Regardless of what happens over the next month, by virtue of being tied for first place in September, the Baltimore Orioles represent one of the biggest baseball surprises in recent memory. However, those with their ears to the ground of history probably shouldn’t be too shocked by the Birds’ ascent to the top perch in the American League East.
Entering the season, another positive indicator for Baltimore was the track record of manager Buck Showalter. In his four managerial stints (Yankees, Diamondbacks, Rangers and Orioles), Showalter has taken over a struggling franchise and turned them into a winner by his second full year on the job. Critics will point out that his turnarounds have required a new manager to take the final step toward a championship, but at the very least, Showalter has played a major role in changing the direction of every team he has managed.
*+22 if pro rated over the rest of the season.
The managers/coaches in sports who wear the most rings get all the glory, but Showalter has carved out a unique niche as baseball’s anti-Phil Jackson. In fact, it’s hard to think of another manager with a similar track record of turning bad teams around. Only one other name comes to mind, and he just so happens to be Showalter’s mentor.
Although he is best know for repeatedly being hired and fired as Yankees’ manager, Billy Martin’s managerial career spanned five different franchises. And, each time he was brought on board, the hard nosed skipper effected a dramatic improvement. In fact, Martin’s impact was even more immediate than Showalter’s, as each team he took over enjoyed considerable success in his first full campaign. Unfortunately, Martin wore out his welcome even more quickly than Showalter, although he did last long enough with the Yankees to win a World Series.
*Dan Wilber managed one game (1-0) and Billy Martin managed 23 games (9-14) after Whitey Herzog was fired.
**Billy Martin managed 56 games (30-26) after Bill Virdon was fired.
On the surface, Martin and Showalter seem to be an unlikely pairing. Whereas Martin was renowned for being hard nosed and often hard knuckled, Showalter’s approach has always been more calculated. Their lifestyles also couldn’t be more different. However, just because you wouldn’t catch the two men hanging out in a bar or watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show doesn’t mean there wasn’t a profound connection, namely a love of baseball and a remarkable attention to detail. Off the field, the two men would never have traveled in the same circle, but on a baseball diamond, they were soul mates.
In an interview several years ago, Showalter stated there were three men he thought of each Opening Day: his father, Johnny Oates, and Billy Martin. Considering how often he invokes Martin’s name, that influence extends well beyond the first game of the season. More importantly, that reverence is evident beyond just conversation. It is also on display every time Showalter manages a game. So, as the pennant race heads down the stretch, the Orioles can be confident that no team will be more prepared. Baltimore may have taken everyone else by surprise, but don’t count Showalter among them. Being in first place so late in the season might seem foreign to others, but for the Orioles’ skipper, it was probably all part of the plan. It was never a good idea to underestimate a Billy Martin team, and now, after proving it again in the most unlikely place, the same can be said about any club piloted by Showalter.