There’s a lifeline running from Norfolk, Virginia, to Baltimore, Maryland, along the I-95 corridor, and it’s a win-win for the Baltimore Orioles Major League Baseball team and its fans. That lifeline is the continuous loop of talent making its way from our very own Mermaid City—home to the Orioles Triple A affiliate, the Norfolk Tides Minor League Baseball team—to Charm City, as players move up through baseball’s “farm system” to the Major Leagues.
These newly minted athletes played a significant role in the miraculous rise of the Orioles from the “most unlikely playoff contender” in Major League Baseball history, according to Sports Illustrated, to a chance at the American League crown in 2022. Many of these players were familiar to Norfolk Tides fans from their tenure at Harbor Park.
The 2022 Orioles season, defined by enthusiasm, determination and fun, had the makings of a Hollywood movie as the O’s came from out of nowhere to contend for a Wild Card berth in the American League East, traditionally dominated by The New York Yankees and other top teams.
Each year, players are sent back and forth between Norfolk and Baltimore as their performance and health fluctuate. Tides fans have followed the fledgling careers of many of these current Orioles—like Ryan Mountcastle, whose souvenir bobblehead arrived at Tides Stadium after he’d already graduated to “the bigs.”
Many fans make the trip to Baltimore to enjoy games at Camden Yards, considered one of baseball’s finest parks and the model for numerous “retro”-style parks that followed it. The Tides’ Harbor Park in Norfolk, with its beautiful waterside location, was designed by the same architects who created Camden Yards.
In 2022, those fans were treated to a team turnaround like few—if any—in MLB history. After losing 110 games in 2021, the Orioles posted a winning season in 2022, a comeback feat not achieved since the St. Louis Perfectos back in 1899.
“How in the world are these guys doing it?” wrote Tom Verducci in Sports Illustrated in 2022. “One common explanation has surfaced for this season: ‘Oriole Magic,’ the verbal equivalent of throwing your hands up in surrender to finding any semblance of logic.”
Leading up to that turnaround were years of “rebuilding,” a painful period of record-breaking losses leading to fan frustration and resentment while the team traded away assets and avoided investing in stars.
The process was the brainchild of General Manager Mike Elias who never wavered from his vision of developing the team through high draft picks, strategic acquisitions and development of the farm system. Manager Brandon Hyde faced the brunt of media and pundit criticism with a combination of toughness and patience while guiding his young players with a steady hand.
The result? Heading into 2023, both the Orioles and the Tides see a bright horizon. Baseball America magazine named the Orioles’ the number one farm system in the American League for 2023. In the past 15 years, its number one pick has gone on to 13 World Series appearances with five of them winning the title. To understand how they got there, it helps to rewind.
Dugout Days in Prime Time
The atmosphere in the Baltimore Orioles dugout back in late August of 2022 was both playful and deadly serious. The players were wearing workout t-shirts that featured an angry, aggressive-looking oriole standing, wings at its “hips,” ready to do battle, not the usual smiling oriole.
During batting practice before a game with the Chicago White Sox, a circle of players had formed around relief pitcher Felix Bautista, a huge, powerful presence sitting on the back of the bench, appearing Buddha-like as the players traded stories and observations.
Signed by the Orioles in 2016, Bautista’s commanding size earned him the nickname “The Mountain.” During the 2022 season, he developed an aura of being un-hittable, even emerging from the bullpen to the sound of the ominous “Omar whistle” from The Wire.
Alongside Bautista in the dugout that day was lively, wiry Cionel Perez, rising young relief pitcher, wearing fishnet black compression tights. Part of an international clubhouse, Bautista is Dominican and Perez is Cuban, the lion and the lynx plotting the season’s climax.
Meanwhile, right fielder Austin Hays took a break by the watercooler, and catcher Adley Rutschman emerged from the clubhouse, glove in hand, crouching on the steps before heading out to catch pitchers. On the field, Mountcastle fielded grounders and perfected his move to second, time and time again, under a coach’s guidance.
Later, sitting in the dugout, Mountcastle seemed intent on his thoughts as he stared straight ahead. Asked the meaning of the playful move he made after hitting a homer, sticking a finger inside the edge of his mouth like a child making a face, he quietly replied, “Oh, it’s something the kids do these days.”
All Work and Plenty of Play
These players and many others would become part of a David & Goliath and “Little Engine that Could” kind of story—a narrative exhibiting values of brotherhood, determination teamwork and faith. They were exceeding all expectations at the highest level of a demanding, extremely competitive and high-profile occupation. They were playing the game their way—and doing it with the glee of school kids.
