At first glance, Orioles reliever Darren O’Day is just another fortunate jock who played top-shelf college baseball, married the beautiful blond, cruised to the majors and is now a millionaire.
Get to know O’Day, though, and the clichés spin away like the submariner’s slider to a befuddled batter.
That blessed right arm?
He swings it around to the plate at about knee-level, prompting ribbing from teammates that he’s a glorified softball pitcher. Throughout his career, his fastball has averaged just 86 mph.
That collegiate baseball career?
He went to the University of Florida on an academic scholarship and was cut from the baseball team as a freshman walk-on. He tried again his sophomore year — after developing a funky side-armed delivery refined in a summer beer league — and eventually became the Gators’ closer.
That major league career?
He was signed as a fifth-year senior, luring him away from plans to be a plastic surgeon or a veterinarian. He has been waived by three organizations. And he’s had to overcome a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder in 2008, a torn labrum in his hip in 2011 and, most recently, soreness and tingling in his fingers that cost him most of this month before cortisone injections last week helped him return to the mound Thursday.
Oh, and that beautiful blond wife?
That’s Fox News reporter Elizabeth Prann, whose career may be more high profile and hectic than her husband’s. In some circles — like when she introduced him to the country’s former first couple, George W. and Laura Bush — he’s Mr. Elizabeth Prann.
Dust off the baseball stereotypes and there’s so much more to O’Day — from that unconventional pitching motion to his fans joyously chanting a surname that, technically, isn’t even his.
To paraphrase a popular beer commercial, O’Day may be the most interesting man in the baseball world. At the least, he’s one of its brightest dudes with one of its most refreshing stories.
“He is different than everybody because he is smarter than everybody,” says fellow Orioles reliever Tommy Hunter. “I think I can honestly say that. He is just flat-out smarter than everybody else. That’s what makes him so unique.”
“A fake Irish-Polish man”
Start with the name: Darren Christopher O’Day.
A good Irish boy from Florida.
The name is on his birth certificate. It’s the melodious ole-rhyming surname fans chant — “O’Dayyyyy, O’Day, O’Day, O’Dayyyyy” — whenever he enters a game.
But his family name is not O’Day. It’s Odachowski. It was changed decades ago.
“[My dad] thought that 40 years down the road, when I came into a tie game in the eighth, it would be really hard for fans to chant, ‘’Odachowski, Odachowski, Odachowski,’” O’Day deadpanned.
The real story is a little more complicated.
O’Day’s grandfather, a World War II veteran who suffered from an undiagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder, died in a car accident. His wife then single-handedly raised her three sons, including O’Day’s father, Ralph, who was 13 when his father was killed.
At her work, Mrs. Odachowski shortened her name to Odach — with the ‘ch’ silent in Chicago’s Polish community — to make it easier to pronounce. As a tribute to their mother, who worked tirelessly so all of her sons could go to college, O’Day’s father and one of his uncles legally changed their names after they were married.
“And it came out O’Day,” the pitcher said. “So that’s why I am a fake; a fake Irish-Polish man.”
He honors his family history in a subtle way. Stitched on the side of his game glove is “D. Odachowski.”
That story sums up O’Day’s life. What you see isn’t necessarily what you get. There always seems to be a little more. Or a twist you weren’t expecting.
“Beer league” standout
Now 6-feet-4, 220 pounds, O’Day was always into sports, including hockey, basketball and cross country. He loved baseball the most and considered playing at a smaller college but instead chose Florida for academic reasons.
When he was cut from the Gators’ baseball team as a freshman, O’Day embraced regular college life. He played intramural softball and flag football and concentrated on his schoolwork, majoring in animal biology.
What it did is it set me up for a good academic career,” he said.
After his freshman year, a friend asked him to pitch in an over-18 adult league in Jacksonville. He agreed, and he had been messing around throwing sidearm while playing catch with his older brother on vacation, so he figured he’d try it in games, too.
“I came out and I still threw overhand, but I also threw sidearm. I wasn’t bent over like I am now,” O’Day said. “We had tryouts, but there were guys smoking heaters [cigarettes] in the dugout, having some cold pops during the games.”
His father, Ralph, attended many of those “beer league” games and was convinced that his son should give the Florida tryouts one more chance as a sidearmer.
“And I was like, ‘What do I have to lose?’” O’Day said. “I guess, you could be that guy that tries out every year and gets cut every year and be the butt of jokes.”
Because he had spent the previous year lifting weights, he was stronger and threw harder than he had from a conventional delivery. O’Day struck out every walk-on hitter he faced.
“I made the team and pitched four years and got a scholarship and all that stuff.”
