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Q&A with Darren O'Day, the Orioles' reliable sidewinder

Sports columnist Peter Schmuck talks with Orioles relief pitcher Darren O'Day on his wife's career playing a part in his decision to stay in Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun video)

SARASOTA, FLA. — — Reliever Darren O'Day could just as easily have been in camp with the Washington Nationals this spring, but the Orioles came through over the winter and signed him to a four-year, $31 million contract that preserves one of baseball's best bullpens.

The 33-year-old right-hander with the down-under delivery has emerged as one of the premier setup guys in the game as well as a respected team leader in the Orioles clubhouse. He sat down with The Baltimore Sun to talk about the decision to stay in Baltimore, the long and winding road to get here and the charmed life of a baseball star married to a Fox News reporter.

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"I was lucky from the beginning I was encouraged by the older guys to learn about it, to know why we're afforded some of the luxuries we have, and it's because of the guys before us — the hardships they went through, the lockouts, the strikes," said Orioles Darren O'Day.

Let's start out with your free-agent experience this offseason. In your mind, was it always going to be between Baltimore and Washington because of your family situation?

No, not always. It really wasn't. Just to get to free agency was pretty awesome. I never knew if I'd be around long enough to get there. Once, when you get close to it, it's natural to start thinking about it. Before that began, there was a handful of teams where I said, "I'd love to play there." Obviously, Baltimore and Washington were nice because my wife works in Washington, D.C. There were a few others, where I had family or lived there before, or played there before. Definitely, it was really convenient for my wife [Elizabeth Prann] to be doing her work because she's achieved a level that's really hard to get to. It's a really sought-after position, so for me to tell her to stop doing that arbitrarily would be like her telling me to stop playing baseball. So I was really happy it worked out.

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Didn't she tell you to start playing baseball? Wasn't there a time after college when there was a career choice to be made?

Definitely. She's always been a big supporter. My wife didn't grow up with baseball. Her family had other interests. Skiing, snowmobiling, stuff like that. She grew up in Denver. So she didn't understand all of it. The first time we met, she actually told her parents she thought I played soccer. We kind of grew into baseball together. She did encourage me to play when I had that choice between med school and baseball, and it worked out at the end.

Is she into it now? Does she watch every game?

Yeah, she watches baseball now. I think baseball, the beauty of it is in the details, and there are details in other sports. I love the details of NFL football and I've come to appreciate the game more because of that. Baseball, once you get into it, once you get past the down time in between action, there are intricacies of the game and she understands that more.

“I think I can help young players avoid some mistakes that either I've made or I've seen other people make,” said Orioles reliever Darren O’Day. “Buck [Showalter] kind of encourages us to run the clubhouse with respect as the guiding principle.” (Baltimore Sun video)

You're kind of a rare bird among premier relief guys. With the exception of one start in college and a couple of minor league starts at Round Rock and Frisco in 2011, you've been a reliever from the start of your college career. There aren't a lot of prominent relievers who show up at this level without first getting noticed as a starter. Do you marvel at that now, especially at this time when you've made it on a financial level, you've made it on a competitive level and you've also done a service to the other setup guys?

It could take me 10 minutes to answer that question. I love talking about it. I was just a reliever in college; I made that one start in the NCAA tournament and I was so dehydrated the next day I couldn't go outside. So I think I'm firmly a reliever, and you see as you move up in the minor leagues, the guys who get stuck in the bullpen and stay in the bullpen generally stay in the minor leagues.

Starters joke that the bullpen is the place where starters go to die. It's rare to see a guy who has never made a start to be in a major league bullpen. I was fortunate that my first minor league manager, Tom Kotchman, he made me his closer right out of the gate in A-ball. I showed I could do that and got promoted. I was a closer coming up. I'm obviously not a closer now, but I think being in all those situations my whole life has helped me to pitch in hard situations, so I'm ready for that sort of thing.

You're a rare guy who has overcome the curse of the unconventional delivery. Certain managers will look at a guy like you and think, "Well he's only throwing 88 and he's throwing sidearm or down low," and move on to the guy throwing 95. Some baseball people just have a prejudice against guys with unusual deliveries or mechanics. You decided to do that really early. You had to kind of know that would make the battle to get to the major leagues a lot tougher.

“As a reliever, we know that no matter what, we're always in the game, just because of the firepower these guys have,” said Orioles reliever Darren O’Day on the team's hitting power this season. (Baltimore Sun video)

It was kind of out of necessity because I was very average overhand, so I found a way. The second time I tried out [in college] I found a way to prolong the baseball career a little bit longer. Obviously, if I don't make that team my second year in college, I would be in an office or doing something else, so that was kind of a last-ditch effort to be a pitcher. I was throwing harder, the ball was moving more, so I think there are some things about a pitcher's body that lend themselves to being a better low-arm-angle pitcher.

