BOSTON—Orioles manager Buck Showalter is the son of a high school coach and principal. He’s from a military background. On one of the first days of spring training two years ago, we wandered the Sarasota, Fla., fields as Orioles players completed defensive drills such as pitchers covering first and catchers chasing popups.
“Watch (shortstop) J.J. Hardy,” Showalter said as he tapped his fungo on the ground. “What do you notice?”
“That on every throw,” I replied, “from every infielder or every outfielder he catches the throw and drops a perfect tag precisely where the runner would be sliding.”
“Details,” Showalter said. “Details add up over a season—to winning or to losing.”
Showalter may hold the Cape Cod League wooden-bat record for the highest batting average—.434 during the Gerald Ford administration—but he was hired into professional baseball by a man named Jack Butterfield, whom Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired as a scout in 1976. Butterfield rose to head of the organization’s entire player-development system a year later before being killed in an automobile accident in New Jersey in 1979.
Butterfield was the baseball coach at Maine—”maybe the best college baseball coach who ever lived,” said one of his former players, Jack Leggett, who himself is a coaching legend from his years at Clemson. Butterfield also coached football, but his stamp on the Yankees organization led to Showalter, Brian Sabean, Stump Merrill, Jack Gillis and son Brian, one of the most esteemed major league coaches of the last 20 years, carving out careers in the game.
Jack Butterfield would have loved New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Brian, the third-base and infield coach for the Red Sox, goes to Patriots practices to watch Belichick.
“Buck is the closest thing to Belichick in baseball,” Brian Butterfield said. “When I go to Patriots practices, I follow Bill as much as I can. He has uncanny awareness—eyes in the back of his head. The drills are specific. They’re fast-paced. Everything has a purpose. When I’m out there every day, I try to put players through similar drills that are relevant to the game.”
The Orioles’ 2016 season was over in November when Showalter called with another detail, and it was no surprise that he had a Belichick-ism on his mind.
“When the opposition is punting to the Patriots,” he said, “do you ever see the ball rolling around on the turf? No. Belichick always has a (Julian) Edelman or someone back there to occasionally break one for 25 yards . . . I’ll bet Edelman is worth 50 yards a game in field position—which is everything.”
Showalter says it’s easier to command focus in football because it’s one game a week. I think Belichick would hate managing in baseball, where he’d have to do press conferences before and after 162 games, and the players are expected to be transparent quote machines.
“We may not see another Belichick or (Alabama football coach Nick) Saban in our lifetimes,” Showalter said. “I plan to keep managing. If I didn’t learn from what they do and translate it into baseball, I’d be pretty dumb.”
One Of A Kind
Showalter sent Butterfield a text in February telling him that the Orioles had brought back shortstop Robert Andino, whose hit off Jonathan Papelbon eliminated the Red Sox on the last day of the 2011 season and led to the exits of general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona from Boston. The end of the text read: “The Curse of the Andino is back in Baltimore.”
That led to an exchange of texts between the two baseball lifers who began with the Yankees because of Jack Butterfield. The rest of the texts translate Belichick-ese to baseball spring training.
At some point, Jeff Bagwell and the Hall of Fame came up. Bagwell had great soccer feet, but he worked daily on his footwork to clear himself from the first base bag so that if he had to throw to second base, he had a throwing lane. And that every time Bagwell practiced running the bases, he made sure he cut the bags perfectly. Astros teammates marveled at Bagwell’s instincts for baserunning and defense. Showalter said that Bagwell is a guy Belichick would have trusted.
“It’s obvious that everything Belichick and the Patriots do is done in anticipation of what might happen,” Showalter said. “We try to do that based on the way teams execute pickoffs or throw-overs, cutoffs or relays, or things that can happen in each ballpark depending on the idiosyncrasies there. Practice and preparation is not about time spent on the field, it’s about knowing what might happen and how you’re mentally and physically prepared for the moment.”
— Read more from Hall of Famer Peter Gammons at gammonsdaily.com