Asked how he would describe his team’s season, Buck Showalter immediately replied, “Like that Disneyland ride.” He was referring to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”
Much to their delight, though, the ride for the Baltimore Orioles has lasted much longer than the couple of minutes the wild ride of Mr. Toad takes. Five months into the season, Showalter, the Orioles’ manager, and Dan Duquette, their general manager, awoke Wednesday to find the Orioles in a rare position. They were tied for first place in the American League East and were tied for first place in the A.L. wild-card standings.
No post-season slot is guaranteed the Orioles with a month to go in the season, but they have played well enough to attain a distinction that had been achieved in only one previous season in the wild-card era. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the simultaneous ties between the Yankees and the Orioles in the division and among the Yankees, the Orioles and the Athletics in the wild-card race mark the only time besides two similar developments in 2005 that such circumstances occurred after Sept. 1.
Like the Orioles, the Athletics are a surprise presence in the playoff race. They were nine games under .500 at 26-35 June 11 and had to play until the All-Star break to get their record even (43-43). From the resumption of the schedule through last Sunday the Athletics won 33, lost 14 and moved into the lead of the wild-card race.
The Orioles, meanwhile, fell 10 games behind the Yankees on July 17 with a 46-44 record, but then they won 30 of 45 games, wiping out that separation and pulling even with the Yankees.
Remember, these are not Earl Weaver’s Orioles with the Robinsons Frank and Brooks, Boog Powell, Paul Blair, Davey Johnson, Mark Belanger, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar. These are the Orioles whom owner Peter Angelos wrought after forcing out Pat Gillick as general manager and Davey Johnson as manager. These Orioles began the season saddled with a franchise streak of 14 successive losing seasons.
But Duquette has pieced these Orioles together with baling wire and spit, or so it seems. His effort has been especially impressive because Angelos assigned him the task of resuscitating the Orioles after his 10-year absence from Major League Baseball. “
“I was involved in youth baseball and international baseball with the Israel Baseball League, and I bought a summer college league team,” Duquette said. “I was still around young ball players. I wasn’t terribly active at the major league baseball level. I guess the challenge coming back was getting to know people in the organization. I knew Buck before. That made for a pretty quick transition.”
When he arrived in Baltimore, Duquette did not find a collection of high-priced superstars. The best players he found were catcher Matt Wieters, outfielders Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, shortstop J.J. Hardy and designated hitter Chris Davis.
He knew he needed additional players and wasted no time, using every avenue available to find them.
One of his first acquisitions was a Taiwanese pitcher, Wei-Yin Chen, a 26-year-old left-handed free agent, who agreed to a 3-year contract for $11,338,000. He is having a good rookie season, compiling a 12-8 record with a 3.75 earned run average, which was the league’s ninth lowest as of Tuesday. A few weeks after signing Chen, Duquette acquired another starting pitcher, Jason Hammel, in a trade with Colorado. He had an 8-6 record when knee surgery interrupted his season in July.
The Orioles signed Miguel Gonzalez in spring training after Boston released him. A 28-year-old right-hander who had never pitched in the majors, Gonzalez joined the Baltimore rotation July 6 and had a 3-1 record and 1.91 e.r.a. in five August starts.
More recently, in the last week of August, Duquette reinforced the pitching staff by signing a pair of free agents, Joe Saunders and Randy Wolf. Pitching, though, isn’t the only area Duquette bolstered. The Orioles’ shortstop is Omar Quintanilla, obtained from the New York Mets July 20, and the third baseman is Manny Machado, a 20-year-old rookie Duquette promoted from the team’s Class AA minor league team Aug. 9.
“The defense was solidified when Machado came up,” Duquette said. “Mark Reynolds started out at third, but Buck moved him to first.”
Another in-season acquisition who is a regular is left fielder Nate McLouth, who was signed as a free agent June 6 and called up to the majors two months later. Duquette added two other veterans, Jim Thome and Wilson Betemit, but they have been hurt and on the disabled list.
“I like Dan,” Showalter said. “He’s not afraid to make moves.”
Showalter, 56 years old, had been in the Baltimore job for a season and a third when the Orioles hired Duquette. General managers usually like to hire their own managers, but Showalter’s contract runs through the 2013 season, and Angelos doesn’t like to pay managers for not working.
In addition, Duquette said, “Buck does a good job. He’s won a thousand games in the big leagues.”
Duquette has done well in the majors, too, first as general manager of the Montreal Expos, then in the same position with Boston. He lost the latter job in 2001 after the current Red Sox owners took control of the team. He spent the next decade out of baseball, which made him available to become a founding member and director of player development of the Israel Baseball League in 2007. Economic problems limited that league’s existence to one year, but his relationships put him in position to help in the formation of the Israeli team for the 2012-13 World Baseball Classic.
In pursuing the Orioles’ job. Duquette used the same aggressive approach he employed in his pursuit of players to improve the Orioles once he was hired.
“I contacted Russell Smouse directly and I believe Buck was in the process, too.” Smouse is the Orioles’ general counsel.
Duquette got the job but not the title general manager. He is the executive vice president, baseball operations. That’s the same as being general manager, but the Orioles don’t use that title because the owner doesn’t like it. Angelos once yelled at me for saying and writing that he was looking for a general manager.
“I’m not looking for a general manager,” he said sternly. “Why does everyone have to call that guy the general manager? I’m not going to have a general manager.”
I don’t think he ever explained what was wrong with the title, but it’s good that Duquette got the job as de facto general manager.