All around him a tempest swirled — the bubbling froth of overflowing champagne bottles while cigar smoke wafted through the air — but here Kyle Gibson was in his own little world.

He had a nonalcoholic seltzer in his hand, a smile on his face. He was drenched from the early shower of spirits and would later be pulled into the fray again, the way a parent is convinced of joining a water balloon war only after the first barrage is thrown.

But, just for that moment, Gibson took it all in by himself, near his plastic-covered locker and within reach of the relative safe haven of the clubhouse bathroom.

“I like to stand back and watch, because I’ve gotten to do it a few times,” Gibson said. “I like to see everybody’s faces. Everybody experiences it different.”

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Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Shintaro Fujinami is doused with beer and champagne in the clubhouse following the team’s playoff-clinching win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, September 17, 2023. The Orioles earned a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

To Shintaro Fujinami, a full bottle was a waste, and he sought to spray everyone within a 15-foot radius with beer or champagne before taking a selfie with his victims. Anthony Santander’s cigar was a well-earned treat after experiencing the 100-loss seasons of years past. Félix Bautista held his cigar in his mouth and a bottle in his hand. Austin Hays enjoyed a beer shower that would require a water shower later, Adam Frazier wore sunglasses and a mosh pit of jumping Orioles players broke out.

Gibson surveyed the scene.

He’s the elder statesman, patrolling the room to make sure none of his younger teammates gets hurt. He found joy by watching their joy.

“This is what everybody plays for,” Gibson said, “so, the fact we have guys who have never experienced this, you get to see them go out here and enjoy it.”

The inexperience made the debauchery so pure, so authentic. This was the first time for Adley Rutschman, for Gunnar Henderson, for Ryan O’Hearn and many others. This was a release after a tense 5-4 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday — a release that was uncorked after half a year of playing high-pressure baseball.

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The Orioles are going to the postseason for the first time since 2016.

For many of them, this was their first champagne celebration, and it showed. When Baltimore players filtered into the clubhouse and began to grab bottles from a laundry cart in the middle, a few popped theirs early. Ryan Mountcastle, one of those guilty members, wore a sheepish expression, hoping no one noticed he had jumped the gun.

“Got to relax, boys! Don’t pop already,” yelled Aaron Hicks, who has been to the playoffs five times with the New York Yankees.

Baltimore Orioles third baseman Gunnar Henderson and catcher Adley Rutschman take a calm sip of beer in the clubhouse amidst the chaos following the team’s playoff-clinching win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, September 17, 2023. The Orioles earned a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

They waited for manager Brandon Hyde, who called his players around him and noted how this was just “step one” — the American League East championship is still within reach. “We’re going to keep doing this,” Hyde called out, and then the bottles popped and champagne flowed and liquid began to pool on the floor. It was a whirlwind of shenanigans, with the Homer Hose repurposed into a beer bong that everyone — including chairman John Angelos — chugged from. Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander, the survivors of the rebuild, held a long group hug. “We did it,” they shouted as they separated.

“You try to build a culture here,” Frazier said. “These guys lost a lot of games the past few years, so in order to build a winning culture, you gotta celebrate the victories, and that’s what we’re doing right now. It’s been a long time coming. I wasn’t here for the bad times, but a lot of these guys were. I know it tastes way more sweet to them. They earned it. We earned it. You don’t take it for granted any time you get a chance to celebrate.”

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And, before long, all that champagne and beer was gone.

It was in stomachs and bloodstreams, sure, but also on the floor and on clothes and in any eyes that weren’t covered by shades or goggles. This group is new, though, and they quickly learned to adjust midparty.

They picked up the laundry cart that was used as their cooler and dumped all the empties on the floor. They chased after Heston Kjerstad, who made his debut Thursday, and put him in the cart. James McCann steered Kjerstad around as Rutschman led a group of players into the kitchen. They returned with anything they could find — ranch dressing, a smoothie, olive oil — and dumped it on Kjerstad.

Baltimore Orioles catcher James McCann is sprayed in the face with champagne in the clubhouse following the team’s playoff-clinching win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, September 17, 2023. The Orioles earned a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Through it all, Gibson watched.

He watched and he smiled and he thought of how special it is for this group to experience its first clinch celebration. There’s more to play for with two weeks remaining in the season. But, for one afternoon, the Orioles let loose.

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“You’re never guaranteed another moment like this,” Gibson said. “And we’re not guaranteed to win the division. We’re not guaranteed to win the first round. So you celebrate it each moment, each time along the way, and each one will build. You guys will see. It’ll get a bit bigger each time.”

Banner reporter Danielle Allentuck contributed to this story.

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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