PHILADELPHIA — Camden Yards is the only major league ballpark Matt Wieters called home before this season, so when he returns as an opposing player for the first time Monday night, one of the former Orioles catcher's primary concerns is making sure he doesn't head for the home dugout while walking off the field merely out of habit.
Wieters is now with the Washington Nationals, but the walk to the visiting clubhouse, or coming out of the dugout will be new for him as the Orioles host the first two games of their annual home-and-home interleague series with the Nationals.
"He'll have some jitters," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "It's going to be kind of weird to come out of the other dugout because he's been on the other side for so long. I really hope he doesn't accidentally start working toward their dugout, but it happens. 'Hey, you're over here now.' "
Wieters will return to Camden Yards as part of a Nationals team that owns the best record in the major leagues as well as the game's highest scoring offense. He's handling a gifted starting rotation, and his deadpan sense of humor fits well in a clubhouse loaded with battle-tested veterans.
"I almost feel like I picked up here where I left it in Baltimore," Wieters said. "We had a lot of guys come up together and grow into that leadership role and grow into that veteran presence and then moving over here we have a lot of guys who are a veteran presences in a lot of ways, so it's almost literally and figuratively a lateral move. It's like, 'OK, these are a lot of guys who have played at a high level for a long time and the sole goal is on becoming as good as we can as a team,' and that's what we built up to in Baltimore and it's nice to come into a situation where a team has winning a World Series on their minds every day you show up."
Wieters is likely to receive a warm reception from the home crowd for his first game back Monday, probably much like the minute-long standing ovation longtime Oriole Nick Markakis received in his first game back in Baltimore as a member of the Atlanta Braves back in July 2015.
"It should be very similar," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said when asked to predict the reception Wieters would receive. "He was that type of impactful player. He helped our organization in a lot of ways, not just on the field, but he gave us a lot of [accountability]. One is that he's a really good player and he was a winning player and he brought some consistency and even from a national standpoint with the All-Star games and the winning. He brought some status and stature to our team. He was a big part of things. He's hard to replace."
Even though he's playing for the Orioles' Beltway Series rival — and some would say that despite four All-Star Games and two Gold Gloves he struggles to live up to lofty expectations placed on him — Wieters will always be seen as a key piece in the franchise's recent resurgence as a home-grown product who helped the franchise go from losing to winning.
Like Markakis, Wieters isn't one for theatrics, and he said he's been so focused on the season that he hasn't spent much time thinking about his return to Camden Yards, but he remembers being behind the plate for the minute-long ovation Markakis received.
"I'm not really big on thinking that way," Wieters said before the Nationals' game Saturday night in Philadelphia. "Whatever happens happens. It's not going to change the way I feel about the time I spent in Baltimore or the way I felt about that team. I feel like my baseball career grew up in Baltimore. So I'll always have those memories. For me, it will be nice to see people I used to see every day when I went to work. It will be special to see them.
"But other than that, I know Orioles fans were great when Nick came back. And it would be great to get a similar welcome home because it was my first home and I was able to learn a lot and grow a lot."
An Oriole since the club made him the fifth overall pick a decade ago, and through parts of eight major league seasons, Wieters went unsigned throughout the offseason — the Orioles never made him an offer to return and his free-agent market was clouded further when he sliced his left wrist after he dropped a 5-gallon glass water jug at his Atlanta home in the offseason — the Nationals signed Wieters in the final week of February to a one-year $10 million deal and a $10 million player option for 2018.
"I'm not a huge sentimental guy," Wieters said. "But at the same time, it's the only place I knew until here, and I believe that you're in different spots at different times in your career and whatever comes from here on out in my career, I can look at Baltimore and always say, this is where I got my start, this is where I learned a lot, this is where I developed and also that I got a lot more time there than a lot of guys do."
Wieters recognizes that that opportunity — to come up and play with a group of core players for an extended amount of time — is rare. Last year, his tenure with the Orioles was extended when the club made and he accepted a $15.8 million qualifying offer, but this past offseason, the Orioles chose a different route, signing catcher Welington Castillo to a one-year, $6 million deal with a $7 million player option for 2018.
"It's one of those things, that's the way the game works sometimes," Showalter said. "We did some things to try to keep him, signed him, evaluated him, liked him, drafted him, everything. When you have a guy who kind of grew up in the organization somewhere else and you know everything about him, there's so much to like about Matt.
"In today's game, for him to have been here as long as he was and the things our ownership did to keep him here for another year and the things we did to sign him. Matt gave a lot of things to us, and we gave a lot of things to Matt."
Even though his late arrival to the Nationals forced Wieters to become a quick study — he had to quickly adapt to a new team, the nuances of a new league and a handling a new pitching — Baker said Wieters' attention to detail helped him make a quick transition.
"He's quiet, but he pays attention," Baker said. "Most of the time you don't even know he's there and then he'll say something [funny] out of the blue and you'll say, 'Where did that come from?' The guys are still learning him and he's on an accelerated learning curve to learn our pitchers big-time because he caught guys in the [bullpen] when he wasn't playing and I had to try to make sure that he caught everybody in a game at least. … There's a level of trust that they appear to have in him."
With the Orioles, Wieters was front-and-center as one of the club's leaders — teammate Adam Jones called him "The General" — but with the Nationals, he joined a group of players who were also already established.
"It's different," Wieters said. "I have less experiences here, so it's kind of like my early years in the minor leagues in Baltimore. … And here, it's kind of like a fresh start. … In this lineup, I feel like we all feed off each other, and in Baltimore we had some new guys coming up with Manny and Schoop, so you had some teaching to do. Here, it's a few more veteran guys, so it's more like, 'OK, let's continue to build throughout the lineup.' I don't know if there's a better way or not."
The Nationals will come to Camden Yards leading the majors in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. They've reached those marks by working patient at-bats to drive a pitcher's pitch count up, which Wieters said is more of a National League mentality. Wieters entered Sunday's game hitting .274/.365/.476 through 24 games, which is significantly higher than his career slash line of .256/.319/.423. He's spent most of the season hitting out of the No. 8 spot in the batting order, and is hitting .348/.455/.674 out of that position.
"It's a little bit of a different philosophy just because there's different talent," Wieters said. "In Baltimore we were very good at hitting the home run and scoring runs. It wasn't something we focused on. It was just something our talent set did and then here, it's a lot more of working counts. You know, I've seen that [more] in the National League than the American League because when that pitcher spot is coming up, you can actually get the pitcher out of the game earlier because if you can get him around that 90-, 100-pitch count, he might not take that at-bat in the fifth inning, so you are getting to the sixth-inning guys that in the American League you might not see."
Wieters is looking forward to seeing his old teammates again. He said he will occasionally text some former teammates, and he stays well versed on what's going on in Baltimore (he asked how Chris Tillman and Zach Britton were doing coming back from injuries).
"We all know what 162 [games] is like," Wieters said. "Everybody's busy, but I'll shoot some texts out when I get a minute in the hotel or what not to see how they're doing, check up on the guys who are maybe hurt or coming back or had a good game. But being in that clubhouse, I know their focus is on their game that night, just like our focus here is on this team this year.
"When I was there, obviously I knew how we did and I'd check in on the other teams in the AL East," he added. "Now, I know how we did, but I'll check on the NL East teams and then I'll check on Baltimore, too. I want to see what's going on over there now, because those guys are still my friends. They're not my teammates anymore but they're still my friends and will always be my friends."