May 29, 2009
The First Coming
Los Angeles (BP)-No one has ever seen anything like this. No one, you have to think, ever will.
Unless he does it again next year.
Capping the greatest story in baseball history... no, sports history... the Baltimore Orioles became World Champions last night, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 11-1 to complete their sweep, and extend their winning streak to 129 games, a stretch that dates to May 25, four days before catcher Matt Wieters made his major league debut.
"Unbelievable," a champagne-soaked Nick Markakis said. The Orioles right fielder repeated the word, eyes glassy, jersey half-on, half soaked, wearing a black cap with the improbable words "2009 World Series Champions" stitched in orange. Markakis would have been the MVP of any other Series, with his .429 average, two home runs, and Game Three-saving catch in the right-field corner. In this one, though, his performance was a footnote.
No, it was the rookie catcher from Georgia Tech who took the hardware, the same way he's taken everything else from the day he arrived in Baltimore. Joining a last-place team whose goals were long-term, he played the kind of baseball last seen depicted by Robert Redford, with a dash of Bugs Bunny. Wieters hit three home runs in his major league debut, the last a majestic shot off of the warehouse to break a 9-9 tie in the 11th inning, making him a legend before he'd taken his first MLB shower.
"If he can top that, we'll have something." That was Brian Roberts' line in the postgame gaggle that night, the usual veteran taming of the rookie's ego. What we didn't know then was that Wieters would top it, first with a game-winning grand slam off of Mariano Rivera on July 21, then a 39-game hit streak that ended in controversy, when Joe Maddon intentionally walked Wieters in his last four plate appearances on September 14. Wieters' final stat line looked like something achieved using A and B buttons and a really good cheat code: .391/.520/.910, 31 homers in 312 at-bats, 81 walks, 38 intentional, including intentional walks in 13 straight games at one point.
Wieters' Strat card won't begin to describe his impact, though. He changed Orioles baseball, American League baseball, even the game itself. Every ticket in Camden Yards has been sold since June 9, a run the team hasn't had since Cal Ripken Jr, was their star. The Orioles' success extended the Yankees' stretch of missed postseasons to two, as the Bronx Bombers finished third in the division despite winning 91 games, amidst Hal Steinbrenner's calls for realignment. The Wieters Rule, implemented on September 1 by Commissioner Bud Selig, sought to diminish the player's impact by mandating that switch-hitters bat solely from one side of the plate in any game. That slowed Wieters down to the tune of a .433 batting average-his highest monthly mark-after the rule change. Sources inside the commissioner's office indicate it will be quietly retired this offseason.
If the targeted rule bothered Wieters, you couldn't tell from the smile on his face as he accepted the Series MVP trophy and a hearty handshake from Selig. With characteristic brevity, Wieters thanked his teammates, Orioles fans, and then, choking up a bit, invoked the name we all waited to hear.
"Sally, I'm bringing this to you. Never stop fighting!"
Sally Radigan's story will be what we remember from 2009, long after we've forgotten Manny Ramirez and Zack Greinke and even Matt Wieters and 129 straight wins. The nine-year-old was down to 43 pounds and expected to die within days when Wieters dropped by the pediatric oncology ward at Johns Hopkins in early July. Charmed by the girl's encyclopedic knowledge of the O's, he made a deal with her: she would watch the Orioles win every day, and she would get a little bit better every time they won. Upon leaving the hospital, Wieters issued a challenge to players and fans alike: one dollar for every hit, with every dime going directly to fight cancer.
"Singles for Sally" became an international phenomenon, with donations coming in from 109 countries, including the Republic of North Korea. At last count, the program had raised $84 million for cancer research. Sally kept up her half of the bargain, climbing back to 88 pounds by the end of the regular season, and going into remission a week later, all of which allowed her to accompany the Orioles to their pennant-clinching win at Boston almost two weeks ago. The sight of Sally throwing out the first pitch of the World Series, a perfect strike to Wieters himself, was time-capsule perfect.
If Sally stands as a symbol for everything that Wieters did off the field, right-hander Adam Eaton represents his work on it. Released the week before Wieters arrived, Eaton accepted a job at Triple-A Norfolk when no MLB team came calling. On July 5, Eaton was asked to step in for Brad Bergesen after the rookie pulled an oblique on his throw day. Working with Wieters for the first time, Eaton threw seven shutout innings and credited the catcher for spotting a mechanical flaw that made all the difference. Having carried an 8.56 ERA to the minors, Eaton made 16 starts for the Orioles after his return, posting a 1.92 mark and allowing just five home runs in that period. Eaton started the clinching games in both the ALCS and World Series.
"He saved my career, man," Eaton said as he dodged bubbly and beer in the clubhouse after the game. "I don't know how he saw it-we'd never worked together-but he set me straight. I'm never leaving Baltimore. I'll retire before I'll pitch to someone else."
He's not the only one. Lefty Jamie Walker, a candidate to follow Eaton out the door before Wieters arrived, credits Wieters for his improved breaking ball. "I just let it fly, and I know he'll get to it." Walker allowed just one hit to a left-handed batter after Wieters' promotion, and retired all 17 batters he faced in the postseason. Left fielder Felix Pie, meanwhile, says that his second-half surge was entirely due to working with Wieters in the cage. "He just knows hitting, and he knows people. Like with that little girl... he knew just what to say. He's our leader."
For his part, Wieters is uncomfortable with his influence, and deflects all of his teammates' praise. As he put it on the podium, "All 25 guys get rings, and none are bigger than the others. These guys won a lot of games before I got here, and in baseball, no one guy can win by himself."
Wieters demurred when asked about Apple, saying again that he just liked the computer, and that he didn't mean to start anything. Since the ESPN profile showed Wieters using a MacBook in his pregame study of pitchers, the company hasn't been able to meet demand, while at the same time its stock price jumped 116 percent in the four days after "Outside the Lines: The New Orioles Streaker" aired. Wieters continues to insist that he had no kind of deal with Apple, no promotional contract or agreement. An investigation by both MLB and the SEC turned up nothing, but Wieters remains wary of a repeat performance. Two hours after the game, he sipped a beverage from a plain paper cup, steadfastly refusing to identify it.
Wieters, it seems, is only beginning to understand his awesome power, both in the batter's box and outside of it. Hyped as much as any prospect in the game's history, he exceeded expectations in every way, and in doing so, discovered that being a great baseball player gives him unwanted credibility in many areas. If that knowledge wearied him, he never showed it, merely taking greater care to keep his preferences private, while continuing to be the best player in baseball.
"I just play baseball. I play for these guys, and the fans in the stands, and everything else just... happens," Wieters said. "I don't think I'm better than anyone else."
He is looking forward to one perk, however.
"Next time we take the field, I'm not a rookie any longer," Wieters said with a smile. "Someone else can carry the pink backpack."
Wieters will be too busy carrying a ring.