Buck Showalter has everyone in the palm of his hand
The start of Saturday's news conference at Camden Yards was straight from the Buck Showalter handbook.
Disarm. Confuse. Defeat.
As soon as Showalter settled behind the microphone, he became the provocateur. It didn't matter that he was supposed to be the one answering questions.
"Hey, anybody get a Mississippi State score?" Showalter said to nobody in particular. Pause. "Why didn't I bring my glasses?"
And that's how it began with Showalter, who had reporters shaking their heads by the time the session was over. The stenographer's fingers were exhausted, but Showalter said very little.
Don't be fooled. This Division Series is everything to Showalter. Not only has he guided the Orioles back to the postseason for the first time since 1997, but Showalter is making his first playoff appearance since losing to the Mets after a 100-win season with the Diamondbacks in 1999.
Revenge? Retribution? Vindication? You won't hear those words out of Showalter's mouth. Not in front of a microphone. But seeing the Yankees on the other side of the field has to bring back some ancient memories of that heartbreaking ALDS loss to the Mariners in 1995, the year that changed everything for Showalter and the team from the Bronx.
That was his final year as manager of the Yankees. They grew into a dynasty and Showalter, who jumped to the expansion Diamondbacks after a nasty rift with George Steinbrenner, wandered from Arizona to Arlington to the broadcast booth. He earned Manager of the Year honors for getting the 2004 Rangers to 89 wins -- though not a playoff berth -- and he was fired after two more seasons of falling short of October baseball.
Six years later, Showalter returned the favor Friday night, handing Texas what had to be one of the most soul-crushing losses in franchise history. One down, one to go.
Knocking off the two-time defending AL champions was a great accomplishment in itself, but humiliating the Yankees, a $200-million juggernaut? Showalter couldn't have drawn this up any better himself.
"I don't think anybody is surprised that we're standing here looking at THEM," Showalter said. "I understand the surprise might be a little bit WHO'S looking at them."
Exactly. That's what makes Showalter love this matchup so much. He has worked to instill the "us-against-the-world" mentality throughout the Orioles' roster and it's taken hold, so successfully that they marched into Nolan Ryan's back yard, put Joe Saunders on the mound and stole whatever remained of the Rangers' self-esteem in the span of three hours.
No wonder Alex Rodriguez called Showalter a "mastermind" after Saturday's workout. The Orioles' manager has everyone believing it -- most importantly, the players inside his own clubhouse.
Showalter pulled the strings again by inserting Jason Hammel as his Game 1 starter. Never mind that Hammel hasn't made a start in nearly a month because of an achy knee, the result of surgery to remove cartilage earlier this season. This was Showalter doing his thing, just as he did with the supposedly overmatched Saunders, and the Orioles expect it to work. Just as his moves have all season.
"The guy with 1,000 wins as a manager probably knows what buttons to push," Hammel said. "He's pushed a lot of good ones this year. He's not going to put us in a situation where he thinks we're going to fail. I honestly believe if he didn't think we could do it, he wouldn't put us there."
With the Yankees in town, there's a sense of things coming full circle for Showalter, who could exorcise plenty of personal demons by ending the World Series dreams of his former employer. Not that he'll ever say.
Trying to lure Showalter into that conversation leaves you more disoriented on the other side. But he's not the only one with dragons to slay in this series. Orioles general manager Dan Duquette saw his seasons routinely end in the Bronx during his tenure at the helm of the Red Sox. He's not surprised to see who's standing in the way again. "It's always the Yankees," Duquette said, smiling.
Until it's not. Showalter now can have a say in all that, to make the upstart Orioles the center of attention rather than taking a back seat to the Bronx bullies. But he insists none of this is personal. "Oh, I've been past that," he said. "Everything is for a reason."
He didn't say what that reason was. In this case, for this series against the Yankees, no one needed to ask.