Editor’s note: Orioles beat writer Rich Dubroff conducted a question-and-answer session with Norfolk Tides beat writer David Hall. Because of the depth of Hall’s answers and the added importance of the minor leagues in the Orioles’ rebuild, we decided to present the Q&A in two parts. Today, in Part 1, Hall talks about how players respond to demotions and which players have impressed him. Tomorrow, in Part 2, Hall shares his thoughts on the Orioles’ rebuild.
Question: Has the Orioles’ new regime made any substantive changes that you can tell at Norfolk? Are there discernible differences?
Answer: The most noticeable, but perhaps least important, thing I’ve noticed is that half the players are walking around with beards now. That wasn’t allowed in the minors under the previous regime.
As far as on-the-field differences, I haven’t noticed much change. I will say that, though it’s always been there to a degree, there is more a palpable sense of opportunity to contribute to the Orioles in the near future. As pitching coach Mike Griffin told me recently: “The door is wide open here. It’s not half-closed or three-quarters closed. The door is wide open, and they realize that. Most of these guys were in major league camp the whole time, so Brandon Hyde and the staff and Mike Elias, they all got to see these guys. And now they’ve got faces in their minds, what these guys look like. So now these guys here in Norfolk just need to go out and pitch well with that door wide open.”
Question: For several years, you covered Ron Johnson, and now you’re covering a first-time Triple-A manager, Gary Kendall. How has Kendall differed from Johnson?
Answer: They’re both great guys who have earned impeccable reputations throughout baseball. R.J. was much looser than Gary has been so far, rarely missing an opportunity to crack a joke – usually at the expense of Griffin, his longtime close friend. None of it is fit for print, but there was almost constant laughter in R.J.’s office. But it’s early yet, and the Tides started off 1-7. Gary and I didn’t know each other before he reported, so we’re still figuring one another out.
Worth noting: R.J. and I spent six seasons together, which is exceedingly rare in the inherently transient minor leagues. We therefore had plenty of time to grow comfortable together. There was a level of mutual trust that simply takes years.
As far as managerial styles, they both have seemed to be flexible enough to run the ballclub based on the type of personnel they’re sent. As you know, Triple-A managers have virtually no say in who’s playing here, so that’s how managers at this level have to be.
Question: Because of the transitory nature of Triple-A, are Norfolk fans able to develop identification with Tides players?
Answer: In a word, sometimes. When guys like former Tides infielders Paul Janish or Drew Dosch are here for long periods over a few seasons, fans definitely build relationships and grow attached. It helps that those are two of the nicest guys I’ve ever covered.
To wit: Janish is now an assistant coach at Rice. When the Owls came to Norfolk to play Old Dominion recently, I went over to catch up with him. Before the game, he had a line of familiar, local faces lined up to say hello. That speaks to the kind of guy Paul is.
Question: Most of the Tides have played in the major leagues, and many with the Orioles. Are most of the players inspired just to get back? Or are they disheartened to be back in Triple-A?
Answer: That’s something I almost always ask a player after he returns here from the big leagues for the first time, often after one day. I asked minor league veteran RHP Matt Wotherspoon that question recently after he made an appearance for the Orioles in Toronto and was sent back the next day. He didn’t hesitate to tell me that the experience was all he dreamed it would be and more, and that it only makes him want to work harder to go back. That’s a common answer I get.
On the other end of the spectrum, I deal with many guys who are veterans of multiple major league seasons, like Janish, Freddy Garcia and Pedro Alvarez. Generally speaking, most of them have been friendly and accommodating. Alvarez, for example, was beloved by his teammates here. He was always open to having the young guys pick his brain, and he never seemed to mind talking to me.
A little-known aside about Pedro: He was a huge fan of afternoon naps in the Tides’ family waiting room, just outside the clubhouse.
Question: Which Tides have impressed you the most so far this season?
Answer: Certainly, 1B Ryan Mountcastle stands out. If you watch him during batting practice, it’s true what Gary and hitting coach Butch Davis said: The ball makes a different sound off his bat, and then it jumps. But Mountcastle, at 22, is learning the nuances of playing first base after starting his career as a shortstop and third baseman. He still has work to do there, and fans clamoring for his promotion would be wise to remember that.
Stevie Wilkerson, who was called up recently, has swung a hot bat so far. And he’s another ridiculously nice and accommodating guy.
Pitching-wise, Yefry Ramirez has looked especially sharp in each of his starts. But of course, O’s fans got an extended look at him last season. He’s a guy I believe will help the major league club sooner rather than later.
Tomorrow: Tides beat writer David Hall talks about some of his favorite stories and what he thinks of the Orioles’ rebuild.
David Hall is a native of Eden, N.C., with a varied background that includes – seriously – nearly six years working in a maximum-security women’s prison, the last three as the facility’s recreation director. He’s been a sportswriter since 1999, and he’s covered professional baseball (and just about every other sport) full-time since 2003, starting in the high Class A Carolina League. A longtime knuckleballer who played every position but catcher until age 30, he also covers University of Virginia football and Norfolk State basketball for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and The Daily Press in Newport News, Va. He’s been on the Norfolk Tides beat since 2013.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.