BALTIMORE -- About 10 years ago, Darren O'Day and Zach Britton each signed their first professional contracts. It was a dream they each realized after boyhoods spent playing in the dirt, playing around parks, laughing and learning and in love with a game that was fun to them.
On Saturday morning, only hours after combining to close out another Orioles victory -- their sixth in a row -- the All-Star relievers were together again at the nearby Fort Meade military base to join in Major League Baseball's inaugural Play Ball Weekend and to feel like kids again.
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"I've got to warn you that the next station might be boring," O'Day told boys and girls at the fielding skills station before they rotated over to the pitching station manned by Britton.
"I think Darren messed them up when they sent them over to me, so I was trying to fix them," Britton said before catching blazing fastballs from the wide-eyed kids. "No, it was a lot of fun. ... We're just trying to spread the love of the game through baseball. We want kids to enjoy it so hopefully they one day follow in our footsteps a little bit."
This was one of two simultaneous Play Ball Weekend clinics staged by the Orioles, each teaching baseball skills to kids with current and former Orioles in attendance. O'Day and Britton were joined by Al Bumbry and Rick Krivda at Fort Meade, helping about 100 children of various military service families. Over at Lake Waterford Park in Pasadena, Md., Orioles pitcher Brad Brach along with alumni Ken Dixon and Larry Bigbie taught fundamentals to more than 40 children with mental and/or physical challenges from the Oriole Advocates Challenger Baseball program.
Britton taught them to step and throw, taking some close-range heaters, including one off the knee with a laugh. O'Day, ever the Florida Gator, taught them fielding by cupping his hand over his glove and asking: "You know what an alligator is, right?"
Among other perks like hot dogs and gear, these and many other kids were given tickets by the Orioles to attend that evening's scheduled home game against the Tigers.
Play Ball Weekend is an extension of MLB's Play Ball initiative, which launched in 2015 as the sport's largest effort to encourage widespread participation in both formal and casual baseball and softball activities. All 30 clubs will showcase Play Ball at home games this weekend or at future home dates, and it meshes with clinics like these in each market.
"Playing youth sports is important, whatever sport it's going to be. Obviously, we chose baseball among other things," O'Day said. "My whole childhood was spent playing in the dirt, playing games in the park, even if I wasn't playing in the game. There were a lot of hours spent as a child that kind of shaped who you are, your love of sports, the competition. I wanted to win. It kind of keeps you out of trouble, too. If you're running around the park getting dirty, you're not getting into trouble."
"We're big supporters of the military and appreciate everything they do," Britton said. "At times it's nice to get everybody out here on a Saturday morning and play some baseball. We have children ourselves, so we're kind of doing this every single day and it's a lot of fun. We really enjoy it."
Fort Meade is of particular interest to Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who has given thousands of tickets to the facility for use by its population. This is the third-largest Army installation in America, and the U.S. Cyber Command post since 2009, but its workforce (54,406) goes well beyond all that. It is home to members of all U.S. military branches and their families -- and lots of budding ballplayers.
"America would not be the same without baseball, and Fort Meade would not be the same without the Orioles," said Col. Brian Foley, garrison commander of Fort Meade and essentially the mayor of a good-sized city. "So their team coming out here and trying to get our youth enthused and encouraged and playing baseball, such a wonderful sport and such a part of our nation, and getting these kids engaged early on in their lives is a wonderful thing."
Oriole Advocates Challenger Baseball provides assistance to Challenger baseball teams in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Southern Pennsylvania. These teams are from youth baseball leagues, county recreation programs, Miracle League and local community programs with the mission of providing children with mental and/or physical challenges an opportunity to enjoy the experience of playing baseball.
"This is what makes playing baseball all worth it, seeing the joy on these kids' faces," Brach said at the Challenger event. "That's what these events are all about and that's why I love being here. I remember playing rec baseball, and if I ever had a Major League player come, that would have made my years."
Brach has a minute 0.72 WHIP in 15 relief outings for the Orioles. Add the other two relievers from the Fort Meade event, and you have a few good reasons why Baltimore (22-12) had the third-best record in baseball heading into Saturday night's game.
"So far we're playing well and hopefully we'll go through a lot of stretches like this," Britton said. "Starting pitching is doing a good job, the bullpen's doing a good job and we're scoring enough runs. I didn't think offense was going to be an issue at all -- it was just a matter of keeping those guys in the game, give them an opportunity to score those runs."
In support of Play Ball Weekend, all Orioles uniformed personnel will wear special Play Ball T-shirts during batting practice and all jerseys will feature a Play Ball patch. On Saturday, the first 7,500 fans 14 and under were to receive an Orioles youth bat and ball set.
On Sunday, 10 players from the Roland Park Panthers International League, a coach-pitch league for youth players ages 8-9, will participate in a pregame cap exchange with Orioles players. More than 10,000 pre-registered youth baseball and softball players will participate in a pregame parade, presented by Ripken Baseball, and kids will run the bases after the game.