Zach Britton has known this day was coming for a long time, but that didn’t make it any easier when the deal that made him a New York Yankee became official late Tuesday night.
He kept it together, but he was clearly shaken and a bit red-eyed as he talked to reporters in the Orioles clubhouse for the last time and fully grasped the reality that his 12-year Orioles career — and all that happened along the way — was over.
The suspense had been building throughout the day. He was pretty sure what was going to happen by the time they pulled the tarpaulin over the field for another rain delay in the middle of Tuesday night’s 7-6 Orioles victory over the Boston Red Sox.
“It kind of all happened the right way with the weather delay,” Britton said. “A lot of teammates kind of had texts, too. I got to say goodbye to everybody. I got to talk to everyone. Spoke with [manager] Buck [Showalter]. Talked to [head athletic trainer Brian] Ebel. All the guys.”
Ebel was the guy who brought out the emotion. He was the guy who guided Britton through the eight-month injury rehabilitation process that brought him to the point in which he could resume being the Zach Britton that just about every team in the majors would like to have.
“Me and Ebel, we kind of sat down,” Britton said. “We went through a lot of stuff. I’m still eight months removed from surgery. I don’t know if people realize the work he put in to get me to this point. It’s pretty crazy that I was able to get back to the point of being able to get traded, in all honesty. So, I just thanked him for everything because he put a lot of work in.”
There were others, of course. Lots of them. Caleb Joseph had played alongside Britton in the minors and majors for much of the past decade. The past few years, Britton has been stuck like glue to the other members of a bullpen that has for much of the past six years been among the best in baseball.
The feelings were mutual. Even the guy who traded him to the Yankees for three minor league pitchers seemed a little wistful about the departure of a reliever who saved 120 games from 2014 to 2016 and played a major role in two playoff runs before injuries hampered him the past 1 ½ seasons.
“Zach Britton, personally I love the kid,’’ Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. “My first winter meetings [with the O’s] was down in Texas. I got a call in my room. He said, ‘This is Zach Britton.’ I said to John Stockstill, ‘I said, John, who’s Zach Britton?’ He said, He’s one of our pitchers. He had a great year this year.’
“Zach called me up and he said, “I want to come over and introduce myself to you,’ which I really appreciated. Not only have the good sense to come over and say hello, he really welcomed me to the organization that he grew up in and we’re going to miss him.”
He certainly doesn’t look the part, but Britton was the longest-tenured player in the Orioles organization. He was coming up through the minor league system while the Orioles were still mired in their 14-year string of losing seasons. He was here for all three playoff runs and for this disastrous 2018 season that forced the club to start dealing its valuable veterans.
Now, he’s going to the Orioles’ biggest historical rival, and he’s not sure how that’s going to feel.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to win some games again,” he said, “but it’s never going to be easy coming back here and playing against these guys especially.”
Yes, a lot of emotions.
“Yeah, absolutely,’’ he said. “I don’t know anything other than this organization. A lot of friends. Me and Caleb were talking. I’ve played with Caleb since 2008. We’re not just teammates. We’re really good friends. That’s the case with a lot of guys in here. So, I’m definitely sad to be leaving.”
Wondering what it will be like when the Orioles come to New York next week?
“Really weird. I’ve never played against these guys before. Maybe a few guys. It’ll be weird to be wearing the Yankee uniform and competing with the Orioles.”
Not wanting to completely let go?
“It all happened with this organization, so it will forever be in my heart and hopefully it’s not the last time I play here. Hopefully, sometime down the road, I can come back here and maybe finish it out.”
He didn’t get to finish his last game as an Oriole on Tuesday night. The O’s were leading by two runs in the bottom of the eighth and setup man Brad Brach got up to get ready for the ninth inning.
That’s when the fans figured it out — those that weren’t following the progression of tweets that made it clear that the deal was all but done earlier in the evening.
Brach knew, but he held it together on the mound and recorded the save that made it a doubly bad day for the first-place Red Sox, who were starting to pull away from the Yankees in the American League East.
“We had heard something,’’ Brach said right after the game. “We heard it wasn’t official yet … it’s going to be sad to see him leave, especially getting to pitch with him in the bullpen the last five years. We’ve become really close. He’s a great teammate and a great friend of mine. It’s going to be tough seeing him in pinstripes for sure.”