Jordan Westburg on playing for Buck Britton: “He meant everything"

Former Orioles closer Zack Britton didn’t pitch this summer after failing to reach agreement on a free-agent contract, providing him with the opportunity to spend more time with a family that’s grown to include four children ranging in age from nine to two. And to more easily follow along on his older brother’s journey to a Triple-A championship.

He knew that Buck Britton was wired to coach and manage. That the short-circuiting of the former infielder’s playing career wasn’t the end of his baseball life.

It was just the beginning.

The Tides set a franchise record with 90 victories, won their first International League title since 1985 and secured their first Triple-A crown since 1983.  Britton was selected as the league’s Manager of the Year, following his award in 2019 with Double-A Bowie. He’s 164-135 in two seasons with Norfolk and 381-312 in five years in the Orioles’ system, beginning in 2018 at Single-A Delmarva.

The gig fits like a fielder’s glove.

“Typically, we talked every day, even when I was playing,” said Zack Britton, who spent parts of eight seasons with the Orioles and was 47-for-47 in save opportunities in 2016. “We’d touch base, see what’s going on with both of us. But this year I was able to track Norfolk, especially toward the end of the season because I was really interested to see the playoffs, and then I wanted him to go to that national title game and win. I thought that would have been really cool, and I know he wanted it. My parents watch every single game online of the Tides when he's managing.”

Buck Britton was a 35th-round draft pick by the Orioles in 2008 who never got past Triple-A. He finished in the Twins’ system in 2016 and began the next phase of his career. The one that could allow him to shatter his baseball ceiling.

“I was hopeful that he would play in the big leagues, and there were a couple times where I was like, ‘Man, it’s gonna happen this year,’ and it just never did,” said Zack Britton. “He was never on a 40-man and all the other stuff. But (former manager) Buck Showalter was the one who actually mentioned it to me. He was like, ‘I feel like your brother is going to be a major league manager,’ and I was like, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I can just tell.’

“The one thing with Showalter, I always felt like he was good at identifying something before it happened, and he was spot on. He talked to my brother, I remember, in September when we were playing the Rays. My brother’s season was over and he was living in Sarasota and (Showalter) had him come into the clubhouse, and they sat and talked in Showalter’s office for an hour or so, and that was kind of it. My brother stopped playing and he went right into coaching.

“I think Showalter had identified that, too. Like, ‘Hey, you want to manage in the big leagues? The sooner you can get into coaching, the sooner you’ll get to be a major league coach.’ And I think that’s right around the corner for my brother. After everything he’s done, he’s a major league coach at this stage. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity wherever it is.”

The Orioles made the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and won their first division title since ’14. Brandon Hyde is the favorite to claim his own managerial award. He appreciated the work done a level below and how it influenced his own club.

“Buck did a great job,” Hyde said. “Communicated with him quite a bit throughout the season. Obviously, we've had a lot of players come up from Norfolk come up and produce and help us when they got here. The Triple-A staff has done an outstanding job.”

The informal testimonials were easy to collect in the clubhouse and dugout. Britton, recipient of the Cal Ripken Sr. Player Development Award, impressed everyone.

“He meant everything,” said rookie infielder Jordan Westburg. “I think Buck is one of, if not my favorite managers so far coming up through professional baseball. I got to spend 2021 with him in Bowie and then I got to spend parts of 2022 and the entire first half of 2023 with him, so I’ve got a lot of experience with Buck. I love him as a manager. I think he’s great for young guys, I think he’s great for old guys. I think he keeps the clubhouse light but also pushes guys and knows when to be hard on some guys.

“I can’t say enough good about Buck Britton, so I could make this a long-winded answer. I just love that guy, I think the world of him, and it’s no surprise that every team he’s coached has had success and had young guys and old guys kind of turn the corner and revamp their careers and find their footing in professional baseball. I don’t think that’s a surprise.”

Outfielder Heston Kjerstad, the second-overall pick in the 2020 draft, joined the Orioles during the second week of September and celebrated Norfolk’s championship from afar.

“Very super pumped for everybody on that squad and all the staff and everything,” he said. “It’s a great group of guys and a lot of them have been up here this year. It’s really cool to see them do that. And the head of it all is Buck Britton.