As a fifth-year senior who could sign before the annual amateur draft, he drew interest from several clubs. Los Angeles Angels scout Tom Kotchman, the father of big league first baseman Casey Kotchman, was most interested after watching O’Day mow down batters at rival Florida State.
“He turned it up a notch I didn’t know he had. He hit 90, 91 [mph]. It was like, ‘Oh boy,’” said Kotchman, now with the Boston Red Sox. “Certain guys just rise to the occasion.”
The Angels offered O’Day $20,000 to sign — topping all other suitors. And they had another perk: Kotchman would be O’Day’s rookie-league manager and promised to make him his closer and move him quickly to the next level if he had early success.
“You throw a guy like that with that kind of stuff in at that level and he can make [hitters] look stupid,” Kotchman said. “And he did.”
Med school on hold
O’Day, however, had a decision to make. If he didn’t make the majors, would it be worth it to put his promising academic future on hold? He had taken his medical school entrance exams, scored well and had enjoyed shadowing a Gainesville plastic surgeon.
That surgeon, by pure coincidence, was Dr. John Poser, a former All-Big Ten pitcher at Wisconsin. Poser’s father, Bob, also a doctor, pitched briefly in the majors in the 1930s for the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Browns.
When Poser was leaving Wisconsin in the late 1960s his father advised him to give up pitching for medicine. The reasoning was simple: Poser could make a lot more money and have a much more stable life as a doctor.
By the time Poser met O’Day, baseball salaries had exploded.
“I was telling Darren what my dad said, only in reverse,” Poser said. “You’re only young once and now the business opportunities are in your favor. He was a lock for med school, not a lock for the majors. But I saw 6-foot4, 220 [pounds], good-looking, smart. I just had a feeling he could make it work.”
Before finalizing his decision, O’Day discussed it with Prann, then his girlfriend. Professional baseball was a lottery ticket, so they had never discussed it as a serious future option.
“It was a $20,000 bonus. I was like, ‘You have to go. That is crazy,’” said Prann, who has worked her way up from local TV to a gig at Fox News in Washington covering politics among other assignments. “I mean, I was making $2.50 an hour. I did get a good job out of school, but [at the time] we were both broke.”
O’Day decided that he would try pro baseball for two years. If it didn’t work out, his medical scores would still be valid and he’d go back to school, likely in whichever town Prann had begun her journalism career. That was in May 2006.
A lesson taken from tragedy
By April 2008, O’Day had made the Angels’ Opening Day roster. He pitched in 30 games in three stints with the Angels that year but was diagnosed with the shoulder tear that September. While he was rehabilitating, the club removed him from its 40-man roster.
“I think the one time that he did get down was the first time when the Angels put him on waivers, because the Angels gave him his first opportunity,” Ralph O’Day said. “He thought maybe this is the end.”
In December that year, O’Day was selected in the Rule 5 draft by the New York Mets. He pitched in four games that April before being designated for assignment.
He was in limbo again — and this time with a heavy heart. One of O’Day’s best friends during his minor league climb was Nick Adenhart, the Angels’ top pitching prospect from Williamsport, Md., who was killed by a drunk driver on April 9, 2009, hours after pitching his best game in the majors.
The following afternoon O’Day made his Mets debut.
“It was tough on him,” O’Day’s mother, Michal, said. “He finds out about Nick and then three hours later he has to pitch. That’s tough to handle.”
The Mets told O’Day he could go to the funeral in Maryland, but O’Day didn’t want to leave with his job situation so tenuous. He was taken off the Mets’ roster days later anyway.
That next week was one of the strangest periods of O’Day’s twisting and turning life story. He was claimed by the Texas Rangers and flew to Toronto to meet his new team. When he arrived at Rogers Centre, the Rangers and Blue Jays were locked in an extra-inning game. O’Day learned he may be needed in the bullpen immediately, but, as always, there was a twist.
The Rangers didn’t have a uniform for O’Day. So he had to wear one reserved for left-handed minor leaguer Kason Gabbard. In the bottom of the 11th inning, with two on and one out, O’Day was summoned into the game wearing the jersey of a guy he didn’t know. When he took the mound, he had to introduce himself to Rangers manager Ron Washington.
O’Day gave up a walkoff single to former Oriole Kevin Millar, the only batter he faced. The Rangers then boarded a plane for their next road series in Baltimore. The following day O’Day rented a car and drove roughly 90 minutes to a Williamsport cemetery, near Hagerstown, to visit Adenhart’s grave.
“It was poetic, in retrospect,” O’Day said. “Drove around for an hour trying to find some flowers. I went and visited him, made my peace with it. Talked to him, came back, and they put me in a game here.”
O’Day retired Ty Wigginton one night and Adam Jones the next.
