Inside the meticulous opening days of Buck Showalter’s first Mets spring

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Buck Showalter walks out of the auxiliary clubhouse at Clover Field and turns to the Mets’ head of Florida operations, Paul Taglieri, and remarks on the abundance of lockers.

“Yeah, 40,” Taglieri replies.

“Forty-one,” Showalter says.

Taglieri’s face morphs from certain to not, as if maybe the sure thing answer to the quiz wasn’t so sure.

A few minutes later, a visitor sidles up to Showalter and asks if he counted and if there are really 41.

“No, it’s 40. I was just being playful.”

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Two beats pass and Showalter turns back.

“And of course I counted.”

Welcome to Buck Showalter’s first day as manager inside the Mets’ spring training complex.

Seeing it all differently

Taglieri has worked at the Mets’ spring facility since 1999. He has been there long enough to see the handoff from Thomas. J. White Stadium to Tradition Field to Digital Domain Park back to Tradition Field to First Data Field to Clover Park. He has been involved in every transformation as new money from the city or state rolled in to allow for sprucing or updating or renovating during the past two-plus decades. He knows the place like nobody else.

But last Thursday morning, Taglieri was cautioned by a visitor that he will soon see his complex as never before. That it is just in Showalter’s nature to look at every piece of crabgrass, outfield fence cushion and trophy case and wonder how it could be improved or made more efficient. It’s just how the brain of the Mets’ new manager operates.

Buck Showalter (left) and Billy Eppler at the Mets' spring training facility.
Buck Showalter (left) and Billy Eppler at the Mets’ spring training facility.
Corey Sipkin

At the end of 50 minutes in which — among other items — Showalter broke away from a small group to test the sponginess of the turf of the Mets’ 10-pack of bullpen mounds, stood in the batter’s box on far-flung Field No. 7 to examine if the batter’s eye in center field was tall and wide enough and checked how many different access points the players have to go from the clubhouse to the spring training practice fields, Taglieri looked at the visitor and said, “You had that exactly right.”

No detail too small

Showalter and new general manager Billy Eppler had both been to the Mets’ spring facility previously, but only to the main field and visiting clubhouse as members of opposing teams. They had never been inside the offices or across the sprawl that includes six full fields, two half-fields, one quarter-field and a bunting field.

These days they cannot publicly utter the names deGrom or Scherzer, Alonso or Lindor, due to the MLB-imposed lockout. But it is obvious their imagination is flowing as they make their first walk-through of the 100-acre facility as the Mets manager and general manager. For now, this is where they can have impact, where they can play catch-up in their still new positions. They can familiarize themselves with the employees here and with the complex and begin plotting and planning — and appreciating just how much is available and envisioning how it will be used and by whom.

Showalter sees the potential for wins and losses in details; none too small. He, for example, wishes every full practice field had the same dimensions and fence heights as Citi Field. He dreams of the same being true up and down the Mets’ minor leagues, from Coney Island to Syracuse. He plans to lobby for one back field in St. Lucie to be a Citi duplicate so that his Mets can do drills, such as relays, in the exact space in which they will play half their schedule. He jokes at one point with Taglieri, “You didn’t think we’d walk back here and say it is all perfect, did you?”

But those are nitpicks. The general sense offered from Eppler and Showalter is that the bones of the facility — all the different types of fields, indoor batting cage, multiple mounds, staff parking and the care and grooming of the place — are excellent. They insist the most expensive roster in the majors can arrive here eventually and have everything needed for success. So much so that just near the end of this first journey of the rest of their lives together, Eppler put himself in front of his manager and said: “This is making me excited. How about you?”

Showalter took time to gaze at one of the fields. On it, injury-rehabbing minor leaguers who are not on the major league 40-man roster were providing the sights and sounds of baseball: Coaches coaching. Mitts popping. Uniforms being worn. Showalter spun away from the scene and back to the conversation to offer one word:

Buck Showalter at the Mets' spring training facility.
Buck Showalter at the Mets’ spring training facility.
Corey Sipkin


Time well spent

Eppler and Showalter spent less than two days on this run-through. Both had to get home, Eppler to his family in Southern California, Showalter to his daughter’s birthday in Dallas. Their visit was merely an appetizer, another checkmark as the two biggest non-player hires of Mets owner Steve Cohen’s offseason began to, well, cover all the bases of their first winter together.

Showalter is planning to return early next week and stay, awaiting the end of the lockout and the beginning of spring training. Shortly after Showalter returns, the Mets intend to bring in about 50 of their non-40-man roster minor leaguers for an Instructional League-type camp prior to the actual minor league camp beginning in early March.

That will allow Showalter time with a bunch of the organization’s better prospects (yep, he already has studied the four farmhands from his alma mater, Mississippi State) and further familiarize himself with the employees and facility in St. Lucie.