“He’s a great manager. He takes care of you. He gets to know you as a player, but also gets to know you as a person. He does really well managing the team day to day and making sure you stay locked in and focusing on the main goal, but also remind you to have fun, enjoy it, understand the process, keep working, and also enjoy who you’re around and who’s in the locker room with you and to have a good time.”

The Orioles optioned left-hander Cole Irvin after only three starts and he made multiple trips on the shuttle. He hadn’t pitched at Triple-A since 2019.

“Buck can definitely be a major league manager. No question,” Irvin said.

“Without a doubt, he knows how to handle a clubhouse - young guys, older guys. He lets them compete, and he’s just incredible in terms of keeping guys’ heads on straight offensively and calming guys down after maybe some bad outings on the mound. I had a couple good conversations with him in Buffalo after another poor outing that I had. But it was just more so reminding guys that they’re there and you don’t know when you’re going to be needed, and this playoff run is important to the big league club, and just keep your head on straight and keep going.

“Buck’s done an incredible job with the guys down there. I saw he won an award for (player development) and he is most certainly deserving. I don’t know much about the other managers but how he handled that Norfolk roster with the guys coming in and out and with the amount of games they were able to win over the course of the season, not even including the championship series, he is definitely most deserving of a conversation in a big league role someday, whenever that is. He’s an incredible manager. An incredible man as a whole. And he truly cares about every single one of the guys. He’s been very important to a lot of players, but also to the organization.”

The Orioles boast a farm system that receives top rankings from numerous outlets. Prospect lists are littered with players from the organization. But that doesn’t guarantee wins and championships.

“That’s a challenging job,” said Zack Britton, who last pitched for the Yankees in 2022 after recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery. “Now that I’ve played in the minors for a while and now in the majors leagues and kind of seeing two different organizations, how it works with the roster management, the talent is one thing. You’ve got to have some talented guys to win. But a lot of times that talent’s getting moved up and down. And especially when it comes down, and I’ve been that player that got sent down, you typically don’t get the best out of that player right away, and it takes a good manager to kind of sit you down and be like, ‘Hey, I get that you don’t want to be here, you want to be in the big leagues, but these are the steps that you’ve got to do to get back.’

“I know the best thing about my brother, because he did it with me when I was a guy struggling to establish myself in the big leagues and I had to go down to the minors, my brother was always really good at telling me the things that I needed to hear. Maybe not that I wanted, but I needed to hear to get refocused to get back. So, I knew he was going to be a good manager because of first-hand experience. He’s very selfless, and he had that grinder mentality as a player, and I think those are the best managers. Guys that understand what it takes, and maybe weren’t the most talented but would outwork everybody. And I think my brother has those traits.

“His ability to communicate has always been his strong suit, and I think the numbers are reflective of that, his career as a manager. Not just the talent they had in Norfolk, which was impressive, but you’ve got to have a good manager who can communicate with those young guys when things aren’t going their way and they’ve gotten sent down from the big leagues. That’s the big thing for Triple-A. But it also can really help a kid get back to the big leagues and stay. The Triple-A manager, pitching coach, hitting coach. Some long major league careers are made after once you come back down to the minors after struggling in the big leagues and those guys get you back on track.  It’s a tough job.”

It's also one that has changed over the years as the sport evolves.

“Obviously, the game is different than it was even 10 years ago,” said Zack Britton, “so it helps having a guy with a fresh mindset, I guess, more of a modern take of what teams are looking for and how to communicate with the younger generation player. The Jackson Hollidays, right? Those are the guys that my brother would be managing if he becomes a major league manager, that kind of age group. You’ve got to know how to communicate with those guys, because it’s different than communicating with a veteran guy like me. It’s a lot different. He does a good job with that.”

Britton is apprised of the kind words and endorsements for Buck that ring at a high volume. An entire industry is noticing.

“That’s always a good sign, too, when the players, they leave Triple-A and want to talk about him,” he said. “There are coaches to this day that I’ll talk about, too, that had an impact on you. I do think that’s right around the corner with him. Even with the Yankees and me just being around the game, other teams have always had those scouts who happen to tell me, ‘Oh yeah, I was in Norfolk and I saw your brother. He’s doing a great thing. I’ve heard nothing but great things.’ So, I know his name is out there.

“I’m looking forward to him getting that opportunity to coach at the major league level just because I know how hard he works. He didn’t get there as a player but I know he’s going to get there as a coach. And then, if he gets the chance to manage, the sky’s the limit.

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