BALTIMORE — Understand that this is all fleeting, and that what happened Monday has little bearing on what happens Wednesday, when the Baltimore Orioles play next, much less as the summer wears on and Opening Day slips into the past, more minor blip than main event. There will be a time, perhaps soon, when Joey Rickard will, in fact, be able to contain his smile. Because this is baseball, there will be a time when he won’t be able to muster one.
But for now, with the season brand new, take a couple of tiny little moments from a Monday at Camden Yards, because they can only happen once in a career. The factors that will impact the Orioles’ season more directly — a lineup that banged out 10 hits, right-hander Chris Tillman looking impressive in a rain-shortened start, Matt Wieters’s return to health and his walk-off single — will be parsed time and again over 161 more games.
For now, take away this: Joey Rickard is a big leaguer.
“I don’t know what that really feels like,” Rickard said.
Some advice: Let it wash over you, because it certainly doesn’t always feel like this, like Monday, when he played in his first major league game, when he singled in his first at-bat then doubled in his second and goodness gracious maybe someone will hit 1.000 for a career. He is listed at 6 feet 1 but couldn’t possibly be that tall. It says 185 pounds on the roster, but that must be holding a bat loaded up with three donuts. He was snapped up in the Rule 5 draft by the Orioles because the Tampa Bay Rays didn’t have room for him.
This is an Opening Day story, because running through a gate in the center field fence down an orange carpet for introductions, listening to the anthem belted out to 45,000-plus, knowing your family sat in the stands, celebrating Wieters’s hit on the field with major league millionaires after a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins — when and how, exactly, can that be recreated? On Monday, Bryce Harper hit his first homer of the season and could be nonchalant about it, because there are more to come. Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw won games, and their seasons are now rolling. Normal course of business. They know what lies ahead.
This? Rickard began last year with Montgomery of the Class AA Southern League. “What are they?” his manager, Buck Showalter, wondered. “The Biscuits?” Indeed, and when the logo on your cap includes a pad of melting butter, there’s no mistaking: You’re not in the majors. Even at 24, playing with prospects, considering yourself one, the majors — and a day like Monday — can seem a long way off.
“You always picture it, in a way,” Rickard said. “But you never really know the feelings and the emotions that come along with it. Just looking up and seeing the whole crowd and the fans and the stadium just roaring, it was definitely something special and something that I’ll never forget.”
He said this to a bank of cameras and microphones in front of his locker in the home clubhouse at Camden Yards, where the routine postgame spread trumps the best meals of the Southern League. He said it after his second-inning single off Twins right-hander Ervin Santana, a veteran. Showalter called for the ball.
It started to rain. The tarp came out.
“I was asking: If we got rained out after two innings,” Showalter said, “does he have to give the ball back?”
They started to play again, and Rickard drilled a double to right off Ryan Pressly. He scored the Orioles’ first run of the season. When he came up in the sixth with one on and one out, the crowd — get this — started chanting his name.
How do you handle that moment? He grew up in Las Vegas, home town of Harper and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, and played collegiately at Arizona. But nothing like this. He turned and gave a little wave of acknowledgement.
“I like the fact that he wasn’t trying to be too cool about it,” Showalter said. “You could tell there was a lot of emotion today with it. But he stayed under control.”
Seemed that way, at least.
“On the outside, I might have looked calm,” Rickard said. “On the inside, my heart was racing a little bit.”
Before the Orioles broke camp in Sarasota, Fla., Showalter met with several of his core players as a group, asking them if anybody felt he had to hit in a certain spot. He made up three lineup cards before Monday’s opener, tinkering around with various orders, different roles and flows. Each time, though, he included Rickard’s name. He thought about hitting him second, because he can put the bat on the ball and move runners along, but that would have given the Twins the option to pitch around MVP candidate Manny Machado, the unconventional choice to lead off. Rickard, too, might become a leadoff man — it’s his ceiling, though there’s no way to know now if he’ll reach it — but not now. Not yet.
“I’d rather promote guys as the season goes on instead of demote ’em,” Showalter said. “I know where I’d like to get eventually, but we’ll see if that works out. I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves and get ahead in the process.”
So the process begins with Rickard hitting ninth, playing left. An offer to change anything about Monday would probably be declined, even the 95 mph fastball he took from reliever Trevor May in the eighth. The first two major league hits can come along with the first major league strikeout. The reality of Rickard’s situation is in there somewhere, not 2 for 4 every night, but not overmatched, either.
“That’s Game 1 out of 162,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “Got to move on to Game 2, and see what he does again.”
But put that off till Wednesday. Let this kind of moment, something unique to Opening Day, linger and last. Fans, who have never seen you, chanting your name?
“They’re all waiting to embrace you,” Showalter said. “You just got to give them something to embrace you about. It’s your responsibility, not theirs.”
For a day, at the start of a career no one can predict, Joey Rickard embraced that responsibility. Let tomorrow be tomorrow, because today can’t be relived or replaced.