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It happens some 270 times every day in Major League Baseball: The pitcher records the third out of the inning, and the catcher heads for his dugout. The broadcast cuts away. Fans stream toward the concourses. The moment is so unremarkable even close watchers of the sport probably could not describe the route every catcher takes.
Every catcher except Adley Rutschman: the top prospect in the sport, the Orioles’ best hope for franchise rejuvenation and, at 24 and not quite a week into his major league career, energetic enough to pop out of his crouch and jog toward the mound, then greet his pitcher near the foul line.
It’s a move you see often enough in Little League. No one with Baltimore can remember seeing it in professional baseball. And no one is entirely sure what Rutschman says out there, including the pitchers he is addressing. But they like it.
“It really fired us up and kind of got the juices flowing, I’d say, in the dugout,” says first baseman Trey Mancini, who first noticed the move after reliever Cionel Pérez escaped a jam in the 10th inning against the Rays on Sunday. “It was actually really fun to see.”
Sometimes Rutschman offers a chest tap or a fist bump, sometimes a quick congratulations. Or, sometimes, as in the moment Mancini mentions, something resembling a primal scream, the specifics lost to history. “Just very emotional, exciting stuff that happens in the moment, and after you kind of forget,” says Pérez, laughing, through interpreter Brandon Quinones. “Just words of support that you know, we’re doing well, that we’re gonna win this game.”
The Orioles are 18–27, a firm fifth place in the American League East. The present is dark: Since their last playoff appearance, a wild-card game loss to the Blue Jays in 2016, they have lost 24 more games than any other team in the sport. Even with Rutschman, perhaps the most hyped top prospect since Bryce Harper debuted a decade ago, they will lose more than they win this year. But if Rutschman is the player the organization believes he is—and if the organization surrounds him with teammates worthy of that player—the future might be bright.
Team officials point to his power at the plate and his precision behind it. They also point to his leadership qualities. That dash to the mound, for example.
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Rutschman demurs. “I guess I’ve always done it,” he says. “You’re doing something together, and if the pitcher has a big moment, I think he wants to celebrate, and I want to be there for him.”
That humility has struck several of his teammates—including the guy he is here to replace. Rutschman has been the best player on the field since the fields had 60-foot base paths. He played his junior season at Oregon State knowing that barring catastrophe he would be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft. He has not been ranked below the No. 5 prospect in the sport since. But teammates say he has been a model rookie, taking the early bus to the ballpark each day, sitting in the worst seat on the train to New York and carrying the players’ poker table into and out of the clubhouse. Other than a well-reviewed performance in the spring training talent show in which he and three other prospects dressed in short shorts and did a meticulously choreographed routine to a 1990s Jazzercise soundtrack, he has mostly tried to keep quiet.
“I’ve seen so many times where guys are high prospects and they think they know everything before they get here,” says 38-year-old catcher Robinson Chirinos, who is in his 11th major league season. “You can be the best prospect in the game, but if you don’t do it in the big leagues, it doesn’t matter. Up here is where you have to show who you are. Being a catcher makes you take that ego out and understand you need to serve others and put others before you, so I think that helps him to be the player he is.”
The team is trying to remind him that the player he is is good enough. When Rutschman arrived from Triple A Norfolk on Saturday, manager Brandon Hyde welcomed him to the team with congratulations and a reminder: I’m not putting any expectations on you in terms of numbers. Just play the game and enjoy it, and if you do that, the numbers will be there.
Mancini encouraged Rutschman to try to enjoy that day as much as possible, so when he took the field as the 23,778 fans at Camden Yards stood and cheered, he paused behind home plate. He slowly spun clockwise, gazing at his new office. Then he crouched and got to work.
“Honestly, I’ve tried to kind of—not eliminate the wow factor, but definitely try to settle in as much as I can from that moment on,” he says.
Field coordinator and catching instructor Tim Cossins, who has spent two decades tutoring backstops such as Phillies All-Star J.T. Realmuto, gives Rutschman the same advice he has given all the rest: A successful day is 1-for-4 at the plate and a win. So far Rutschman is hitting .250. The Orioles haven’t quite cooperated, going 2–3 in his appearances. But they say they think they are close. An era of futility, they say, is nearing its end.
Shortly after Rutschman was drafted, Cossins and the rest of the organization’s catching infrastructure went through video of him from college. They immediately noticed his little mound visits. They discussed whether to eliminate them.
“I thought you know, there’s going to be thousands of little kids that watch Adley Rutschman catch in his career in Baltimore,” Cossins says. “And that signature thing that he does by continuing to go out to the mound and meeting pitchers halfway out there after the third out, I think there’s gonna be a thousand kids that do that. There’s a joy to what he’s doing. And it’s real. It’s not rehearsed. It’s just the way he plays. And that is eventually what we all kind of spoke of and thought: Let’s just let him do his thing. And the beauty of that game is it will impact other kids. I grew up in the Bay Area, in San Francisco, and there was a wave of kids that were influenced by Buster Posey and his mannerisms, and I hope that when we go forward that it’s the same way in Baltimore, with a million little Adley Rutschmans going out to genuinely greet his pitcher after a successful inning. I hope it stays.”
Maybe, like Rutschman, the Orioles can take a different route.