Really, what I found out in my time, not just pro baseball, but in college baseball, was to be ready for opportunities when they present themselves. Not every college program does open tryouts. I just happened to be there then. Two years later, we didn't do them because we had a full team. That's one time when it worked out. When I got cut the first time in Florida, they told me to go to a JuCo [junior college], but I didn't go because I didn't want to go to another school. What I would have done in a JuCo was throw overhand and ended up at a smaller school and my baseball career would be over. So I didn't go, learned the sidearm delivery, came back and tried again and made the team, got signed and played in the minor leagues.

So you get cut from your first college team, change to an unorthodox delivery, don't get drafted after a very good college career and show up in the major leagues less than two years later. How does that happen?

It happened to be my first big league camp in 2008. I was in the minor leagues a year and a half — I had never played at Triple-A — and the last week of spring training three guys in Anaheim's bullpen got injured, so they took three guys who never had been above Double-A and Triple-A, and we were playing in the big leagues on Opening Day. And I happened to pitch better than the other guys, so I got to stay a few months.

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So you get your foot in the door there, and I had an OK year, but they designated me at the end of the year and I ended up with the Mets. Didn't do much there. I went to the Texas Rangers, where their bullpen wasn't great at the time. So they threw me right into clutch situations and that's kind of where I learned to sink or swim. I showed them that I could do that, and that kind of showed managers that, yeah, it's not 98, but I could get outs and you know what you're going to get when you put me out. That's what a manager looks for in a bullpen guy — consistency. Over that time, I built a track record of being able to pitch late in games.

Obviously, a huge moment in your career was when you got put on waivers by the Rangers and the Orioles grabbed you, even though they did not have a GM at the time. They were between Andy MacPhail and Dan Duquette, so I guess Buck Showalter gets credit for making one of the great waiver finds in club history.

I had a couple good years in Texas. We went to two World Series in a row, but I got hurt that year and rushed back. I wasn't performing. It was the first year they were paying me more than the minimum, so I felt the pressure to perform and came back fast and it was a poor decision in hindsight, but what happened was I pitched poorly and I was available on waivers. Some of it was being ready for opportunities.

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I came to Baltimore when this bullpen was kind of being rebuilt. So once again, I kind of got pushed into a role, that — even though the year before I didn't pitch well — I got thrown in some big situations. Like I said before, a lot of things that have happened to me during my whole career — being cut in college, getting cut from two different teams — in the short term were negative [but] turned out over the long term to be positive. I'm in my fifth year here, so now this feels like home, because I've been here for a few years and I have a new contract. So, I guess you can say that Buck was a pretty good GM.

"I was just a reliever in college; I made that one start in the NCAA tournament and I was so dehydrated the next day I couldn't go outside," said Orioles reliever Darren O'Day. "So I think I'm firmly a reliever." (Baltimore Sun video)

You've developed here into a team leader over a relatively short time, and you're a big part of a clubhouse culture that seems to embrace everyone regardless of age, ability or status. There never seems to be any rookie hazing around here and everyone seems very accepting of newcomers. Do you think the road you took to get here makes you more sensitive to the way players should be treated on the way up?

Not just being around the game for a long time, but having been in different situations, with four different teams, has helped me meet a lot of people, see mistakes that guys make and see things that guys do that make them better players. I have the chance to play with all these different players, all over. Every different team we play, I know somebody on it just because I've been on so many teams. Yeah, so I think I can help young players avoid some mistakes that either I've made or I've seen other people make, and Buck kind of encourages us to run the clubhouse with respect as the guiding principle. So the organization isn't going to be just a bunch of veteran free agents that are signed. We need our young players and we need our young players to be comfortable, so whatever we can do to help them produce on the field, we're going to do that because we need them to.

That approach is the reason why a Caleb Joseph could come up after spending so much time at the Double-A level and be accepted by this pitching staff and have the success he has had filling some pretty big shoes when Matt Wieters had elbow surgery. I'm guessing you have a lot of respect for a guy who hung in like that after all you had to overcome to get where you are.

Caleb is one of my favorite teammates that I've ever played with. A lot of it is his personality, but to be able to do that — to battle through all that time in the minor leagues — because it is a dream job to be able to play baseball, but when you're stuck in the same place every year, you're not really getting promoted or moving on, it's natural to think, "Maybe this just isn't for me. Maybe I'm not good enough." You start self-doubting.

