NORFOLK, Va. — Buck Britton has only said the words once in his short managerial career thus far. If he could go back and change the circumstances, he would have done it all differently. But the situation meant discretion wasn’t possible.
He called Dillon Tate at 2 a.m., setting up a middle-of-the-night meeting with the right-hander that left little doubt in Tate’s mind that something was afoot. The something was a call-up to the major league roster, joining the Orioles in 2019 amid a West Coast road trip.
“Probably the coolest thing to do as a coach,” said Britton, who made his debut as the Triple-A Norfolk manager Tuesday.
For Britton, a longtime Orioles minor leaguer, he never heard those words as a player. But as he leads a Triple-A squad crowded with highly ranked prospects, Britton will be on the other side of that conversation more frequently this season — calling a player into his office, the first person to tell him his dream has come true.
He doesn’t yet know how he’ll go about delivering that life-altering news. Maybe he’ll do it in front of the whole team. Or he’ll choreograph a surprise with the other coaches.
“It’s hard to plan, man, because you just never know what’s going to happen,” Britton said. “Part of me just wants to be super raw.”
Whatever he decides, Britton should have an opportunity to experiment. When the Tides took the field for Opening Day at Harbor Park, six of the starters were ranked inside Baseball America’s top-40 list for Baltimore prospects.
Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, the top pitching prospect in baseball, will start in Norfolk on Friday. Between outfielder Kyle Stowers (No. 7), infielder-outfielder Terrin Vavra (No. 14), second baseman Jahmai Jones (No. 19), left-hander Kevin Smith (No. 20) and outfielder Yusniel Diaz (No. 23), there could be several conversations ahead for Britton.
Because when it comes to each player’s end goal, it’s not to be playing in Norfolk. It’s to play in Baltimore.
“Get to the big leagues,” Diaz said in Spanish through fundamentals coach Ramon Sambo. “That’s what everybody wants.”
There’s a balance to it, though. For these prospects to reach the majors, production at the Triple-A level is imperative. There’s Diaz, for instance, the centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers who has shown flashes of dominance at the plate during spring training but a propensity for injuries that have led to an uneven showing in the minors thus far. Rodriguez, for as highly ranked as he is, has never pitched at this level.
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The same can go for Stowers, who has mashed the ball during offseason training but played just his 23rd game at the Triple-A level Tuesday. The 2019 draft pick has settled quickly at each stop during his quick rise to Norfolk, but he’s wary of looking too far ahead.
“I think every single player, that’s why we play, right? To win in the big leagues and to win a World Series,” Stowers said. “Obviously, every guy is trying to get there. But I think there’s a way to go about it where, we can pull for each other. At the end of the day, how I look at it, is just [to] take care of my stuff day-in and day-out, do the best I can and let the cards fall where they may, because there’s so little controllables in this game.”
Rodriguez added: “It’s kind of easy to get caught up in that, especially in a time like now, but really just taking it start by start.”
Stowers said it’s special going through this process with some of his close friends. It makes it easier if he has a poor day at the park to see his friends succeed, the ones he hopes to one day play alongside at Orioles Park at Camden Yards.
But before they can get there, he’s playing aside them at Harbor Park in Norfolk. For the time being, that’s where their focus remains, even with the tug of expectations and dreams.
“Ultimately, it’s my job to make sure these guys are getting what they need done,” Britton said, “so that when they do get that call to Baltimore, they can go out there and compete.”
And when they do get that call to Baltimore, it’ll be Britton delivering the news. He doesn’t need to know how he’ll do it yet — not right after Opening Day — but he might need to soon.