“We have been given somewhat of a gift that we have a little extra time,” Showalter said the morning after that initial tour. “Billy and I would be with the players now. You can’t do that. What are you going to do, sit around and wait? Or are you trying to do something else? There was a quote I heard in college, ‘What are you doing to try to win today?’ Is it the great relationship you started with the trainer you just met? Or maybe you walk the fields and that helps you make a good decision. There’s little battles you can win along the way. …

“You have a unique opportunity to touch some things because you have time you normally wouldn’t. Use the time wisely.”

Making up for lost time

Billy Eppler at the Mets' spring training facility.
Billy Eppler at the Mets’ spring training facility.
Corey Sipkin

The time has been bizarre this offseason. Fast and slow. Busy and less rushed. The Mets started behind. They needed a head of baseball operations, a manager and most of a coaching staff. For the second straight offseason, Cohen encountered roadblocks and frustrations that prevented him from even talking to many desirable executive candidates. So he again tabled the idea of a president of baseball operations and focused on a GM.

In mid-November, Eppler was hired. He initially held off on a managerial search to focus upon roster building, namely free agency, because of the strong likelihood a lockout would be ordered after the collective bargaining agreement expired Dec. 1. There was a tacit free-agent deadline and, thus, a frenzy, in which the Mets signed Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, Starling Marte and — on a record per-annum pact — Max Scherzer, before commissioner Rob Manfred halted the action.

At that point, Eppler shifted his focus back to finding a manager. Showalter was named in mid-December, followed by a piece-by-piece hiring of a near brand-new coaching staff.

What can’t be done now is adding to the major league roster — conversations are not allowed with teams or representatives for trades or free agency. A gusher of activity will be on the horizon when the lockout ends. Each team will have to complete their rosters with major and minor league signings and trades, ensure foreign players have secured their visas to get back into the country and into spring training, catch up with injury-rehabbing players who are currently not under the care of clubs, plus deal with arbitration, handle the Rule 5 draft and incorporate any new rules and COVID-19 protocols.

Buck Showalter (right) speaks with VP of Minor League Facilities, Paul Taglieri (left) and Ronny Reyes, Director of Minor League Operations.
Buck Showalter (right) speaks with VP of Minor League Facilities, Paul Taglieri (left) and Ronny Reyes, Director of Minor League Operations.
Corey Sipkin

Most organizations will have the muscle memory and cohesion of heads of baseball operations and managers who have previously gone through these cycles together (albeit not all at once). Eppler and Showalter have not done this together, or with the entrenched part of the still-present Mets hierarchy. Thus, they are not treating this as a calm before the storm. They started way behind on the baseball calendar this offseason. So they want to maximize what they could do as part of the catch-up.

“There are 225 employees in baseball operations and I haven’t met every one of them yet,” Eppler said. “I haven’t been to our academy in the Dominican Republic. I would like to go there. I’d like to integrate into our amateur scouting meetings quickly because we are going to have a lot of draft picks [five before the third round]. I am going to have more attention in that area while continuing to have Zooms with Buck and staff about spring training scenarios and dates and number of personnel and how we are going to do meetings. We have all of the infrastructure of processes. That is where we are spending time right now.”

Last week, that took Eppler and Showalter to Port St. Lucie. Because that was a place to play catch-up.

Obsessing over obsessing

Showalter knows his reputation. He recognizes that the attention to detail makes him appealing to some and aggravating to others. Even he conceded: “I can be a little much, I think. I don’t have an off-button.”

In 1996, he was hired to manage the expansion Diamondbacks two years before they even played a game and he believed his mission statement was to have a major say (if not the only say) on everything from team colors to cutoff plays.

But eventually the power base of the organization, in particular, expressed frustration with what was portrayed as having too much influence in too many places. That complaint has not been uncommon from any of Showalter’s four managerial stints before the Mets. Showalter is obsessed with winning and believes there are victories in the finer points. But sometimes those finer points have not fallen into areas of his responsibility, sometimes how much bandwidth he can expend on all of that has worn even his organizational fans down, sometimes the passion and intensity that make him attractive for the job have become too hot.

So, part of his obsession these days is about presentation, about making sure the messenger does not overwhelm the message, about prioritizing what elements he believes would foster a winning environment. A few times he has stressed he has no desire to swerve into lanes outside his purview and also how much of a mistake it would be to come into any position and believe there are not already quality people working there.

Buck Showalter
Buck Showalter in his office at the Mets’ spring training facility in Port St. Lucie.
Corey Sipkin

On his flight to Florida, Showalter read a profile of Shaquille O’Neal and was struck that the former NBA star said he “had 15 summers left” before he would be too old to have the same energy, health and drive to pursue his passions. Showalter is 65, the same age O’Neal will be in 15 years. He circled the quote, showed it to a visitor because it was making him think about the number of summers remained for him as a major league manager and he did not want to lose focus that the key is making the job easier for others, not tougher.

