Ryan Mountcastle’s head dropped when he realized the first ball pulled out of the batting practice bucket had his name written on it. He needed the batter to crush it, to send that ball with Mountcastle, John Means and Grayson Rodriguez written on it as far from the Camden Yards home plate as possible.
His fantasy football draft position was riding on this, after all.
The batter, manager Brandon Hyde, had bunted a few balls. He took a handful of warmup hacks. He wore shades and batting gloves and held outfielder Ryan McKenna’s bat. Hyde was as ready as he could’ve been — considering he was somewhat out of practice — and he drove a flare into short center field as Rodriguez, Means and Mountcastle looked on.
“All right, that’s not too bad,” Mountcastle initially thought.
But Hyde hit a groove from there.
“The next 11 he just rocketed out there,” Mountcastle said, chagrined in the clubhouse after the session.
Mountcastle’s team has finished last for two straight seasons. When he saw how close in his ball finished compared to the rest, Mountcastle began resigning himself to another year on the bottom of Baltimore’s premier fantasy football league.
The Orioles established their fantasy draft order Wednesday before the second game against the Toronto Blue Jays by pressing Hyde into duty. They gathered around the manager, who hadn’t taken batting practice since he was in Lake County, Ohio, in 2006.
Hyde’s only goal, he said, was to escape the venture healthy. During that 2006 session, then the manager of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Hyde pulled his oblique stretching with his team in the outfield.
“We’ll see tomorrow,” Hyde said. “So far I’ve checked that box.”
And when balls began to fly off Hyde’s bat — including one looping fly ball to deep left field — his players yelled out.
“He had one that would’ve definitely left in the old park,” said Gunnar Henderson, who wound up with the seventh-furthest ball only because a bounce off the wall reduced the distance from the plate. “Had some good line drives. Stuck to the left side of the field.”
They pulled out a range finder to determine the precise distance from home plate. That was only half of it, though.
The draft order is still yet to be doled out specifically. Infielder Adam Frazier’s ball landed the farthest from home plate, which gives him the opportunity to choose where he wants to pick in the draft (likely first overall).
The first few selections will likely go fairly soon, and then there’s more strategy involved. Rather than choosing the No. 5 pick, some players may favor picking at the end of the round — with a snake draft, the No. 12 pick also drafts at No. 13 overall, so teams can double up on talent rather than waiting.
“Absolutely,” first baseman Ryan O’Hearn said when posed with just such an idea. He’s selecting a draft place fifth, and a late-round choice is enticing.
Then he paused and his eyes bugged.
“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you,” O’Hearn said, suddenly wary of revealing his plan to his teammates.
He probably doesn’t have much to worry about, with the top three picks likely all but locked in and the combination of catcher Adley Rutschman and pitching strategy coach Ryan Klimek choosing fourth. O’Hearn doesn’t have to “make any big decisions” with so few teams ahead of him. “It’ll just present itself to me and I’ll pick accordingly.”
The Orioles used the same approach last season, although bullpen catcher Joel Polanco took batting practice then. He didn’t want the honor this year, though, because he felt sore for two weeks after it.
Hyde was the unanimous selection, then, after a meeting of the league owners. He accepted the assignment. Hyde won the league last year, so Henderson figured he was due for a fantasy retirement.
Most teams have multiple owners. Henderson paired with strength coach Trey Wiedman because he seems invested (while Henderson is not). Mountcastle said all roster decisions will go through the brain trust of himself, Means and Rodriguez — but he doesn’t expect any major disagreements.
How about O’Hearn, the major Green Bay Packers fan who has visited Lambeau Field many times?
“I’m the GM,” O’Hearn said. “I’m the owner, the head coach, offensive coordinator, you name it.”
They’ll all draft soon, with the season opener approaching Sept. 7. With the 11th selection, Mountcastle has already begun preparing for one of the most undesirable picks: eighth. He and Rodriguez began a mock draft together shortly after Hyde’s batting practice determined the order, and he’s hoping this time he won’t be the owner of the league’s worst team.
There was no penalty for last place in 2022. But, when Mountcastle and left-hander Keegan Akin finished last in the 2021 fantasy league, they served as bat boys during a 2022 spring training game.
To win at fantasy football, a successful draft is important. But there’s also the mastery of the waiver wire, midseason trades and more than a bit of luck involved. Maybe this time, with Means and Rodriguez onboard, Mountcastle won’t be in for a fantasy football season of losing.
“Hopefully our three brains will not come in last for the third year in a row,” Mountcastle said.
But Hyde’s first swing on Mountcastle’s ball didn’t help matters.