BALTIMORE -- Standing in the tunnel underneath the new Yankee Stadium, the typically media-savvy Orioles manager Buck Showalter was visibly uncomfortable behind the television backdrop, eyes darting warily from the microphone to the visiting clubhouse door, as if there was a way to will himself back into the quiet confines of his office.
It wasn't the interviewers or the game's events, but rather the subject matter that made Showalter uneasy. His club had just beaten New York, 7-1, granting Showalter his 1,000th career managerial win and putting the no-nonsense 56-year-old in what he called an "embarrassing" spot: right in the spotlight.
But as much as Showalter deflects praise -- referring to himself as a "passing ship in the night" -- there's no denying his impact on the organization since being named the 19th manager in Orioles history on July 29, 2010.
A two-time Manager of the Year, Showalter's clubs have historically made significant strides in his second full season at the helm -- with all three of his previous teams enjoying a minimum 12-game improvement -- and this year's Orioles squad has been no different.
A long-suffering Baltimore franchise, picked by many around baseball to finish in the American League East cellar, is 28-17 and off to its best start in seven years. The team is pitching better and leading the Majors in home runs, but there's also a quiet confidence resonating from this group, a 25-man clubhouse -- which Showalter has gone to great lengths to preserve -- that accepted their manager's challenge this spring.
"He's a really top-notch organization builder. I think it's a big plus for the organization. It's a big help in competing."
-- Dan Duquette|
on Buck Showalter
"With other [Orioles] teams, it was, 'OK, it's good if we come close to .500,'" closer Jim Johnson said of an organization that hasn't had a winning season since 1997. "That's not what the goal is here. Guys put the work in, guys are expected to perform at a certain level. The expectations have been raised, starting with the manager.
That's the way [Showalter] does it. You got to have guys respond. It's fight or flight. So the people that want to stick around and fight are still here."
The changes have been evident since Showalter assumed the helm for his first game Aug. 3, 2010, but the Orioles' success hasn't been an overnight story by any means. There has been an influx of new talent, particularly on the 40-man roster, and the slow accumulation of depth has helped supplement player development and a Minor League system that has struggled to provide a solid pipeline to the bigs.
The Orioles secured a lease to move spring operations to Sarasota, Fla., under former president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, and the multimillion dollar renovations were finally completed this spring. The facility, dubbed "the Ivy League of spring facilities" by director of pitching development Rick Peterson, has helped eliminate certain excuses. And it wasn't uncommon to find Showalter driving around on a golf cart late into the Florida night inspecting the fields and ground conditions to ensure everything was held to the highest possible standard. Those who play for Showalter on those fields better be equally up to snuff.
"I think it turned into the Orioles' Spring Training is not a country club," said center fielder Adam Jones of a camp in which every detail was done for a reason, whether it was the team-wide test -- which included naming the words written above the clubhouse walls -- or each perfectly placed locker, which included Jones next to rookie Xavier Avery.
"It's all-in's -- pitching, hitting, fielding. If guys aren't playing to their potential, we might not be here too long. [Showalter] has added the accountability factor of we are grown men. This is not the place for development."
"It starts in Spring Training, where [Showalter] kind of demands and tells you how he wants the game to be played," added shortstop J.J. Hardy. "He's probably the most prepared guy I know. When it comes to everything. I think conversations that he has, he knows how the conversation is probably going to go before he even starts the conversation. He's very, very prepared. You feel like, playing for him, that you are not going to get outmanaged."
Showalter is 131-133 since taking over in Baltimore, and his fingerprints are everywhere in an organization that is starting to establish continuity and expect excellence.
"I can't tell you how many times, whether it's a meeting or even through spring or in the dugout this year, where you go, 'That's not good enough anymore,'" Showalter said. "And I think the players, to tell you the truth, are starting to realize. It's nothing personal. If you are asked to deliver something, you know what it looks like and you know what it doesn't look like. And it's not always just ability. If we go through a drill or do anything, you can't drop your standards. You can't drop your level of expectations. But it's not all about what I expect; it's about what they expect. I want them to raise the bar. It's not about me."
This year's roster is littered with players who have won with other organizations, and those -- like Johnson and Jones -- who are tired of being the AL East's doormat. Every loss is met with sincere anger and disappointment -- not the under-the-breath jokes and hushed giggles of clubhouses past -- and every issue has been confronted head on, as Showalter likes to point out.
He made it a point to remove any coaches, bullpen catchers and other assistants out of the home clubhouse, leaving only the players to bond together and police themselves during the ups and downs of a 162-game season.
"He's a really top-notch organization builder," Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said of Showalter, who he describes as the most intensely tuned in manager he has ever worked with, particularly in his attention to player development and the Minor Leagues. "I think it's a big plus for the organization. It's a big help in competing."
And the longer this Orioles team remains competitive, the higher the bar will rise. A mere .500 season would now be a disappointment. So would dropping out of first place and playoff contention altogether. Never mind that the city of Baltimore and its fanbase couldn't have dreamed the team would be atop the standings at the end of May. They are all in on these O's, and Showalter -- unsurprisingly -- has made the challenge clear in recent meetings with his club.
"We have a lot of people involved here who have a stake in the Orioles doing well," Showalter said. "There's a connection to the town and the city and the people and the struggles. There's a burn there, but it's challenging as well. We've got three-fourths of the season left.
I told them, 'You create this, you do this completely out of what their expectations are, and now what if it goes a little the other way? They go the other way.' I said, 'You don't get a marker for this. You don't get a marker for this effort.' It's not, 'You are exceeding expectations early, so we will give you this.' No, you created a semi-monster here. And the feeling should be, 'Bring it on.'"