SEATTLE — The only mistake from Austin Hays was showing his son, Levi, how the seat belt buckle works on a plane.

All four of the Orioles’ All-Star representatives boarded the flight from Minneapolis on Sunday to Seattle with their families in tow. They played music. Adley Rutschman sat with his father and Home Run Derby pitcher, Randy. Right-hander Yennier Cano brought his newborn and right-hander Félix Bautista joked with all the kids.

And there was Hays, trying to corral an energetic 2 1/2-year-old who learned quickly how to free himself.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” Hays said. “Then it was click it, he unclicks it. It became a game.”

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Hays wound up holding on tightly to Levi for most of the flight between Minneapolis and Seattle, but there was little else he and his Orioles teammates would have wanted. Cano said it was “probably one of the best plane rides of my life” — because of where he was flying, to his first ever All-Star Game, but also because of his company.

“Getting on the jet, going together,” Rutschman added, “sitting there kind of smiling at each other like, ‘Wow, we’re really doing this.’”

They really were.

Austin Hays, No. 21 of the Baltimore Orioles, plays with his son, Levi, during the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at T-Mobile Park on July 10, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

For all four of them, Tuesday night’s All-Star Game will be their first. When manager Brandon Hyde announced the names of Baltimore’s representatives during a team meeting late last month, the energy was palpable. Of the four, only Rutschman had even advanced to the second phase of fan voting, where he lost. But earning spots based on a vote of their fellow players is perhaps more meaningful, anyway.

Having four players make the All-Star team — the Orioles haven’t had more than the required one representative since 2016 — shows something deeper about this team:

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The league realizes Baltimore is for real.

The Orioles finished the first half with the third-best record in baseball and they find themselves suddenly in a chase for the American League East pennant, just two games behind the Tampa Bay Rays.

It means there’s so much to enjoy on the field — not just in the air, on a flight that brought them to rub shoulders with MLB’s stars.

“It’s really cool that now people look at the Orioles and see that they’re doing a great job putting a team together,” Cano said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “Now it’s not, ‘Oh, we’re going to play the Orioles.’ It’s a different feeling when they play us. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, man. We’re actually playing the Orioles.’ It’s nice to have that different feel when they come to play us.”

In a way, though, the jet they boarded from Minneapolis to Seattle didn’t originate there. This journey started at different places and at different times for each of the four All-Stars — and for this organization.

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Félix Bautista, No. 74 of the Baltimore Orioles, speaks to the media during Gatorade All-Star Workout Day at T-Mobile Park on July 10, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The bottom

Alex Cobb wanted to perform well, because this is his job, but also because performing well might mean the bottom-dwelling Orioles would trade the right-handed pitcher to a contender.

His time in Baltimore — he arrived in 2018 as a free agent on a four-year, $57 million deal — was difficult. Shortly into his time with the club, the Orioles began a massive reset. They traded homegrown star Manny Machado, the clearest sign yet that for at least the foreseeable future, winning baseball games was not the most important consideration at Camden Yards.

“Nobody’s happy about being on a team that’s gotten blown up and basically, people that aren’t in your clubhouse say you guys don’t have a chance anymore,” said Cobb, who’s now a first-time All-Star with the San Francisco Giants. “‘We’re going to go prepare for the future — a future that you probably won’t be a part of.’ That’s not fun. You’re showing up to the field knowing winning isn’t the priority, and that’s tough to handle.”

Alex Cobb, shown here reacting as he walks off the mound at the end of the fifth inning after he balked in a run during a game in 2018, went 7-22 over three years in Baltimore after the team pivoted to a rebuild. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Cobb’s wish came true in 2021. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias traded him to the Los Angeles Angels, and he soon landed with the Giants. In San Francisco, he’s overcome the injuries and inconsistencies that defined his time in Baltimore, and the 100-loss seasons are behind him, too.

But even from the opposite coast, Cobb looks back on Baltimore every once in a while. It was a largely forgettable time, including a hip surgery that upended his 2019 campaign and the coronavirus pandemic that rendered 2020 so unusual. He went 7-22 with a 5.10 ERA over three seasons; his career ERA is 3.78.

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Yet he still thinks of the conversation he had with Elias when the general manager first arrived from the Houston Astros.

