With no more bullpens to throw, Darren O’Day finally has time to garden.
The former Orioles pitcher’s new hobby was always something he had an interest in but was unable to find the time to do during his playing days.
“It’s my post-retirement workout,” O’Day said with a laugh as he shoveled soil into a wheelbarrow for his vegetable garden, which he plans to fill with broccoli, cauliflower, onions and carrots, at his home in Atlanta.
O’Day, 40, retired from baseball on Monday after a 15-year career in the major leagues. The submariner had his best seasons in an Orioles uniform, pitching in Baltimore from 2012 to 2018 and earning an All-Star Game nod in 2015. He finished his career, mostly spent as a setup man and middle reliever, with a 2.59 ERA and 21 saves in 609 innings.
“There are too many favorite memories to just pick one,” O’Day said. “But one of them, the loudest moment of my career, was when Delmon [Young] hit that double against Detroit [in the 2014 ALDS]. I’ve never heard a sound that loud. It was outrageous.”
O’Day, who was a walk-on at the University of Florida and an undrafted free agent, bounced around with the Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets and Texas Rangers before being claimed off waivers by Baltimore. In 374 1/3 innings with the Orioles, he had a 2.40 ERA and a 0.994 WHIP. His best seasons came in 2014 and 2015 when he posted sub-2.00 ERAs.
His time with the Orioles saw him become a key member of a surprise team in 2012, an anchor for one of baseball’s best bullpens a couple years later and, finally, as part of the trade that initiated the franchise’s rebuild in 2018.
“It was a tough goodbye,” he said about being traded along with starter Kevin Gausman to the Braves at the 2018 deadline. “What made it easier for me to leave Baltimore was I knew everyone else was leaving and that it wasn’t going to be the same.”
The 2018 season was the unofficial start of the organization’s rebuild, as the Orioles finished 47-115 after selling at the deadline. The team then lost 108 games in 2019, finished below-.500 in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign and lost 110 more contests in 2021. But 2022 marked a shift for the club, as the Orioles defied the expectation of being one of the worst teams in baseball to finish 83-79 and just a few games out of a wild-card spot.
“It’s very exciting,” O’Day said about the Orioles’ trajectory on the other side of the reboot. “We were lagging pretty far behind in all the advanced metrics that most the teams use when I was there. We kind of just won with talent and with attention to detail. Now, it’s become pretty apparent that advanced statistical analysis is a big part of baseball. We didn’t have much of that.
“For [Orioles executive vice president and general manager] Mike [Elias] to come in and modernize that system has been great, and at the same time to stockpile a bunch of talent. That’s what they’ll have to do to compete with the big boys in that division.”
O’Day has experience being on a surprise team that succeeded despite no expectations, as the 2012 Orioles won 93 games — 23 more than FanGraphs’ preseason projection. The Orioles made the postseason for the first time since 1997 but lost in five games to the Yankees in the ALDS.
“That’s one of my favorite seasons,” O’Day said. “We were kind of like a band of misfits.”
“To bring winning baseball back to a city with such a rich baseball tradition after such a long drought is the part of that season that I’m most proud of,” he added.
Unlike last season, though, the 2023 Orioles have expectations. They’re not sky-high, especially playing in the American League East, but even Elias said the goal is to make the playoffs this year.
O’Day, who was a member of the 2010 Rangers club that went to the World Series as well as the 2014 Orioles and 2020 Braves teams that went to league championship series, said playing with expectations is much different than the relaxed nature of being an underdog.
“That culture of expectations is completed by the players in the clubhouse, taking ownership,” O’Day said. “It’s not just being there to make money or establish yourself, it’s about deciding ‘I want to win.’ If you have a group of young players, they can figure that out themselves. But if you bring in the right grizzly old veterans that have been on winning teams and know what it takes to win, they help manage those winning expectations for the younger guys.”
After two seasons in Atlanta, O’Day played for the Yankees in 2021 and pitched three times against the Orioles. He knew some of the players, like Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle, as they were minor leaguers at spring training during O’Day’s last couple years in Baltimore.
“Facing these guys in the big leagues was a lot different than facing them when they were in the minor leagues,” O’Day said. “… You could see the talent, but it just wasn’t a finished product. Now facing them, it’s a nightmare. I don’t want to face Cedric Mullins, ever. Facing guys like that is why I’m at home now. It’s not fun. You can throw your best pitch, he’ll spoil it, then you make a mistake, he’s gonna nail it.”
O’Day never overlapped with catcher Adley Rutschman, who was the No. 1 overall pick by the Orioles after the last-place 2018 campaign, but he said having a young backstop with that talent “makes the whole team better.”
“I didn’t know Adley at all, but a young catcher with that kind of feel for the game — pitch calling, defense, and he can obviously hit, which is just icing on the cake,” O’Day said. “… That one guy is going to make a huge difference.”
So, as the Orioles and the other five big league teams he played for in his career are making their way through a 162-game season this year, O’Day will be tending to his garden and spending time with his family — his wife, Elizabeth Prann, and their three kids (ages 8, 5 and 2).
“The No. 1 priority is going to be time with the family, just staying at home since I’ve been gone so long,” O’Day said. “Right now it’s just being a dad.”
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