When Ryan O’Hearn watches film, he occasionally turns the camera angle — although not for a better view of his swing mechanics. He angles it toward the dugout, searching for one specific movement from the gathered Orioles starting pitchers.
He wants to see whether one of Baltimore’s starters doffs his cap to his fellows, then places it on the dugout railing.
“If they don’t,” O’Hearn joked, “it’s like, ‘What the hell?’”
The symbolic nature of the hat on the railing has taken off throughout Baltimore’s clubhouse. During each game, the starting pitchers who aren’t on the mound that day play a game they dub “The Yard Card” — using their hat as an official calling card for a home run. They try to predict, with varying degrees of success, which of their teammates will go yard.
And O’Hearn noticed how, despite his breakout season for the Orioles that finds him in the heart of the order on a nightly basis, the dugout railing was often devoid of hats for his plate appearances.
Until June 13.
Left-hander Cole Irvin had heard O’Hearn jokingly gripe with his teammates over their lack of belief in him at the plate. So when O’Hearn stepped up to bat against Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Chris Bassitt, Irvin took off his hat and placed it on the railing, backing O’Hearn to hit a home run for the second straight game.
He swung. The ball sailed off his bat. And when O’Hearn reached the dugout, the excitement exceeded even the usual fervor that follows a two-run homer.
All because of a hat on a railing.
“I went nuts,” Irvin said. “I was like, ‘That was for you!’”
The Yard Card game has long existed In Major League Baseball dugouts, although the rules change from team to team. Irvin first learned it while sitting in the Philadelphia Phillies’ bullpen, brought it with him when he joined the rotation with the Oakland Athletics and pitched it to his new Orioles teammates soon after he arrived in Baltimore.
Right-hander Kyle Gibson jumped on board immediately. He remembers early in his career when he first learned a variation of the game with Stew Cliburn, then the Double-A pitching coach for the Minnesota Twins. In his book, Cliburn kept track of each pitcher’s calls and results.
There’s nothing so formal for the Orioles. After all, they don’t call their shots correctly most of the time.
“It’s pretty easy to keep track of,” Gibson said. “In all the years that I’ve done it, I mean, maybe two or three? So, really, it doesn’t happen very often. Not many guys end up calling one and you always know when it happens because everybody gets excited.”
The rules have changed since Irvin first introduced them at the beginning of the year, and each time he gets called up and sent back down to Triple-A Norfolk, Irvin needs to ask around to make sure he knows how to play Baltimore’s variation.
The rules are fairly straightforward, however. Pitchers are allowed to call two home runs per game. If a batter reaches base safely — no matter how — the hat stays down in an attempt to prolong an offensive rally. If Baltimore scores that inning with a hat down, the pitcher who initially called a homer gets his hat back without penalty — meaning he didn’t lose one of his two homer calls on a productive inning.
“There are a couple strategies, like when there are guys on second and third or a guy on second or whatever, you can do the strategic hats,” right-hander Dean Kremer said. “I probably wouldn’t go for the solo homers, because those are much more difficult to predict.”
The wins are few and far between, but right-hander Tyler Wells got on the board with infielder Gunnar Henderson’s grand slam earlier this month. Right-hander Kyle Bradish said “I’ve put down quite a few, but I have not gotten one right.” Kremer’s in a similar boat.
But out of all the seasons the 35-year-old Gibson has played this sort of dugout game, he’s never had more success than with the Orioles. He has already called three home runs, including outfielder Anthony Santander’s grand slam in a win against the Atlanta Braves in early May.
After Santander reached the dugout, Gibson grabbed hold of him and shook him, screaming in his ear. At the time, Santander had no idea what he said.
“He win something,” said Santander, who laughed along even though he was confused. “I didn’t understand what he say right there, but he was excited. He was happy about something.”
“Whenever you see me yelling at Gibby after a big home run and he’s cheering like crazy,” Wells said, “it’s because he just won and I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
One of the peak moments of the year came when left-hander John Means made his first call of the season, then watched Henderson promptly blast a 462-foot homer to Eutaw Street. Before the game, Means said, a conversation with Henderson left Means confident. The 21-year-old was in the midst of a hot streak and Means rode the hot hand at the right time.
Means was 1-for-1, a tempting place to stop, but he’s since gone on a cold spell. He’ll never let anyone forget his first call, though.
“I haven’t stopped talking about it,” Means said. “It’s died down a little bit, but for the few days after that I was letting everyone know, making sure I got just as much credit as Gunnar did, of course, because it was mostly me — I put down my hat on a dugout rail.”
Maybe there’s something to it. Or maybe it’s a mixture of the batter’s skill, his matchup with the pitcher and a lot of luck.
But it keeps the starting pitchers engaged throughout an outing, and when they do call one right — however infrequently — they remember baseball is just a game they’ve been playing all their lives.
“A lot of it is just silly stuff,” Gibson said. “Just trying to be kids still.”