The fog machine and strobe lights were working at full strength, turning the Orioles clubhouse Friday into a misty room of celebration. Baltimore had just scored 15 runs against the Boston Red Sox, providing ample reasons for a festive atmosphere.
But through that smoke and blaring music, outfielder Ryan McKenna called for attention. In his hands he held a bright orange belt, overly large in the style professional wrestlers earn for titles. On the metal midsection, two Orioles logos were emblazoned with the message: “Player of the game.”
McKenna held the prize up. The outfielder could’ve chosen from a host of players, given the offensive output, but he singled out Anthony Santander’s four-RBI performance and called his fellow outfielder to the center of the clubhouse to say a few words of his own.
And with that, the latest Orioles tradition was born.
“I had an idea I would be in the mix to be chosen,” Santander said the next day, with the large orange belt sitting atop his locker as a badge of honor. “With another win, I will have to pass it. Or maybe I keep it! We’ll see.”
As so many of Baltimore’s clubhouse and dugout antics have begun, catcher Robinson Chirinos and second baseman Rougned Odor were the veteran masterminds behind the newest trend, using a championship belt to highlight the most valuable player from the win.
The addition of the belt is especially significant to Chirinos, who spends time with the hitters and pitchers equally. Previously, the batter of the game would receive an old-school Polaroid photo shoot. Since the beginning of the season, the printed photos have been hung in the batting cage as a reminder of those standout performances.
There was no all-encompassing award for pitchers and hitters, though, and Chirinos wanted a change. So McKenna stood Friday night, explaining through the haze that whoever was deemed the player of the game — be it a batter or a pitcher — would be presented with the bright orange girdle bedecked in Orioles logos.
“Just have to keep going,” Chirinos said. “Hopefully we give that belt away plenty of times over the next six weeks.”
The first two championship belts Chirinos bought didn’t fit what he had in mind. They were too small, and they didn’t feature the Orioles logos that would make it special. Chirinos gave one to his youngest son and keeps the other in his locker as a backup.
Then he found a website that allowed him to customize a championship belt in his vision. The first was awarded Friday night, when Santander earned the belt. Then on Sunday at the Little League Classic, it became Santander’s duty to hand off the belt to the next player of the game — although he said he’d gladly hand it back to himself if his outing warranted it.
With shortstop Jorge Mateo’s bases-clearing double in the eighth inning the pivotal moment in Sunday’s victory against the Red Sox, Santander called attention in the cramped clubhouse at Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Then he announced Mateo as the player of the game, calling him to center stage for a speech of acceptance.
And on Tuesday, after closer Félix Bautista stranded the bases loaded in the eighth inning and completed a five-out save in the 5-3 win against the Chicago White Sox, Mateo handed over the belt to Bautista.
The belt sat atop Bautista’s locker after the game. He looked back at it with a smile when asked how it felt to receive it.
“It feels really special,” Bautista said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones, “and it feels great to be the first pitcher who has gotten it so far.”
With each addition, the Orioles grow closer. There are traditions, such as the home run chain or the faux-binoculars each player flashes toward the dugout when he reaches base. There are T-shirts, including a list of Chirinos’ favorite sayings and a reference to Bautista’s Omar whistle introduction inspired by “The Wire.”
And now there’s a team-wide championship belt up for grabs each night.
“When you’ve got veterans like Robbie and Rougie and [pitcher] Jordan Lyles, guys who have been around and been part of winning teams, they know what it takes to get through 162 games,” right-hander Spenser Watkins said. “You can be talented as hell and still lose in a 162-game season, so having those little things, it’s a sense of like, you know your teammates are paying attention, that they see the efforts, that they see the little things.”