Buck Showalter is reshaping the first-place Mets, one detail at a time

NEW YORK (AP) — The morning after the Mets’ home opener, Buck Showalter asked general manager Billy Eppler to meet him in the dugout. Showalter had coached just one game at Citi Field, but he had already identified a design flaw. Showalter summoned Eppler to a corner by the steps closest to home plate. From this spot, his preferred location during games, the Mets manager couldn’t watch the Mets

The specific problem was right field. A piece of padding blocked Showalter’s view. The sight lines, pitching coach Jeremy Hefner would later say, “were atrocious.” For the previous two seasons, he had irritated Hefner and former manager Luis Rojas, both rookies at their jobs. Nothing had been done about it. Showalter had a solution, but it would take time for him. Until then, he still wanted to see his right fielder.

Eppler climbed a few steps in the middle of the bench and hung on the railing. He asked Showalter if that could work.

“Billy, how tall are you?” Showalter asked.

“6-3,” Eppler replied.

Showalter, 65, was listed between 5 and 9 during his playing days, but that was 40 gravity years ago. He reminded Eppler of this. So he would have to squint around the padding while the stadium operations staff was simulating schematics for the solution: The Mets would build Showalter, Hefner and bench coach Glenn Sherlock into prime position.

Thirteen days later, when the team returned to Queens with the best record in baseball, the dugout looked different. The staff had built a three-step slope to rise above the obstruction. Now Showalter could see his group, in its entirety. And the rest of the audience got to see more ways that Showalter, in his 21st season as manager and his first as the Mets’ helmer, is subtly reshaping the club, one detail at a time.

In his four previous stops, in a managerial career that spans four decades of baseball and includes three Manager of the Year awards, Showalter has earned a reputation for being demanding, exacting and obsessive, to the point of occasional exhaustion for those around him. He knows the perception of him. “Is this another one of those anal things I’m being accused of?” Showalter said when asked about the dugout alterations. “If I can’t see the game, it’s a little difficult.”

The Mets hired Showalter last December to lead a team with championship aspirations. The group had been underperforming for years. A $254.5 million November spending spree by owner Steve Cohen sent expectations sky high. In Showalter, Cohen hoped he had found a manager with gravitas, tactical acumen and the relentless daily drive that underpins elite clubs.

In the first few weeks of his tenure, through abbreviated spring training and nearly two dozen games, Showalter met that criteria, his players say. The Mets describe his mind as relentless. He quizzes his players on in-game situations, to assess both his knowledge and their willingness to match his enthusiasm. He brings out wisdom with his West Florida accent.

“It’s all interesting,” pitcher Taijuan Walker said. Everything he says.

The Mets have learned to listen. A tip about an obscure rule from one of Showalter’s preseason meetings came true during the first stay home. He has kept veterans informed of impending roster moves and encouraged them to impart knowledge among younger teammates. He has preached the gospel of responsibility. He has surprised some with his wit and willingness to laugh at himself. “He has a better sense of humor than he expected,” said Max Scherzer, Cohen’s $130 million offseason jewel.

If the Mets look different in 2022, well, a lot of that comes from Cohen’s money. But some of it comes from Showalter’s mind. And if the ballpark looks a little different, same story. It’s not just the bench. At Showalter’s urging, the team repainted the walls of the clubhouse and upgraded the lighting to brighten the space. The Mets also converted a closet into a private locker room for support staff. “We’re trying to modify the baseball functionality of some things,” Showalter said.

Circumstances have forced Showalter to move quickly. He took the job several weeks after the owners fired the players. He was unable to contact any Met until he ended the work stoppage on March 10. By then, Opening Day at Nationals Park was less than a month away.

Once the club met in Port St. Lucie, Florida, Showalter introduced himself through individual conversations and group meetings. He aired a series of videos that served as a blueprint for how he wanted the Mets to play and an introduction to how he viewed the game. The videos, newcomer Chris Bassistt explained, showed that “there isn’t a detail I don’t think about.”

“He loves to point out that other teams make mistakes, I can tell you that,” Bassitt said. “It’s everything: routes, cuts, relays, everything. It’s like, ‘Listen, this beats you and makes you lose ball games. This is how we’re going to do it. Let’s do it the right way. Not always in the easiest way. But he wants you to bust your butt and do everything the right way.”

Before each workout, Showalter addressed different rules. In one meeting, the team touched on an arcane that some, like six-year veteran infielder JD Davis, had never contemplated. Showalter laid out the details: Let’s say the opponent was considering an appeal for a broker leaving the bag too soon. In that situation, if there was a Met on base, the player should try to steal a bag. If the opponent reacted and tried to take out the Met, that would negate his right to appeal.

It sounded a bit impenetrable. “Pretty crazy getaway,” Davis said.

