Every now and then, I realize the good fortune I’ve been afforded in covering Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette. There really isn’t anyone like him in this sport.
Forget about marching to the beat of a different drummer, Duquette marches to music only he hears.
Take this week for instance.
On Wednesday, Duquette agreed to a one-year deal (plus a player option) with non-tendered catcher Welington Castillo – a move that looks to be a pretty good match for both parties and one that fits Duquette’s modus operandi of short-term deals for players that are looking to re-establish themselves.
Then, a day later, Duquette delivered another patented move: Sign a guy who baseball seemingly forgot, and give him another chance.
The true beauty of Duquette is that he often tops himself, digging deeper into the well than anyone realizes. On Thursday, he signed a player whom he originally signed 18 years previously: Japanese import Tomo Ohka, who is now 40 and has re-invented himself as a knuckleballer.
I had no idea Ohka was still pitching (he was, in an independent league in Japan). Most people didn’t. Duquette did.
Ohka is the longest of longshots to make the Orioles. For most of us, it seemed both random and perfectly Duquette, who may end up with another last laugh if Ohka can make it back to the majors.
Here’s a tribute to the move: an array of random Ohka facts.
** Duquette, while with the Boston Red Sox, first purchased Ohka’s contract from Japan’s Yokohama Bay Stars on Nov. 20, 1998. How long ago was that? Consider that the day before Ohka originally joined Duquette, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings on President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Consider that current O’s star third baseman Manny Machado was 6 at the time. Consider that the Orioles had just completed a losing season, the first of a franchise-worst, 14-consecutive, sub-.500 campaigns, a streak snapped in Duquette’s first year running the Orioles in 2012.
** Ohka’s major-league debut was July 19, 1999 at the Florida Marlins. He started and lasted just one inning (and two batters in the second). Former Oriole Kevin Millar was the cleanup hitter for the Marlins in that game. Ohka was relieved in the second by another former Oriole, Pat Rapp. And guess who finished that game for the Red Sox? Tim Wakefield, a knuckleballer picked off the trash heap by Duquette.
** Ohka’s first win as a major leaguer came on October 1, 1999 at Camden Yards. He pitched three innings of scoreless relief (of course, he did) against the Orioles. He entered the game for Brett Saberhagen, who threw two innings in a final, regular-season tune-up before starting Game 2 of the ALDS. The Orioles three pitchers that October night were starter Doug Linton and relievers Brian Falkenborg and Jim Corsi. Mike Figga was the Orioles’ starting catcher. It was the penultimate contest of Figga’s career. Ryan Minor, Mike Bordick, Albert Belle and Gene Kingsale all had singles against Ohka; no one had an extra base hit.
** Ohka was traded by Duquette to the Montreal Expos in July 2001 as part of a package for reliever Ugueth Urbina, who is best known for serving seven years in a Venezuelan prison for attempted murder with a machete.
** Ohka spent three seasons with the now defunct Expos. If he makes it to the big leagues this year, he’ll join Atlanta’s Bartolo Colon as the only active former Expos still playing (Ian Desmond, for instance, was selected by Montreal in the third round of the 2004 draft, but never played for the big-league team).
** Ohka was an original Washington National, but lasted just 10 games before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for the legendary Junior Spivey. The trade was precipitated by Ohka’s disrespect of Nationals manager Frank Robinson in a game a few days earlier. Robinson went to the mound to pull Ohka in the fourth inning, and the pitcher turned his back to the former Oriole great instead of giving him the ball. Ohka never pitched for Washington again.
** Ohka’s last big league outing was for the Cleveland Indians in Boston on October 4, 2009, nearly 10 years to the day from his first win big-league win. Ohka lasted five innings and surrendered seven runs in that game, allowing home runs to Dustin Pedroia, J.D. Drew and Alex Gonzalez.
** Ohka’s last professional season in the U.S. was in 2014 with the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League. Another member of the Bluefish that season was former NL Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis, who was signed by the Orioles in March 2012, Duquette’s first spring as executive vice president.
** In a 2003 episode of The Simpsons, Bart Simpson, while playing baseball, says, “Look at me, I’m Tomokazu Ohka of the Montreal Expos.” His buddy, Milhouse, replies, “I’m Esteban Yan of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.” It was random, and pretty funny. Yan, who was selected by the Devil Rays from the Orioles in the 1997 expansion draft, had actually signed with the Texas Rangers a few months before the episode ran. Yan last played in the majors in 2006.