In the midst of all the flying champagne was a player who has never played for the Orioles. He wore goggles and partied along with the rest Sunday when Baltimore clinched its first playoff berth since 2016, but among all the recognizable faces he was a surprise.
It was José Godoy, there for the weekend as the Orioles’ taxi squad catcher, and the timing worked out that he could celebrate as a member of the team he’s helped behind the scenes for much of the year.
Godoy could’ve been Anthony Bemboom or Maverick Handley or Meibrys Viloria. They’re Orioles by association, members of the organization who have spent the season with Triple-A Norfolk, and yet in short spurts they’ve also contributed in their way to make the Orioles the top team in the American League.
And so Godoy sprayed champagne, a member of all this even if he wasn’t activated.
“It’s fun, because you’re with a baseball team,” Godoy said. “And a winning team. It’s fun to be around.”
This is the life of the Orioles’ taxi squad catchers this season. They’re the 27th man on a 26-man roster. They don’t take the field, yet they belong. For Godoy, Sunday’s clubhouse celebration was a rare moment in the spotlight.
Much of their time with the Orioles is spent catching bullpen sessions, poring over scouting reports and conversing with pitchers over any changes in their repertoire. In between, the taxi squad catchers find time for their own development, so when they do return to Norfolk they won’t be rusty.
And, through it all, they stay ready, just in case the unexpected occurs and they are called upon at a moment’s notice.
It’s an unglamorous job. But, when the regular season ends and Baltimore wraps up the club’s best season in a decade, they can say they played a role.
“That’s exactly why I signed here again, is to be part of something like this,” Bemboom said, “and get a chance to contribute to a team any way I can that has a possibility of making a deep postseason run. That’s what it’s all about.”
They arrive early to get their own work done in the batting cages, simulating game situations as best they can to ensure they stay sharp. Then they begin their largest responsibility: catching.
They don’t earn major league service time while on the taxi squad. Nor do they earn major league pay. The taxi squad catchers continue to make their minor league wage. They’re given a meal stipend and put up in a hotel right by the ballpark.
For Handley, a 25-year-old who aspires to make it to Baltimore in a full capacity one day, it’s not a bad gig. In his two stints as a taxi squad catcher this year, he has had glimpses of the glamour that is a major league clubhouse and the team accommodations.
“They put me up in the Hyatt next door,” Handley said. “It’s better than the ones in Jacksonville or Memphis, I’ll tell you that. I slept like 11 hours last night. King bed, the food’s amazing, lockers, the clubhouse setup — you’re just like, wow, this is cool.”
It still comes with a caveat. They’re not playing games if they’re on the taxi squad.
“I don’t have cleats on,” Handley said. “So I know I’m not getting in. It’s definitely different, right?”
Bemboom has played fewer games this season than ever before in his professional career, barring the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign. That’s part of the tricky balance of being a taxi squad regular, although Bemboom has been on this duty for the better part of four seasons.
At this point, Bemboom knows to arrive early. That way he can complete his own work in the batting cages before he’ll be called upon to catch for whichever pitchers are assigned to throw that day. But he’s also learned from his mistakes, from when he overdid his own work in 2021 — his first extended taxi squad experience with the Los Angeles Angels — and hampered his performances when he returned to the minors.
“I tried to do everything every day,” Bemboom said. “I would try to run sprints, try to catch bullpens. I would try to long toss, go lift. It was not realistic for that point in the season when you don’t really need it. I was doing almost offseason stuff during the season because I wasn’t playing, and that’s not the best thing for me.”
By overworking as a taxi squad catcher, Bemboom cost himself at-bats in the minors through injury. Now, though, his better understanding of his everyday responsibilities has helped him navigate the unexpected trip to the majors as an extra.
And, when Bemboom negotiated with the Orioles last offseason, he understood this would largely be his role — an emergency option should Adley Rutschman or James McCann get injured.
“I knew this organization was something I wanted to be a part of, and I believed in what they were doing here, and the culture and plan, so that was a big part of it,” Bemboon said. “I would rather be in a culture like this every day, because it makes it so much easier if you’re not the guy.”
On Tuesday, Viloria’s involvement as the taxi squad catcher in Houston expanded because manager Brandon Hyde hoped to give Rutschman a complete day off. The heavy load for Rutschman, both as a catcher and designated hitter, had resulted in five straight days of catching.
“You try to have him relax and not squat at all if possible,” Hyde said.
In his place, Baltimore’s permanent bullpen catchers, Joel Polanco and Ben Carhart, are joined by the taxi squad backstop, all catching so the franchise cornerstone is rested for the next game and the postseason to come.
They know it’s not permanent. They know they’re part of the team but not, really, full members. But, for all of them, the experience in a major league dugout is an experience that only heightens their dreams of making it to the show.
“This is what we’re playing for,” Handley said. “This is where I want to be. It’s freaking nice, dude. It’s really nice. It’s definitely motivation, getting this little taste of it.”