was a conference call in the small office with Joe Torre, Commissioner Rob Manfred's chief baseball officer, about -- what else? -- pace of play.

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When Showalter finished with the call, he was visited by his old friend Bill Parcells, and Parcells' dear friend Ron Wolf, who was once the general manager of the Packers, and the man who made the trade for Brett Favre. Both Parcells and Wolf love baseball, and Spring Training baseball in particular. And for the next hour, they listened to all the baseball in Showalter come spilling out, from stories about Earl Weaver, who once managed the Orioles to the World Series, to how few pitchouts there were last season in Major League Baseball, to what Jim Leyland told him once about knowing when it was time to give up managing for good.

"I saw [Leyland] after he stopped," Showalter said. "And I couldn't believe how great he looked. He told me it was because he just knew that it was time. I asked him how he knew. He said, 'When the joy of winning stopped being greater than the pain of losing.'"

In a quiet voice Parcells said, "You reach the point where winning becomes a relief."

Showalter nodded. "A respite from what the losing does to you."

Showalter is not there yet, even though he is past 60 now. There was a moment on Thursday, before he went outside to talk to the media, when he said, "You know what the best part of the day or night still is? After they play the song." He was talking about the national anthem.

"It's the action you miss," Parcells said. "It's the competition. It's the thrill of all that."

So Parcells listened to Showalter tell about Weaver coming to Spring Training in the last year of his life, and how there was an intrasquad game, and Buck told Earl to pay attention, he was about to use one of Earl's old pickoff plays with the same sign Earl had once used. Buck knew the sign, because he has always known these things. He likes to joke that he's not paranoid, just extremely alert.

The play worked that day, with Earl watching. The pitcher picked a guy off first.

Buck said, "As soon as he did, Earl said, 'How'd you know those signs? Has [Cal] Ripken been talking to you?'"

Parcells turned to Ron Wolf and nodded at Buck and said, "Man likes baseball."

Man likes baseball. Has his whole life. Showalter certainly has since he was taking his first trip across the state of Florida, from one baseball place to another, as a kid. He knows how loaded the Yankees are. Knows how loaded the Red Sox are. Knows how many question marks there are with his starters. But Showalter doesn't quit. He'll wait and see what happens on Opening Day, after they play the song.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com and the New York Daily News, and is a best-selling author.

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