Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays stood huddled in the back corner of the Orioles clubhouse.
Around them, players soaked each other in champagne and shotgunned beers, screaming and shouting and running as music blared. But these three needed a moment to themselves.
Four years ago, they had stood together in the outfield during a pitching change and wondered about this day.
The present was bleak. They were on their way to losing 108 games, the fourth-worst season in franchise history. But they, for the first time in a while, felt some hope. Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson had just been drafted. Santander, Mullins and Hays had a feeling those guys were going to be special. And they knew that, with the way the season was going, they were going to have a top pick again the next year, which would bring even more talent.
Even they have been surprised by just how right they were, though.
It took two more dreadful seasons, including a 110-loss affair in 2021, before the team finally found success. In May 2022, Rutschman made his debut. Henderson and DL Hall followed at the end of 2022, with Grayson Rodriguez, Jordan Westburg and, most recently, Heston Kjerstad joining them in the majors in 2023.
Santander, Mullins and Hays, all just 28 years old, have become the elder statesmen and are the only position players remaining from the dark days. They don’t bring up those grim seasons often with their young teammates, but they remember the days when the clubhouse was so silent after losses that it felt as though players tiptoed around so as not to cause a disruption in an already broken ecosystem.
And they hoped this next generation would never have to experience that.
On Sunday, with the postseason on the line, Santander, Mullins and Hays again trotted out to the outfield together. Mullins and Hays were key parts of the Orioles’ offense, with Mullins hitting the winning sacrifice fly as the Orioles beat the Rays 5-4 in 11 innings.
“We all went through it together,” Hays said. “Getting to celebrate with that small group of guys is amazing. Just seeing what [general manager] Mike [Elias] has been able to build for this organization, and bring guys in from other places, do really, really well in the draft, and just to see this group of guys that he’s put together is really special.”
In that moment, huddled together in the clubhouse, Santander, Mullins and Hays reminisced on that day in 2019. That future they dreamed about was here. They are going to the playoffs, together, for the first time.
“We did it,” they yelled, embracing in one more hug before parting.
They all hope there will be more to celebrate soon. But on Sunday the three position players to survive the rebuild reveled in something they didn’t come close to experiencing during those days: a clinching celebration.
“This is something I’ve always dreamed about,” Mullins said. “For us to be able to come back from previous years, and now we’re here, it feels amazing. This is something I’ve never experienced.”