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A Birdland Salute for Caleb Joseph

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Caleb Joseph signed with the Diamondbacks, and so another link to the recent great Orioles teams is gone.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Orioles parted ways with Caleb Joseph last November when they did not tender him a 2019 contract. Until he signed elsewhere, there was some slim hope for a reunion. On Wednesday, he got the MLB contract he wanted, inking a deal with the Diamondbacks. With his departure, one more link to the great 2012-14 Orioles is severed. Only Chris Davis remains from the 2014 division winners.

There was just something special about that team. We can only hope to get to see another Orioles team that’s special in a different way some time in the future. The blend of personalities, of stars, of unlikely performers and characters on the fringes, it all made for a magic ride, worth fondly remembering all the more with the current state of the team. The good times were never guaranteed. As fans, we’re lucky we got them for as long as we did.

Joseph was an easy person to root for almost as soon as he was drafted by the Orioles in the seventh round of the 2008 draft out of Lipscomb University in his home state of Tennessee. At the time, any catcher entering the system was naturally buried behind can’t-miss mega-prospect Matt Wieters. Joseph, in an interview that’s been lost to the depths of the Internet but never forgotten in my memory, addressed that with charming self-deprecation: “Somebody has to be Matt Wieters’s backup.”

Somebody did. That somebody was not Joseph, at least not initially. The Orioles left him buried at Double-A Bowie from 2010-13 in favor of seldom-used backups while Wieters played at practically ironman levels - for a catcher. Even once Joseph’s bat seemed to come alive after a few chances at the level, including a 22 home run season in 2013, the O’s brain trust of the time gave Joseph little credit as part of a solution even on a backup basis. There were vague statements about his defense holding him back.

In the 2014 season, opportunity finally arrived. When Wieters turned out to need Tommy John surgery in early May, the Orioles turned to Joseph to be part of the stopgap solution. At the age of 27, six years after being drafted, deep enough into a minor league career to think about giving up on baseball, Joseph got his chance as an MLB player.

A dispassionate observer looking at Joseph’s final 2014 season batting line would surely think me crazy to have any fond feeling for a player who batted .207/.264/.354 across his debut season. It’s nothing special to look at, and it’s not even like Joseph started off hot to make a great first impression, because at the end of his first month, he sported a .251 OPS.

The minor league toiling seemed to have paid off in one way: Joseph developed defensively, enough that the O’s decided to roll with him as the starter even if he wasn’t hitting much. The starting rotation was mostly thriving and the team was winning games.

Joseph’s bat came alive eventually, with a streak of five straight games with a home run in early August. The fifth of those games was the Orioles 60th anniversary celebration, when the O’s blew out the Cardinals, 10-3 and for one night it seemed like the most natural thing in the world that the Orioles were going to go on and win the World Series that year.

From his antics impersonating coaches and managers to his fondness for air-drumming and high-fiving nonexistent fans in the empty stadium on the day the Orioles played in the aftermath of the 2015 riots in Baltimore, it was just hard not to like the guy. This is a different kind of like than what you might have for a perennial All-Star player on your favorite team.

In a “Fact or Fiction” Jumbotron segment, one fact turned out to be that Joseph was in an art class in high school with Kesha. He deadpanned, “She was better than I was.” This fact delights me to this day. So did Joseph’s standard line after getting a big hit: “Kid’s gotta eat.”

When Joseph had struggles, like in 2016 when he landed on the disabled list with testicular torsion in the midst of a season where he ultimately batted in zero runs in 49 games, you had to feel for him as well. That is not the kind of history that any fan wanted any Orioles player to make.

Joseph may well have provided the saddest anecdote about the dismantling of the Orioles last July, as well. In an ESPN article from September, he described the aftermath of the trades from the perspective of his three-year-old son: “My kid (Walker) was the only one in child care. He lost his friends. ... (He’s) asking, ‘Where’s (Manny Machado’s wife) Yainee? Where’s Yainee?’” Even thinking about this today is bumming me out. Moving along.

Any baseball player who makes it to MLB is better at baseball than you or I will ever be at any job, but as much as someone who’s at that level is capable of being one, Joseph just seemed like an everyman kind of guy. That’s as Birdland as it gets.

The good players are gone, and the fun players like Joseph are gone too. If the season plays out in such a way that the Diamondbacks end up as contenders, it will be easy to hope for them to have some success as long as Joseph is a part of it.

Caleb was drafted. He played. He is Birdland. We may never see his like again.