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The Ping-Pong table in the Orioles' clubhouse wasn't there when spring training began. The yawning gap in the middle of the room was in itself a monument to the austere reputation of manager Buck Showalter, who last August inherited a Ping-Pong--happy outfit that was one of the sorriest in the American League, on its way to a 13th straight losing season.
"Where's the table?" Showalter asked outfielder Nick Markakis.
"Oh," Markakis replied. "Some guys are scared what you might think."
The next day, courtesy of Markakis—and with Showalter's blessing—a Ping-Pong table appeared.
"Given the stuff you hear about him," says infielder Brendan Harris, "you wouldn't think he'd like it. You'd think it would be a boot camp. But he's nothing like some of the things you hear. He completely understands players."
In his jacket pocket Showalter carries a leather-bound black notebook with red-inked pages on the 57 games he managed last year—the equivalent of a contractor's punch list for a massive fixer-upper. Armed with the notebook and a fungo bat, Showalter has spent a month of mornings in Sarasota, Fla., basking in the glorious details of his first camp since 2006, his last before his firing by the Rangers began a 3½-year forced sabbatical.
Showalter, 54, is one of 12 managers running their first spring training with their current club; none bring more career wins (916), more gravitas or more attention to detail. "I love it," he says. "This and the postseason are the best times of year. It's the purity of the game. It's teaching. Billy Martin once told me, 'Dumb players will get you fired.' When I say, 'O.K, we're going to go over this today, this is important,' trust me: It will be the difference in winning or losing a game."
Beyond the orthodoxy of Ping-Pong tables, the Orioles are learning as much about Showalter as he is about them. When Showalter blurts out, "Really? Really?! "—for instance, when minor leaguers imported for rundown drills last week participated at less than full speed—the manager isn't happy. Another oft-heard piece of Buckspeak is "I got it," which means "I understand, but ..."—a prelude to a more important point.
One day last week, for instance, Showalter stopped a morning workout and instructed his players to gather around him behind second base. He had left the ballpark the previous day with a bad feeling about his team's effort. "Guys, listen," he told them. "It's the middle of spring training. I got it. I got it. I'm aware of where we are: The novelty of spring training has worn off, and you can't see the finish line. I've been doing this 20, 30 years. It happens every spring to everybody at some point. But you have to push through it. It's a mental and emotional discipline to push through it."
Showalter uses the phrase so often that centerfielder Adam Jones decided to print T-shirts that say I GOT IT on the front and NO, NO ... I GOT IT on the back—but only after he asked permission from his manager, of course. The highlights from Camp Buck have included not just table tennis and T-shirts but also Movie Night: Showalter whisked the team to a local theater to deliver a pep talk and show them a 12-minute video about restoring Orioles tradition. There has been no standing around ("Haven't shagged one ball all spring," pitcher Jeremy Guthrie said) and frequent on-field instruction.