“The minutiae. I know what is minutiae and I know what is important,” he said. “It’s an old thing, you are not paranoid. You are alert. I am alert to that.

“You evolve,” Showalter continued about his style. “There is a time to push. And there is a time to say, ‘There will be a better time to address that.’ … I hate the word anal [in describing attention to details from micro to macro]. Why are we doing that in that way? Everything has to be about how does this get us closer to being the last team standing?”

‘Function and flow’

And so that is how Showalter engaged with his journey, trying to find more wins on those 100 acres. He really missed being part of a team with a common purpose the past three years, since he was fired as Orioles manager. So, he was happy to find a like mind in Eppler, elated that the facility was so much better than it was in his memory bank from his days as a visiting manager. He said the facility, as is, will be an asset to winning. Nevertheless — and, of course — Showalter made a list of what could be improved short term and long, what would be doable and what would be in the pipe-dream category.

Before he even stepped on the field, Showalter wanted to know who hired the head of the grounds crew (the team or the town), how long that grounds-crew head had been on the job and where in the facility his office was located. None of that is frivolous to the Mets manager. Showalter said one of his daydreams used to be that his retirement would include being on a lawnmower heading a grounds crew because he believes that job is like that of a third-base coach or head of strength and conditioning, that caring for and shaping a facility properly will impact success and failure.

If there are two words that consume Showalter as he navigates the sprawl, they are: “flow” and “function.” He wants to limit wandering, confusion. For example, every field and half-field and quarter-field has a number. The four in the back are marked 4-5-6-7. But those are the first ones encountered by minor leaguers exiting their clubhouse a few football fields away from the major league area. Showalter imagined a nervous kid new to the system, in many cases someone with limited English skills, and wants to see those numbered 1 through 4. Take the numbers off the half- and quarter-fields — it is obvious what they are to sight, plus one of the half-fields is designated for the majors and one for the minors. Flow. Function.

He observed the lack of distance signs on outfield walls on these back fields and felt players need them for judgment and for better positioning perspective. He noted that the practice baserunning is done on turf to address wear and tear. But the major league season will mean dirt. Practice on what you will play on is among his mantras.

New York Mets manager Buck Showalter is interviewed
Buck Showalter
Corey Sipkin

Showalter hates having bullpens next to a playing field, as is the case on Clover’s main field. It is a health hazard for fielders converging for pop-ups in an area that includes a raised slope of the mound, and for the players stationed there.

During their facility walk-through, Showalter and Eppler, nearly at the same time, noticed a recess from the left-field wall to the scoreboard. They wander behind the fence, note the distance is good enough to build a bullpen. Showalter raised concerns about the acoustics out of the scoreboard. They looked toward left-center, where the same gap exists. A plan was put in motion — if not for this year, then soon.

Showalter and Eppler both tested the padding on the outfield wall for give, thickness, potential protection. Showalter noted that the padding at Citi Field was redone to make it 6-inches thick and said: “I can’t wait for the first player to moan they didn’t get a home run because of the dimensions. I am going to tell them, ‘Hey, we made it 6 inches shorter.’ ”

That is how the near-hour went. Indoors and out. Trying to understand why something was done the way it was done. What are these rows of pictures? They are all those homegrown players who played for both the St. Lucie Mets (who use this facility) and the New York Mets. Why 10 warm-up mounds when that many pitchers never warm simultaneously? Wouldn’t four or five plus a flat mound and half-mound for injury rehab mean less work for the crew tending this?

Which field to stretch on allows the shortest distance to practice? Is the weight room lighting bright enough? Are all the clocks and timers in the facility set to local, not military, time and synchronized so that personnel are moving at the same time from one station to the next?

“One of the things about creating good baseball functionality is flow,” Showalter said not long before his return home. “I went back out by myself with the sun going down so I know what that looks like. I want to know the place because the presentation to players is important. I don’t want to present something and then the ensuing drill is three fields away. … The flow of the drills. The little things that save you two minutes here, two minutes there. Time is valuable.”

Lesson No. 1

Yep, Showalter went back out by himself late Thursday afternoon because he had time, and time is valuable. He had seen the complex in the morning; now he took a golf cart to do it all again: To observe where the sun fields are later in the day. To go through what a visiting team will experience, from where the bus will park, through the clubhouse and onto the field. To make mental notes to add atop the previous notes about direction of winds — anything that might help with a direction toward wins.

He learned the next day that he had taken Cohen’s golf cart. Curious, Showalter asked the person who informed him how to know it was Cohen’s. “They are numbered and that is No. 1.”

Another detail learned about the new facility. Showalter began to laugh. “Well, I know not to use that one again.”

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