A few weeks later, during a game against Arizona, Showalter’s vision was fulfilled. Davis was on his feet early as the Diamondbacks debated appealing a sacrifice fly. Showalter pointed to third base coach Joey Cora. Davis got Cora’s message and broke for the second. Arizona veteran Oliver Perez jumped off the mound, eliminating the potential appeal, before throwing to third, which didn’t produce an out. The race continued. “Buck, with so many years under his belt, he’s always trying to find an edge or find a loophole,” Davis said.

Through Cora and first base coach Wayne Kirby, who trained with Showalter in Baltimore, the Mets have instilled a new aggressiveness on base. The group entered Sunday’s games ranked fourth in the sport, based on FanGraphs’ baserunning metric. (They ranked 27th in 2021.) The attitude has also helped Showalter find common cause with his highest-paid player. On the team’s first road trip, Showalter thanked Francisco Lindor for his efforts to pull out a double play ball. Lindor told the manager to tear him apart if he ever slacked off.

The manager and shortstop forged a connection in spring training, when they found their visions for Lindor’s 2022 season coincided. Lindor was thankful when Showalter jumped to his defense after being hit in the face with a pitch at Washington. The affection is visible when Showalter makes pitching changes, often met with little banter from Lindor and infielder Eduardo Escobar. Lindor could pull the zipper on Showalter’s jacket or touch his ears. Escobar could dust off the captain’s shoulders.

“He’s so serious,” Lindor said, “you have to play with him.”

In Lindor, Showalter has found a superstar who can match his enthusiasm for the profession. The two debate and discuss the details of relays, bag coverage, situational decisions. Sometimes Lindor leaves Showalter at a loss. “It’s like ‘Stump the Manager,’” Showalter said. He added: “He’s one of those guys you say ‘Any questions?’ And he says, ‘Oh, I have one.’ And you say, oh, he shoots.”

Much more often, Showalter fills the Socratic role. He asks questions to keep his players engaged. He also asks questions to pass the time. One day recently, Showalter approached new outfielder Mark Canha. Showalter asked what Canha thought about the concept of a team error, a way of denoting that a mistake had been made when no individual was responsible, such as when a pop-up dropped on the frame. Canha considered a notion that he had never considered before.

“I was like, ‘Oh. Yes. You’re right,’” Canha said.

Eppler added: “For the guy that was on ‘seinfeld’ it has a lot of Seinfeld-esque epiphanies. ‘Why do you think they do that? What do you think was his thinking behind that?’”

On a recent road trip, as young pitcher David Peterson wrapped up a breakout performance, Showalter found Bassitt and Scherzer on the bench. Showalter told them that Peterson would soon be demoted to the minors, to make room for an additional reliever. He wanted his clubhouse leaders to understand his rationale, knowing they could advise Peterson on how to accept it. “Buck,” Bassitt said, “is amazing at keeping everyone informed.”

These are qualities, of course, that Showalter showed with the Yankees and the Diamondbacks and the Rangers and the Orioles. Those managerial tenures ended the way managerial tenures tend to end. But these qualities can also make Showalter, as one Mets official put it, “the perfect man for the job,” after Rojas’ inexperience and Mickey Callaway’s prurient incompetence.

The changes initiated by Showalter are already evident. During the first stay home, he spoke with VP of ballpark operations Sue Lucchi, executive director of ballpark operations Peter Cassano and executive director of field operations Bill Deacon on the sidelines. The hanger was in place when the team returned from the road. He provided Showalter with a clear view of the story on Friday night. Facing the Phillies’ powerful offense, the Mets created a combined no-hitter, a five-man effort in which only one, closer Edwin Diaz, realized what was at stake.

Showalter was finishing his postgame news conference when Diaz and the other pitchers entered the room. Showalter pushed his chair back and stood up. The Mets intended to allow all five pitchers, plus catcher James McCann, to hold a joint news conference.

“Do we have enough chairs for them?” Showalter said as Diaz, Seth Lugo, Joely Rodriguez and Drew Smith took the stage. “It’s like the Jackson 5 here. Earth Wind and Fire.”

Showalter helped organize the seats. The relievers were waiting for McCann and starting pitcher Tylor Megill. The manager stood behind them. “That’s how you guys get a cheap Christmas card here,” Showalter said.

Harold Kaufman, the Mets’ director of public relations, asked questions.

“Aren’t you going to wait for Tylor?” Showalter said.

“Well,” Kaufman said, “we want to wait? Let’s hope. Let’s wait and get the six guys there now.”

There was a short speech about the nature of deadlines. It was after 11 at night. After a second, McCann and Megill arrived. Some photographers stabilized their lenses. Showalter could not be found in the frame. “I’m out of here,” he said. He was already leaving the room, his work for the night finished, his mind racing to the next day, his influence clear.

(Photo: Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

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