“You knew immediately this team was bound for success,” Cobb said. “They’re coming from a place that knows the formula it takes to have a playoff-contending team, a World Series-winning team. You knew that they were going to be in that position at some point. I don’t think I believed it was going to happen this quickly.”

It happened this quickly largely because of the work Elias and his front office have put in during their first few drafts. Rutschman was Elias’ first selection, and the choice has materialized into everything he might’ve wished for from the Oregon State catcher. Hays, Cano and Bautista are examples of premier player development — raw, inconsistent players who have bought in to what Baltimore’s staff is teaching to reach their current All-Star status.

With them, the Orioles are making a statement around the league. After 89 games, the Orioles have won 54 games. In the three seasons Cobb spent in Baltimore, the club never won more than 54.

“Our suffering and our struggles definitely allowed them to be in this position,” Cobb said.

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It’s the give-and-take of a rebuild, with no guarantee that tanking will lead to better days until they arrive. And they’ve now arrived.

On the map

Yennier Cano, No. 78 of the Baltimore Orioles, speaks to the media during Gatorade All-Star Workout Day at T-Mobile Park on July 10, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

He grabbed that simple sign and turned it over, just staring at it, as if the longer he looked the more he might believe all this.

Yennier Cano, No. 78. All-Star.

Cano had just completed his on-field media session at T-Mobile Park. He’s a 29-year-old who was banned from playing baseball for a year by the Cuban government when he applied for permission to follow baseball abroad. He found his way to Argentina, then labored through the minor leagues and finally made his major league breakthrough — just to be traded to the Orioles midway through last season.

If there’s any surprise about this first half, it’s Cano. He pitched 4 1/3 innings last year for Baltimore and allowed nine runs. Since arriving midway through April, originally because Baltimore just needed any available arm to take up innings as their starters struggled, Cano has turned into the Orioles’ — and the league’s — premier setup man.

So Cano took the plastic sign — meant to tell out-of-town reporters who he is — off the wall and plans to save it for his house.

“A lot of happy feelings, a lot of exciting emotions,” Cano said. “I’m just really excited to be a part of this All-Star Game.”

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There was a similarly roundabout path for Bautista, who was released by the Miami Marlins in 2015 and spent a year out of professional baseball before he latched on with the Orioles. Bautista still had a long way to go, spending the next six seasons in Baltimore’s farm system before he burst onto the scene in 2022.

Now at 28, he has 23 saves this year. His splitter is considered one of the best in baseball. And along with Cano, he makes an imposing one-two punch at the backend of the bullpen.

Then there’s Hays, who first made his Orioles debut in 2017, before thoughts of a rebuild fully materialized. He’s seen it all — three 100-loss seasons — to get here. He will start in center field for the American League in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

Austin Hays, No. 21 of the Baltimore Orioles, speaks to the media during Gatorade All-Star Workout Day at T-Mobile Park on July 10, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

“There’s no way to feel more a part of an organization or more impactful to an organization than to be there when times weren’t fun and weren’t good, and you went through the growing pains,” Cobb said of Hays. “You appreciate the winning aspect a lot more when you were one of the only ones that was there when we were losing 100 games. When you can say you did that, and now you’re part of a team that’s contending for the postseason, he should be really proud and appreciate that.”

Rutschman was a safer bet. He became the No. 1 prospect in baseball and has long been seen as the face of Baltimore’s rebuild. When asked about the weight of that, though, Rutschman emphasized that he doesn’t feel it; the responsibility is equally spread.

Adley Rutschman, No. 35 of the Baltimore Orioles, speaks to the media during Gatorade All-Star Workout Day at T-Mobile Park on July 10, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

He’s a team-oriented player, and while he falls back on cliches at times to dodge certain questions, in this case he meant it wholeheartedly. This Orioles team is made up of many parts — the high-ranking prospects such as Rutschman or Gunnar Henderson, but also a few waiver claims and reclamation projects.

They’ve molded together. They’ve begun to win. They’ve shown that Baltimore is a serious contender again.

The trip to Seattle only reinforces that, with four All-Stars from different backgrounds all on one plane together. There’s much to enjoy, and for these Orioles, it’s each other’s company that leads the list.

“It’s cool to be able to come here and be able to enjoy this moment in the stadium,” Hays said. “But the other moments of how we got here, how we traveled here, and just being able to do it together and with our families, it’s a unique and special experience.”

andy.kostka@thebaltimorebanner.com

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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