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A Birdland Salute to Darren O’Day

The Orioles picked up Darren O’Day on waivers at a time when they didn’t even have a GM. He destroyed hitters for the next four years. O’s fans are lucky we got to see him for as long as we did.

Baltimore Orioles Photo Day
Some say this is the greatest spring training photo ever taken.
Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

The Orioles of recent years were a lot of fun to watch because they were so good. Something that made them even more fun is how their being good threw almost the entire baseball pundit industry for a loop as so many scrambled to downplay how the O’s could not possibly be so good because they did not look like the conventional wisdom of what a baseball team should look like.

Does any one player embody this more than Darren O’Day? As baseball is filled more and more with big, hard-throwing relievers who light up the radar gun, the Orioles found themselves a stalwart reliever with a funky side-arming motion whose success from 2012-15 is equal to or greater than just about any other reliever could ever achieve in the same time.

Pitchers aren’t supposed to succeed as side-armers! It’s just not done. And they’re definitely not supposed to succeed with a fastball that doesn’t even top 90 miles per hour. O’Day was able to do both of these things after a professional baseball career that began with O’Day not even being drafted. Almost no American players go from undrafted to MLB. It just doesn’t happen. Yet, again: O’Day.

He came to the Orioles from the Texas Rangers, having first spent time with the Angels and then, as a Rule 5 player, the Mets and Rangers. Despite two years where O’Day had a 1.94 ERA and 0.945 WHIP for Texas, they dumped him on waivers after the 2011 season, when he struggled.

The Orioles, in between the tenures of Andy MacPhail and Dan Duquette, still had someone paying attention to the waiver wire and they struck. There was nothing for a 69-93 team to lose in taking a player like that, after all. Like the end of Casablanca, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

In a 2012 bullpen of misfit toys, of failed starters and castoffs, O’Day might have been the oddest of the bunch. There are not many pitchers who have a peculiar enough arsenal to name a pitch after a softball player’s pitch. O’Day notoriously uses the “Jennie Finch” for great effect and it’s a big reason why despite his not having the absurd fastballs of other modern relievers, he was still able to end his Orioles career having struck out more than a batter per inning.

We got spoiled by the best version of O’Day being out there in the bullpen, plain and simple. As the hard-throwing guys have declining command to go along with spiking velocity, there O’Day was, walking just 14 batters in 67 innings in his first year as an Oriole. He put the ball in the zone and batters just could not hit it.

This was not any kind of one year aberration, either. The four-year stretch that began with his arrival in Baltimore saw O’Day strike out 283 batters in 263 innings, with just 62 walks allowed. That added up to a 0.939 WHIP and a 1.92 ERA. Relievers are so volatile that kind of sustained success does not happen - except with O’Day, it did.

Luckily for the O’s and their fans, this success coincided in part with brilliance from Brad Brach and especially Zach Britton. O’Day was around in the bullpen before both of them, but his being around as the middle part of the “BOB” trio was a key part of the division-winning Orioles of 2014.

Nearly all of the time this trio got involved at their peak, the game would be over with an O’s win, another poke in the eye of all the haters who discounted them as just playing over their heads.

Perhaps the Orioles did do that in O’Day’s tenure as an Oriole, but when the team makes the playoffs three times in five seasons “playing over their heads” while battling the AL East, maybe they were actually just playing good because they were a team with good players who were doing well at playing baseball. O’Day, one more unlikely success story on teams full of them, was a big part of that.

Little wonder that O’Day’s very appearance was enough to get the crowd chanting his name:

As the good times of the Buck Showalter era fade farther into memory and fewer things stand out, this is the kind of thing that will endure for those who got to experience it: A stadium full of O’s fans cheering for O’Day using the classic “Ole!” cadence, just so perfect for the reliever whose father made the decision to change the family name “Odachowski” - Polish in origin - to O’Day.

His time in Baltimore is linked inextricably not only to winning baseball but just to a general aura of fun and silliness. Hard to believe that the great Solowheel prank happened six years ago now, but it did:

They were some damn good times. Even after the struggles that O’Day started to encounter after the O’s signed him to a four-year contract when he was already 33 years old, O’Day still closed out his Orioles career with a WHIP under 1: A 0.994 across seven seasons here. Nobody does that! Except O’Day did.

The injuries O’Day started to suffer over the past three seasons were one more factor that led the O’s to go from the top of the division back down into the cellar. His O’s tenure ending while he was on the disabled list, thrown in as what appears to be a salary dump into an unrelated trade, was one more sad thing about the dismantling of a once-great O’s core.

He deserved a better send-off. Deserve, alas, had nothing to do with it. Do you have a favorite O’Day moment that wasn’t mentioned here? Feel free to drop it into the comments.

My favorite random little O’Day thing I discovered as I looked stuff up for this article: O’Day faced a total of eleven batters in the 2012 and 2016 wild card games. He got eleven outs. He was great, and for a while there, he was ours.

O’Day was claimed on waivers. He pitched. He is Birdland.

In the aftermath of the July 31 trades, there are just three Orioles remaining from the 2014 division-winning squad. Of the 2012 wild card winners... well, there are three of them too, but only if you count Dylan Bundy’s two games that season. Otherwise, that team is down to just two left here.