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Orioles rookie Joey Rickard experiences magical first week in majors

Orioles rookie Joey Rickard experiences magical first week in majors
Orioles' Joey Rickard (23) batting at Camden Yards on Apriil 8, 2016. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Looking back, Joey Rickard might have seen a sign or two leading up to his major league debut that his life was going to change.

Maybe he could have gleaned something from the major league hotel he arrived in Saturday, or the phone calls home to Las Vegas on Sunday night where his lifelong friends tried to warn him that he wasn't grasping what was in store for him.

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It finally started to sink in on Opening Day, when a sold-out Camden Yards chanted his name. He hasn't given the fans a reason to stop since, creating a magical week for Rickard, improved by the fact that he has shared it all with his family.

"I am shocked with how much people have [noticed], the curiosity of everybody," Rickard said. "But I was drafted in 2012. I've been working a lot in this game for the last four years. It's something that I expected, but it's still kind of amazing to see that I'm here.

"It hasn't changed in the fact that I'm still pretty antsy out there. Not nervous. Just really, really overly excited to be out there. And it really hasn't slowed down in the first few games. I'm hoping it does."

Over the past week, only in rare moments has Rickard been able to step back and reflect on the ride.

The first occasion came early last Saturday after arriving at Camden Yards from the team's exhibition game in Philadelphia. He and some teammates walked back to their downtown hotel, where Rickard began to notice how different his life might be going forward.

"If I were to come here for vacation, I wouldn't have stayed there," Rickard said. "It's a little nicer than my taste. But I'm enjoying it."

He spent that day — just his second true day off since reporting to spring training in mid-February — getting to know his new city a bit.

"I'm a pretty dull person on off days," he said.

Rickard drove around looking for somewhere to eat during the day. Upon returning downtown, he encountered a scene too bustling for even a Las Vegas native. He walked through the madness that was last weekend's Light City display in the Inner Harbor to get to his new favorite restaurant — Rusty Scupper.

His first Maryland crab cake was as advertised: "Delicious," he said. Rickard said he'd eat there seven nights a week if he could. But since he spends his nights endearing himself to Baltimore baseball fans, he settled for taking his mother, Heidi, and some of his visiting family back there Tuesday.

Last Sunday brought his first workout, and a wall of cameras two and three deep featuring local media getting their first crack at Rickard after watching his spring ascent. That night, on the eve of his major league debut, the pending moment finally caught up with Rickard.

"That was the one," Rickard said. "It was tough to sleep because I was so excited. I was trying to calm myself down. I was just on the phone most of the night with some close friends, just talking about life honestly. They were trying to explain to me what was really about to happen. It really hadn't hit me until the last couple of days."

"Do you know we're watching you on TV tomorrow night at the local restaurants?" they asked.

"No," Rickard answered. "It hasn't kicked in."

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The friends were drafting him onto their fantasy baseball teams. Perhaps they knew before the world did.

Rickard, after all, wasn't some unknown back in the desert. He won four state championships and a national title at Bishop Gorman High, and supplemented that on a summer ball team with Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant. That team hung banners, too.

Before the Tampa Bay Rays plucked him in the ninth round of the 2012 draft, Rickard hit .320 with 18 steals as a regular on a national championship-winning team at Arizona.

He came to the Orioles as their latest Rule 5 draft pick, something they traffic in frequently and use to round out their roster with role players. His selection came with no fanfare and even fewer expectations. No one anticipated an Opening Day starter, even though Rickard climbed two levels in the Rays system while batting .321 with an .874 OPS in 2015. He hit well in the Dominican Winter League, too.

"He's been doing this for a year," his father, John, said outside Dempsey's Brew Pub and Restaurant on Friday. "Nobody noticed except the Orioles."

Even the family who got to witness the city fall in love with him this week couldn't have dreamed up the week Rickard had.

The now ubiquitous chant, "Jo-ey," began as he walked to the plate a third time on Opening Day after a pair of base hits to begin his career. The chants continued Wednesday, when he collected another two hits in front of more friends and family.

On Thursday, he hit his first major league home run. What was left of the rain-thinned crowd continued to scream his name two batters later as a bona-fide star — third baseman Manny Machado — came to the plate. Rickard took a curtain call out of the dugout, then after the game had to say goodbye to his mother.

As what she watched transpire over the preceding days set in, Rickard received another reminder of just how special his week had been.

"She was pretty emotional," Rickard said. "She was taking it in. She didn't want to leave. It was kind of a combination of everything kind of hitting her at once. That kind of means a lot. She's a tough woman."

John Rickard, a tile setter in Northern California, said it would take a month to catch up on his bills after the trip. It was well worth it.

"We're in heaven," he said.

He sat behind home plate, leaning forward in his chair as his son led off Friday's win against the Rays. He leapt up after Rickard's infield single off Rays ace Chris Archer, then explained that Joey has a chance to get to first ahead of the throw if it bounces three times.

It was the first of two hits that night, again setting off chants of his son's name. They finally saw each other after the game.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter said this week that Rickard wasn't acting like he was too cool to enjoy the myriad experiences that he'll never have again. His teammates encouraged his curtain call Thursday for that reason.

"You definitely don't want to get in the way," right fielder Mark Trumbo said. "What more can you ask for? Performing at this level with your parents, your friends and family here."

There are only a few things Rickard seems to need advice on. His new major league pay schedule is one.

The incumbent housing costs of a major league life, plus tickets for the family members who shared this week with him, have left him with a touch of debt. He doesn't know when he gets paid.

"I'm in the red now," Rickard said, flashing the smile that has come to define the Orioles' hot start. "So it better be soon."

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