These are same guys who looked through imaginary goggles, formed by their hands, at their teammates in the dugout every time they reached a base and began putting a gold-colored chain around the neck of every player who hit a home run—the idea of an innovative fan.
Soon, look-alike chains were being sold at the ballpark and worn by fans young and old. One player even purchased a huge pro wrestling championship belt to be presented in the clubhouse to teammates judged to have contributed most to each victory. The team chose Mountcastle as designated presenter.
The team spirit on the field regularly spilled over to the clubhouse, where the walls were known to reverberate with the beat of loud music and revelry. An article in The Baltimore Sun described the clubhouse after a game the O’s won by 15 runs as having “the fog machine and strobe lights working at full strength, turning it into a misty room of celebration.”
Stepping Up to the Proverbial Plate
In the midst of the celebrations there was loss. Pitcher John Means, a 2021 All Star who threw a no-hitter one wild play short of being a perfect game that year, was starting pitcher of the opening game of the 2022 season but was soon sidelined for UCL reconstruction or “Tommy John” surgery. Though, as of press time for this article, Means’ return appeared likely for the 2023 season.
Later in the 2022 season, during the team’s Wild Card chase, Trey Mancini, the team’s legitimate star and clean-up hitter, and the O’s “closer,” pitcher Jorge Lopez, found themselves in a position where front office baseball logic and algorithms led to them being traded. Mancini’s high profile, consistency, leadership and support of younger players had helped forge the season’s success. Though both players were sorely missed, their teammates chose to take the departures as a challenge.
The Orioles leaped from 24th in defensive runs saved to ninth. Infielders Jorge Mateo and Ramon Urias both won Gold Gloves. The Orioles were 16–24 when they called up top-ranked prospect, catcher Adley Rutschman, from the Tides. After that, they went 51–36, the third best record in the league, and Rutschman was the 10th American League rookie catcher ever to have an OPS (on-base plus slugging) percentage better than .800—”the rare rookie that teammates look to in big spots,” as Sports Illustrated noted.
At that time in the season, things were at trigger point. The O’s had defeated the White Sox the night before and were 2.5 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners for the top Wild Card spot in the American League. The team was 84-58 and had, amazingly, eclipsed its win total for each of the last three seasons.
Their .606 winning percentage since June 1 was the third-best in the American League and seventh-best in the Major Leagues. The O’s had a 10-game winning streak from July 3-13, the longest since they won 13 in a row in 1999—in the days of Mike Mussina, Cal Ripken Jr. and Albert Belle. More than that, they were then 13-7 for the first 20 days of August, tied for first in the American League and fourth in the Majors.
Shortstop Jorge Mateo was a key component in their surge, batting .294 with nine doubles, four triples, six home runs, 27 runs scored, 25 RBI, nine walks and nine stolen bases since July 1, 2022. Cedric Mullins, a starter on the American League All Stars in 2021, was considered “Steady Ceddy” in 2022, hitting safely in 14 of 17 games in August. Also, top prospects Kyle Stowers and Gunnar Henderson came up swinging from Norfolk, especially Henderson who played like a seasoned pro.
MASN Orioles broadcaster Kevin Brown said in a dugout interview, “the players have stepped up, happy to be here, caring for each other, with a perfect mix of old and young, the older players taking important leadership roles.”
Of Math and “Oriole Magic”
About Baltimore’s remarkable emergence from the ashes, Evan Habeeb of USA TODAY Sports wrote: “But if this unprecedented season has taught us anything, it is to remind us why we love baseball. We don’t love baseball because we know the percentages. We love it because of those times when a player or team defies them. We live not for the known but for the surprises. We live not for algorithms but for explanations as goofy as ‘Oriole Magic.’”
The 2022 Orioles baseball season was one in a million, and the team’s outlook has substantially improved in 2023, with a stable full of thoroughbreds developing right here in Norfolk. Perhaps 2023 will be another miracle year. If enthusiasm, determination and belief have anything to do with it, the Orioles, as well as the Tides, will make the effort one well worth watching.
“It’s an exciting time at Harbor Park,” says John Stanley, Norfolk Tides director of communications. “It’s totally fresh, and the older players are supportive of the young guys, even while some of the older guys are still trying to get up. It’s the youngest AAA team in the league. Tides players follow their teammates progress when they go up to the Orioles, watching O’s games from the clubhouse. They razz teammates gaining recognition, like having bobble heads made of them. The young guys have fire in them.”