It hasn't been an overnight transition, but this year's Orioles club -- perhaps more than any other -- walks, talks and acts like manager Buck Showalter, who, despite the fiercely intent look on his face during games, isn't all no-nonsense.
"I've allowed myself [to have fun]," said Showalter, whose team has defied all odds this season and made the postseason, facing the Rangers on Friday in the one-game Wild Card playoff. "This is a great group to be around. They don't let anybody take them too seriously, trust me. I feel real good that they feel real comfortable making sure all of us don't take each other too seriously. Everybody around here is open game, and that's the way it should be."
There's been a fair amount of good-natured pranking this season, from Showalter punking reliever Darren O'Day with the reliever's Solowheel to the ever-popular rookie dress-up. Showalter may have seemed to come with a warning label -- whispers of his being a micromanager who wears out his welcome -- prior to his hire in August 2010, but the ever-detailed skipper has been a perfect fit for an organization in desperate need of order.
"I don't think people in this clubhouse make excuses," shortstop J.J. Hardy said of Baltimore's character. "If something happens, they own up. I think the thing with Buck is he manages the team well. [He's] very personable with everybody, easy to talk to. He keeps it loose. We have a ping-pong table in the clubhouse. And I think the fact that he's so prepared for every game, everyone trusts that we are not going to get out-managed."
As much as Showalter deflects praise -- he glibly referred to himself as a "passing ship in the night" when collecting his 1,000th career managerial win earlier this season -- there's no denying his impact since arriving in Baltimore. Showalter's clubs have historically made significant strides in his second full season at the helm, with all three of his previous stops enjoying a minimum 12-game improvement. This year's Orioles squad is no different.
But maybe Showalter is.
"You always learn from things -- some of it positive some negatively," Showalter said in September when asked if he had changed his managerial style from previous stops, where he was dismissed in Arizona and New York in the seasons prior to those clubs winning the World Series. "But if it were that easy, everybody would be doing it. Every situation calls for a different approach, and I pride myself on being flexible with the needs of each club and each organization. You adjust to them; you don't ask them to adjust to you."
What Showalter hasn't wavered on has been his quest to restore a beleaguered Baltimore organization back to its years of baseball glory. He challenged his club this spring to raise the bar, adding a level of accountability and focus that ensured this year's Orioles team would experience the first non-losing season in 15 years. It started this spring, during 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 the perfectly placed lockers that often put rookies by specific veterans to help foster their development.
There has been an influx of new talent -- particularly on the 40-man roster -- under new executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and a slow accumulation of depth to help supplement a player development and Minor League system that had failed 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, helping eliminate certain excuses and streamlining the organization's efforts. 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 better be equally up to snuff.
"As players we are always prepared because of him, he prepares us the way we need to [be]," pitcher Chris Tillman said. "He's obviously the Manager of the Year in my eyes. Definitely a biased opinion, but I think he's doing a great job."
"The way he handles the team is amazing," added setup man Pedro Strop. "It's so smart. I've never see a guy like that, [who is] just aware of everything. If he warms up me in the bullpen, he's aware of that. And he takes care of his players pretty good. Nobody is tired, because he knows how to handle it, especially the bullpen. No one is sitting around for 10, 15 days. And I've seen that before. Nobody's tired at this point in the season, and that means a lot."
While in between managerial jobs, Showalter found the most common complaint among pitchers was how they were used. Simply put, guys didn't appreciate warming up multiple times in a game and not getting in on a regular basis. That is a practice that leads to overuse, injuries and a cranky bullpen -- a disastrous mix. It's something Showalter has made a point to avoid at nearly all costs, keeping track of each pitcher's "ups" and appearances, and making frequent roster moves this season to protect the health and integrity of the bullpen after short starts. The O's relievers have rewarded those efforts, helping carry the team through some rough stretches.
The players are fiercely loyal to Showalter, and he is to them -- a relationship that has helped the team overcome adversity and defy critics. They are a group devoid of any superstars or ace pitchers, a "sum of their parts" type team that Showalter believed could erase a 15-year playoff drought.
"We got a real good core of people who understand what we are trying to do," he said. "And I trust them."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli.