Two Orioles game day employees stood by a whiteboard that listed the lineups for Sunday’s game against the Oakland A’s, their eyes slowly scrolling down the nine names. They commented on catcher Matt Wieters' return to the starting lineup, among other things.
Then their eyes stopped at the fifth name, crinkling at the sight of a name they didn’t recognize.
The man on the left says, “Who’s Ford?” The man on the right shrugs his shoulders, and says, “Not sure.”
At least for Sunday, he’s the Orioles new starting left fielder, and it makes sense that not many people recognize his name, at least not yet.
The 35-year old Ford was originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 12th round of the 1999 draft, but he hasn’t played a game in the major leagues since 2007, when he hit .233 as a member of the Minnesota Twins. Since then, he has bounced around with organizations all of the world, including Japan in 2008 and Mexico in 2010.
Not a single MLB organization wanted him before the 2011 season, not even in their minor league systems. So Ford signed with an independent league team, the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League, figuring it would be his last year in baseball. Injury issues shortened his season, though, and he wanted to go out with a full season under his belt. He re-signed with the Ducks in 2012, not expecting much. He had some friends on the Ducks from his earlier playing days, and had no thoughts of getting back to the majors. He just wanted to play.
But after he hit .333 in 19 games with the Ducks, the Orioles signed Ford to a minor league contract on May 18th, which was already more than what he was expecting going into the year.
“If I got picked up, great, but my thought process going into the season was that I was going to play in the Atlantic league and hopefully win a championship there,” Ford said. “This is kind of more than I dreamed of. The chance that this would happen is just so small. I’m a very realistic person and I wasn’t expecting this at all when I started off this year, to make it back here is ... I’m just so happy.”
At Triple-A Norfolk, Ford hit .332 with 11 home runs and 20 RBI, and became the first member of the Tides to have a five-hit game since 2008. With the Orioles in need of another bat after having a short bench the last two games, Ford’s contract was purchased from before Sunday's game.
He arrived in Baltimore on Saturday night and was in the starting lineup about 12 hours later.
“That’s one of the great things about this job is that I get to take in those moments,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “I had him come into my office today and you could tell it’s a special day for him. I hope tomorrow’s a special day too.”
Ford added: “The big thing is that I worked hard in the off season, but I think having some people here in Baltimore sticking their neck out for me and giving me a chance to play in Triple-A and then giving me a chance to play here, I really appreciate that. That doesn’t happen all the time. It’s really hard to get back after being out for so long. I’m really appreciative to just get a chance. It’s crazy.”
The Orioles have struggled with runners in scoring position recently — they stranded 11 runners on Saturday — which could be a reason why Ford is in the lineup.
In Norfolk, he hit .510 with 3 home runs and 30 RBI with runners in scoring position. When there were runners in scoring position and two outs, he hit .571. Those are video game numbers.
“This guy, whatever you want to call it, humbled himself and went to the Atlantic League and got himself on the map and it carried over to Norfolk,” Showalter said. “If he had stayed there all year, he probably would have won the batting title. I don’t know what else Lew could do to get an opportunity. We felt like at some point he would get a chance here if he maintained what he was doing and he did. He’s worked real hard physically to get back. We’ll see.”
Ford might only be in Baltimore for a day or two, with roster moves being so frequent around the upcoming trade deadline. The length of his stint in Baltimore isn’t guaranteed.
But for someone who expected to retire in a Long Island Ducks uniform, getting back to the major leagues in any capacity and for any length of time is something special.
“I love everything about baseball, and it kind of got me back to that in the independent league, why I’m playing,” Ford said. “I’m just going to enjoy this.
“I think I’m going to enjoy this about 100 times more than I did the first time ... this is just awesome.”