After the Orioles won the American League East on Sept. 28, the players’ wives pleaded with Caroline Means to hold it together. If she lost it, then the rest would too.

There was no stopping the inevitable, though.

As the longest-tenured members of the team, Caroline and her husband, veteran left-handed pitcher John Means, have been through the lowest of lows. Three 100-loss seasons, when Caroline sat in empty stadiums among angsty fans. A daunting Tommy John surgery with a back injury setting back their timetable. The constant thoughts in their heads that they weren’t ever going to be good enough.

Now, all of that is behind them.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

And this was a moment of celebration for the whole family.

“Seeing that evolution is amazing,” Caroline said. “In those low points, you wonder if this is the plan for your life. If maybe you are being called to do something else. Naturally, when you are not succeeding, it feels like maybe this isn’t the road I’m supposed to be on. We just prayed about it and talked about it and ultimately he kept going.”

John Means throws with a teammate during an open practice at Camden Yards last week. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

John’s road has hit another bump. He felt soreness in his elbow after throwing a simulated game last week and will not pitch in the American League Division Series. They are hopeful he’ll be back for the American League Championship Series, if the Orioles are still in the playoffs. They are on the cusp of elimination after losing the first two games in the the best-of-five ALDS.

“I know he’s disappointed,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “We don’t want to take any chances, honestly, with it.”

John wasn’t a big-name prospect. Caroline was. He had to move high schools to even make his varsity team. She was one of the top soccer recruits in the country, a star player at USC and a goalie in the NWSL. They met in 2015, after John’s season in High-A and Caroline’s rookie year in Seattle. They clicked instantly, each understanding the other like no one else had before. Caroline retired from soccer in 2018 and joined John on the road.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

She was there for it all. John’s debut in Boston at the end of 2018, when, late in the season, the Orioles just needed a warm body to fill a spot. There was no fanfare. They speculated that most fans weren’t even paying attention by that point in the 115-loss season. That night, a drunk fan ran up to them and told them John was going to be a star. It was the first time she realized other people saw what she did all along.

In 2019, John was an All-Star. The next year, John’s father passed away from pancreatic cancer.

John pushed through his grief the rest of the season.

“He kept going and he never made excuses for himself, even when the worst possible thing happened,” Caroline said. “His dad wanted it that way. His dad wanted him to live his dream. ... Yes, you’re playing a kids’ game. But it’s still hard to do your job when you are in pain.”

The team’s results on the field weren’t any better in 2021, but they celebrated John’s personal successes. He threw a no-hitter in Seattle, nine months to the day after his father died. Caroline wasn’t there because COVID-19 restrictions were in place. When John called that night, the two burst into laughter. They had been through so much already that it didn’t feel real.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

They celebrated at brunch back in Baltimore the next morning with their newborn son.

“I’m like, I can’t believe this,” Caroline said. “He’s like, ‘I know, me either.’”

In 2022, the tides started to change. John, though, wasn’t a part of it. He needed Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, which has a 12- to 18-month recovery. There was no guarantee he would be the same pitcher again.

It was hard for both of them to be away. Their core baseball family — the ones they had been with since the minors — was their support system. Their friends were finally getting to experience success, the team finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2016, but John and Caroline were back in Texas as John rehabbed.

They felt isolated.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“That’s what you hoped and prayed for, and you are so happy because this is legitimately your family who has gotten us through so much the last few years,” Caroline said. “It was more being away from this family that was so hard.”

When they arrived to spring training in 2023, everything was different. Caroline remembers looking around at a family meeting and feeling a weird sensation. There was energy, something that was lacking during those lean years.

There was hope.

They expected John to be a part of it. If all had gone right, he expected to return midseason. John, though, suffered a back injury, setting back his return. He visited the team as often as he could, not wanting to miss more of this season than he already had.

“Every time he would come home from visiting the guys, it was like he was a different person,” Caroline said. “It was like he was going and getting his energy source. He would come back so much more filled up after being around the guys.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

On Sept. 12, John finally returned to a big league mound. Caroline’s never nervous for John’s starts, but she was stressed for this one. So much had changed since the last time he pitched. The Orioles already had 91 wins, nearly more than they had in John’s first two seasons, and were well on their way to securing not only a playoff spot but also the division.

At his debut, she remembers feeling nothing but joy. She’s not naive anymore. She knew he could get shelled, or, worse, feel that awful twang in his elbow again.

She was emotional when he took the mound, but by the third inning it felt like just another start. He got through those five innings, and another five his next time out. By his third start on Sept. 23, Means was flirting with another no-hitter, pitching 7 1/3 innings and allowing just one run against the Guardians.

A few days later, the Orioles clinched the AL East. John and Caroline celebrated separately — John in the clubhouse, Caroline with the wives — before the whole crew went out together. Pizza was their party favor, as John was starting the next day. He still had a job to do, to prove that he could be ready for a playoff game. And, for the first time, his brother Jake was going to be there to watch him pitch in a major league game.

They are exceedingly close, bonded by their love of baseball that was instilled in them by their father. Jake was released by the Royals, their hometown team, on Sept. 26.

Jake’s baseball dream was derailed. But three days later he was in Baltimore to watch his big brother live out his own.

They don’t know what the rest of the playoffs will bring. The goal was just to be here. For John to pitch again. For the family to be together. For the team to win.

Anything after that would be a bonus, even if John isn’t on the field for the ALDS.

“And there’s a lot of bonuses right now,” Caroline said.

danielle.allentuck@thebaltimorebanner.com

Danielle Allentuck covers the Orioles for The Baltimore Banner. She previously reported on the Rockies for the Denver Gazette and general sports assignments for The New York Times as part of its fellowship program. A Maryland native, Danielle grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Ithaca College. 

More From The Banner