To Caleb's credit, as soon as events transpired where he's in the big leagues and he's got to perform or that might be it, he performed admirably and kind of opened some eyes. The reports that his defense was suspect — I can tell you that's absolutely not the case. He got up here and learned so fast, about catching, setting up and throwing to second. He's as good as anyone in the league in my book. … Matt Wieters is awesome, too. We're spoiled with our catchers. They're both smart, extremely cerebral, physically gifted. Both of them are good hitters, too. We've got two starting major league catchers here, which is a luxury. And when you consider their [different] paths to the big leagues, it's a pretty cool story in itself.

This team also has the luxury of one of the most power-packed lineups anywhere. When you can look from one end of the lineup to the other and see a hitter in almost every slot who can hit 25 or 30 homers — or a lot more in a few cases — it's obvious the effect it has on opposing pitchers. What kind of impact does that kind offensive potential have on you and the rest of the Orioles staff?

It's definitely tough to pitch to. That's why I signed back here. I didn't want to pitch to these guys. It's a big demoralizer when the other team pushes across a run and we step up and hit a three-run homer, or you take a two-run lead and we put a five-spot on the board. There's going to be a lot of that this year.

My time here, it's kind of been based on getting a few guys on base and hitting a home run. We're always in games, late in games. As a bullpen guy, I think that first, the back end of the bullpen is so important. Because if you're down by three and that seventh guy in your bullpen goes out and gives it up, you're out of the game. If he keeps it tight, then maybe CD [Chris Davis] or Manny [Machado] steps up and hits a three-run homer, we're back in it. As a starting pitcher, you get a little cushion and there's no better way to pitch. As a reliever, we know that no matter what, we're always in the game, just because of the firepower these guys have.

You're the union rep in the clubhouse. Do you enjoy that stuff or is it just that you're the right guy to do it or everybody asked you to do it?

I enjoy learning about the business of baseball. When I came up, I didn't know anything about it. You've got enough to worry about as a rookie in the major leagues. I was lucky from the beginning I was encouraged by the older guys to learn about it, to know why we're afforded some of the luxuries we have, and it's because of the guys before us — the hardships they went through, the lockouts, the strikes. Everything. It's really the strength of our group collectively, kind of staying together.

I enjoy every side of baseball. I've seen it from a young guy's perspective. I've seen what arbitration is like. I've seen what free agency is. I've seen the stuff from the players union. I'd like to get more experience from a front office standpoint to learn what that's like. The longer I stay in the game of baseball, the more I like where I am when I retire. I don't know if I would be a guy who would just sit on the couch and watch TV. I want to do something and maybe that is baseball, because I enjoy every facet of it.

"We need you guys [media]. You guys need us [players]. There's times I don't want to talk to you," said Orioles reliever Darren O'Day with talking to the media. "There are times when I'd like to just go out with my buddies in the clubhouse. But that's part of it." (Baltimore Sun video)

The big story earlier this spring was old school versus new school. You had Goose Gossage complaining about Bryce Harper and this generation of demonstrative players. Do you think there's really an old school and a new school?

It's kind of like the evolution of music. Whatever you were listening to when you were a kid, your parents thought was junk. I would put myself firmly in the old school. I appreciate guys that go about their business like they've done it before. Cal Ripken never pimped a homer, and he was a pretty good player. There's a lot of guys. Derek Jeter? Is there a more famous baseball player in the last 40 years who did everything right … who had his own style without having to go out of his way to do it? The guys who make hustling and playing hard cool, those are the guys that I appreciate.

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I've never really been a fan of wrestling. I don't think baseball's a tired sport. Let's see some of these guys, when they're 40 and they're on their private islands, maybe you can get them off their island and do an interview and ask them if they still think baseball's a tired sport. I think baseball is perfect the way it is.

Does having your wife working at Fox News give you a different perspective on the media than maybe some of your baseball colleagues?

It's a symbiotic relationship with the media and the players. We need you guys. You guys need us. There's times I don't want to talk to you. There are times when I'd like to just go out with my buddies in the clubhouse. But that's part of it. Anybody that works hard to do their job and has some proficiency at it, I think you need to be as amicable as you can.

My wife has told me that there are public figures out there she loves to interview, she loves talking to them. Interviews go so much better when the person just engages in it a little bit so that she can get what she needs and they can get out of there. Those people who don't talk because they are too busy or too important, that just makes it harder. There are times I wish I could say more and there are times I wish I could just walk away. It's part of the job and it's a great job.

Do you pay more attention to politics and what goes on out there than you probably might if your wife wasn't part of that world?

Absolutely. I think we only have missed a couple debates. Part of our relationship is having interest in each other's professions. She has to watch the news. That's part of her job even when she's not at work. We watch her and we talk about how she thinks she did. She's awesome, first of all. I love it. I love that she has a job. I'm proud of what she does. I love that she kind of enriches me because I wouldn't pay as much attention if she wasn't in the house watching that stuff about 10 or 12 hours a day.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

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