In the days leading up to the Orioles' season opener Monday, manager Buck Showalter considered several different lineups for the first game of the season. He polled everyone around him — coaches, players, reporters — before narrowing his lineup cards down to three.
Rookie Joey Rickard was on each as the team's starting left fielder, making him the first Orioles Rule 5 draft pick to start his first season opener with the club. But Showalter wasn't sure where to hit him. He strongly considered placing him in the leadoff spot and also thought about hitting him in the No. 2 hole, but ultimately decided to bat Rickard ninth in the Orioles' 3-2 walk-off Opening Day win over the Minnesota Twins.
“I'd rather promote guys as the season goes on instead of demote them,” Showalter said before the game. “I know where I'd like to get eventually, but we'll see how that works out. I don't want to get too far ahead of yourself and get ahead of the process.”
Showalter conceded that Rickard has the potential to bat leadoff. The Orioles need a top-of-the order catalyst and Rickard's strong spring — in which he showed the ability to get on base, work counts and draw walks — could give the Orioles' power-dependent lineup something it lacked.
The Orioles wanted to be patient with Rickard, who opened last season playing in High-A with the Charlotte Stone Crabs. Even wunderkind third baseman Manny Machado, who batted leadoff Monday, had to work his way up from the bottom third of the order when he first arrived in the majors.
The butterflies of Opening Day — the fanfare of running down the orange carpet in front of 45,786 — would be enough of a test.
But by the time the 24-year-old stepped to the plate for his third at-bat Monday, he had already won over the crowd that remained through two rain delays that totaled nearly three hours. After Rickard hit safely in his first two at-bats, the fans gave him a standing ovation and chanted “Jo-ey, Jo-ey” as he walked to the batter's box.
“They're all waiting to embrace you,” Showalter said of the fan's cheers for Rickard. “You've just got to give them something to embrace you about. It's your responsibility, not theirs about what comes first.”
Rickard was shocked at the reception.
“I'm three at-bats into the season and they're screaming and chanting my name,” Rickard said with a smile. “That's something special. I don't know another city that's like that. It's definitely the first time it's happened to me, but I turned around and gave them a wave. Right now they love me, so I'm I happy about it. I love them.”
This was a player who despite ascending two minor league levels last year in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system wasn't deemed valuable enough to be placed on the organization's 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.
Tampa Bay's loss could end up being the Orioles' gain. A spring training that began with the Orioles wondering how they were going to carry him on the roster ended with the club wondering how it couldn't carry him after he hit .397 with eight extra-base hits, eight RBIs and a .472 on-base percentage in the spring.
Baltimore first greeted Rickard with a rousing ovation when he was introduced and ran down the orange carpet. He received another warm welcome in his first at-bat, which ended with Rickard hitting the last of three straight sliders from Twins starter Ervin Santana into center field for a single.
“I knew I was taking,” said Rickard, who became the first Orioles player to get a hit in his first major league at-bat since Jonathan Schoop on Sept. 25, 2013. “I took the first at-bat just to get a feel for everything. I was trying to not get too antsy, but after that first pitch I felt back to myself and it kind of slowed down and I think it showed.”
In his second at-bat, Rickard took the first three pitches he saw from Twins reliever Casey Fien — a first-pitch fastball followed by two sliders — before lacing a 1-2 fastball into right field for a leadoff double. It was the first of three straight Orioles hits, capped by Adam Jones' two-run double that gave the Orioles a 2-0 lead.
In his third at-bat, as the crowd chanted his name, Rickard watched the first three pitches and fell behind again before lining out to right. His fourth time up, Rickard saw three mid-90s fastballs from Minnesota reliever Trevor May, and swung through the second before taking a called third strike.
Rickard made a running grab in foul ground in the seventh, reaching into the seats to catch Kurt Suzuki's fly ball that was touched by a fan. Twins designated hitter Byung Ho Park tagged and scored the tying run from third on a sacrifice fly. After the game, Rickard asked Showalter if that was the right play, and the manager reassured him that you take the out every time.
Rickard's family made the cross-country trip from California to watch him make his debut. Opening Day tickets are a tough haul, but he was able to collect 10 for family and friends.
“Baltimore appreciates guys out there grinding and he had a good spring training, so I was glad he was able to get that first hit out of the way,” Jones said. “His family was here. He got to share that not just with family but with his teammates. We appreciate him going out there and playing the right way. So that's Game 1 out of Game 162. Now move on to Game 2 and see what he does again.”
And by the end of the day, he had not only the memories of his first game in the big leagues but also the ball from his first hit and the dugout lineup card from the game, presented to him by Showalter.
“That's just icing on the cake for how my day has been,” Rickard said. “You always picture [your debut] in a way, but you never really know the feelings and emotions that come along with it, and just looking up and seeing the whole crowd and the fans, the stadium's roaring. It was definitely something special, and something I'll never forget.”