“That kind of gave me the confidence. It’s crazy to think that all happened in Baltimore,” said O’Day, who still writes Adenhart’s initials on the inside brim of his game hats.
“It played a big role in my transition from being OK to good, because I saw the game taken away from him without his choice. That, with the combination that I was on my third team in one year of major league service, I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m spending all of my time out here worrying about if I’m good enough to be here instead of really finding out if I am. I’ve shared that story with various teammates in hopes that they can find something that motivates them, too”
For the next two seasons, O’Day became one of the best set-up relievers in baseball, posting a 1.99 ERA and pitching in the 2010 World Series. The next year he dealt with injuries and the Rangers attempted to slip him through waivers in October.
The Orioles claimed him even though they were in between general managers and didn’t have an official front office leader (Dan Duquette was hired a week later). In 2012, O’Day became the Orioles’ most trusted set-up man, and he has continued to thrive in a late-inning role — compiling a 2.35 ERA in 132 career appearances as an Oriole. His superb 2012 season landed him a two-year, $5.8 million contract that includes an option for 2015.
“When he got the two-year contract, he came in and said, ‘Thank you,’ to me. I said, ‘You thanking me? How about we thank you?’” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s one of those guys, that if you weren’t 57 and tired all the time after a game, you’d like to hang out with him.”
“Game for just about anything”
O’Day is part practical jokester and part learned intellectual. The two sides have been clashing since he was a child.
“I like to do things people say I can’t do, show off and be goofy. So I would get grounded every so often,” O’Day said about his childhood. “And when I’d get grounded they’d lock me in a room and I’d have to read. My mom would buy me piles of books for when I did get grounded. And I would just read them.”
He’s still an avid bibliophile; he loves detailed pieces on why things are the way they are. This summer, O’Day read a book that explained the history of the periodic table of elements and another that researched the background of common scientific laws.
“He’s over my head. If he had talked about that kind of stuff back then I many never have signed him,” joked Kotchman, the scout. “I just knew he was a good baseball player.”
A self-admitted technology geek, O’Day pre-ordered the original iPad, wanting to be one of the first in the country to have it. He often tools around Camden Yards and road cities on a Solowheel, a portable electric unicycle.
Both products have been used against O’Day by his friends. When he was in Texas, veteran lefty Darren Oliver intercepted the shipping of the original iPad and hid it for days, leaving a frantic O’Day searching for his new toy.
“He was a hot mess,” Prann, his wife, joked.
Last summer, MLB Fan Cave, Orioles closer Jim Johnson and Showalter concocted a fake interview about the Solowheel with an actor posing as a Wall Street Journal reporter to prank O’Day. It culminated with Showalter screaming at O’Day for jeopardizing his career. The video has been viewed more than 57,000 times on You Tube.
O’Day has been the target of jokes because he’s often the one messing with his buddies or doing something dumb for a laugh. Like the time in college when Prann, a Florida lacrosse player, and several of her teammates convinced him to don a women’s lacrosse jersey and a skirt.
“I think it was about 10 girls to one, the peer pressure was on,” Prann laughed. “Darren’s game for just about anything, which is one of his great qualities.”
Sometimes his conniving antics bordered on real trouble. Like when he and a few high school buddies attempted, as his mother called it, “a Chinese fire drill with a hostage.” The plan was to drive down a busy road with a friend in the trunk. Stop. Pop the trunk from the inside and watch the friend jump out and run away, as if he were being kidnapped.
They were practicing in a shopping center when a woman exited an ice cream parlor with her children and saw the boy escape the car. She copied O’Day’s license plate number and called the police, who sent three cruisers to his house. O’Day and his friends had decided not to pull the stunt on the road after all, but they still had to deal with the cops.
“They went and faced the [officers] and they were respectful, so fortunately they didn’t fry them,” Ralph O’Day said. “And they could have.”
Showalter said O’Day has achieved the perfect balance between knowing when to let off steam and when to concentrate on his job. He’s a guy with humble beginnings, a successful career and an ability to laugh at himself.
“He is the smartest dumb guy I know. Super book smart, but then he’ll lock his keys in the car,” Oliver chuckled. “He is a nerd that plays baseball.”
As Hunter puts it, “He’s the average Joe, I guess you could say. Everybody and their brother thinks that they can come in and throw sidearm in a big league game because of Darren O’Day.”
Unlike most things in his life, O’Day’s not going to over-analyze how an anonymous reliever has become a fan favorite or why his unconventional path to the majors has worked out so well. He’s learned, through tragedy, adversity and a whole lot of laughs, to keep moving forward.
“It’s definitely amazing,” O’Day said. “I think what helps me every day is that I am so grateful for the opportunity to play this game for a living and do what I really love. That’s helped me where I’m at now, just because of the journey I have taken.”