Understand, Buck Showalter is the son of a high school coach and principle. He’s from a military background. One of the first days of spring training two years ago we were wandering the fields of the Oriole facility as the players took a February ritual known as infield. Defensive drills. Like pitchers covering first and catchers chasing popups, every team does these, and six or seven weeks from Opening Day, it sure looks as for the players the 10:15 a.m. fungoes are accepted with a destination don’t care.
“Watch J.J. Hardy,” Showalter suggested as he tapped his fungo on the ground. “What do you notice?”
“That on every throw,” I replied, “from every infielder or every outfielder, to the point of soft-served, 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 season batting average–.434 during the Gerald Ford Administration—but he was hired into an organization because of a man named Jack Butterfeld who George Steinbrenner hired as a scout in 1976 and then as head of the entire development system a year later before being killed in an automobile accident in New Jersey in 1979. Butterfield was the baseball coach at the University of Maine—“maybe the best college baseball coach who ever lived,” said one of his players, Jack Leggett, who himself is a legend for his years at Clemson. The elder Butterfield also coached football, but his stamp on the Yankee organization led to Showalter, Brian Sabean, Stump Merrill, Jack Gillis and son Brian, one of the most esteemed major league coaches of the last twenty years, carving out careers in the game.
During the 2014 World Series, the MLB producers allowed me to run video of three relays Brandon Crawford made in one week throwing out runners at home plate in one run games, all in one week. The video ended, and Crawford said, “I love practicing relays. I love details like that.” When Jack Butterfield died in 1979, his legacy lived on for 35 years to those relays; the Giants culture that won three World Series in five years could be traced back, like Showalter’s appreciation of Hardy’s perfect tags on a chilly morning in an empty ballpark to watching Brian Butterfield hitting Dustin Pedroia ground balls every day, or to Derek Jeter’s famous backhand flip to home plate in the 2003 ALCS.
The 2016 Orioles season was over in November when Showalter called with another detail. Understand, Jack Butterfield would have loved Bill Belichick. Brian Butterfield goes to Patriots practices and remembers every word Belichick utters. So it was no surprise that Showalter called that November day with a Belichickism. “When theF opposition is punting to the Patriots, do you ever see the ball rolling around on the turf? No. Belichick always has an Edelman and someone back there not to occasionally break one for 25 yards, he has guys who run to and catch the ball on the fly, so there’s no chance of the way guys punt spirals today that they catch the ball and avoid 10 or 15 yards rolling down, or worse, a fumble. I’ll bet Edelman is worth 50 yards a game in field position. Which is everything. And Belichick always has the great place kicker. How’d they win their first Super Bowl? Vinatieri. Sunday night same thing.”
“Buck is the closest thing to Belichick in baseball,” says Brian Butterfield. “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 (usually starting at 2:30 for a night game) I try to put players through similar drills, relevant to the game. (One pupil, Mooky Betts, often takes infield work as well as outfield work to practice quick turns and throws that can slow or cut down baserunners going first-to-third or second-to-home).
“The Red Sox should look at their players and ask, ‘whom would Bil Belichick trust?” says Showalter. “We know who’d be the first player he’d trust—Pedroia. That’s a no-brainer.” But the same goes for Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and if Butterfield is right, Sam Travis when he arrives in mid-season. “Sam Travis is a Red Sox. Great work ethic. Incredible baserunner” says Butterfield.
“It’s obvious that everything Belichick and the Patriots is done in anticipation of what might happen,” says Showalter. “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.
“I heard Belichick say the Falcons are the best ball-stripping team in the league,” Showalter said Monday. “I had taped the game, so as I watched it again (Monday), I watched how Edelman grabbed hold of the balls as he went down. Now, the best time to strip the ball is when the wide receiver or running back is going down. Edelman catches the ball and grips it like he’s saving a baby. I read and heard some stuff about the Patriots having white wide receivers. What? They have guys to catch the seven yard pass and hold onto it.”
My question was whether Showalter saw in the Sixties Packers in the Patriots, ball control with Brady’s Madduxesque command and wide receivers who are willing to get hammered and hold on. “That’s what the game demands today,” Buck said. “We all have to adjust to meet how the game changes. Belichick’s been adjusting longer and better than anyone ever.
“I’ll watch the game a couple more times, then draw lines from what the Patriots detail to details we need to emphasize. The night was a great way to get focused on spring training. I know Butter thinks the same way. I met Nick Saban, and I asked him why he would give a full scholarship to a long snapper. He pointed out the velocity and accuracy of a really good deep snapper might mean an extra couple of seconds to the punter, not just getting rid of the ball, but an extra second or two to let the linemen get further upfield. I’m still trying to find some equivalency in baseball.”
Indeed. Showalter sent Butterfield a text Monday telling him that the Orioles had signed 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 future Hall of Famers, Theo Epstein, and Terry Francona. The end of the text read, “the Curse of the Bambino 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 Belicheckese to baseball spring training.
Somewhere Jeff Bagwell and the Hall of Fame came up. Bagwell had great soccer feet, but he worked daily on this footwork to clear away from the first base bag so that if he had to throw to second, he had a clear throwing lane to the shortstop. And that every time in BP he went around the bases, Bagwell made sure he cut the bags perfectly. Astros teammates marveled at Bagwell’s instincts and baserunning and defense. “There’s a reason he’s in the Hall of Fame,” says Showalter. Buck added there’s a guy Belichick would have trusted.
And in Toronto, Jays President Mark Shapiro, whose close friend is Falcons Assistant Scott Pioli, once the Patriots’ GM, the man who drafted Brady and Matt Ryan. “What Bill has done so well is establish a culture,” says Shapiro. “If they lose, he never points fingers. If they win, he never talks about himself. It’s always on to the next game’s preparation. What’s amazing is that the players buy into it. They don’t talk about themselves. They don’t point fingers. They are accountable. Bill never has to answer to drama, because he doesn’t do drama.”
Showalter says it’s easier to command that focus because it’s one game a week, with few quotes. I think Belichick would hate managing in baseball, where he’d have to do an hour press conference before and 30 minutes after every game, and players are expected to be transparent quote machines, without alternative facts.
“We may not see another Belichick or Saban in our lifetimes,” says Showalter. “I plan to keep managing. If I didn’t learn from what they do and translate it into baseball, I’d be pretty dumb.”