Jackson Holliday’s no. 7 Orioles jersey happened with a call to Cal Ripken Jr.

BALTIMORE — Late Tuesday night, as news of his call-up got out and his bags were packed to join the Baltimore Orioles, Jackson Holliday thought he finally knew what his major league debut would look like. He would play second base, one of the few places the Orioles had room. And he would wear the No. 1 jersey, a coveted single-digit number befitting the player chosen first overall in the 2022 draft and baseball’s undisputed top prospect. The 20-year-old was set to become the youngest player to appear for the Orioles in over a decade. This number would do the trick.

Some people within the Orioles organization knew that Holliday, son of former big leaguer Matt, would likely pick No. 7 if he had his way. His father wore this number for years and Jackson I wore it to the Futures Game, a prospect showcase that was part of last year’s MLB All-Star event. But Holliday wasn’t going to ask for it. He knew this number was sacred.

Years before 20-year-old Holliday was born, the number belonged to longtime Orioles manager Cal Ripken Sr. No Baltimore player had worn it since his son, Billy, in 1988. He was not retired, not exactly, but the Orioles had it. I wasn’t willing to give it to anyone else either.

Yet as they planned for Holliday’s arrival, Orioles officials considered the possibility that Holliday was the right player to put No. 7 back into circulation. But giving No. 7 to Holliday was even more important than when they decided to give Mike Mussina’s old number, 35, to Adley Rutschman two years ago. Mussina is an all-time Orioles great. But the Ripkens are Orioles royalty.

Still, if the Orioles are right about him, Jackson Holliday is also a once-in-a-generation guy. Late Tuesday night, as Holliday prepared for an early morning flight to meet the team in Boston, Orioles officials made a suggestion. And for perhaps the first time in a young professional baseball career marked by uncommon comfort on the field and in the batter’s box, Holliday seemed uncertain.

“They told me, ‘You can call Cal (Ripken Jr.) if you want,’” Holliday said. “But I didn’t really want to disturb him, it was around 11 p.m. at night.”

The next morning, at 7:45 a.m., Ripken Jr.’s phone rang. Holliday didn’t want to upset the Hall of Famer, but longtime Orioles clubhouse keeper Fred Tyler didn’t care. Tyler worked for the Orioles longer than Holliday was alive and has decades of history with the Ripken family. So, with the Orioles open to the idea, he called Ripken Jr. He asked him how he would feel if someone else, after all this time, finally wore his father’s number.

“My immediate reaction was I thought it was great,” Ripken said. He checked in with his brother, Billy, who also supported me. Tyler forwarded Cal Ripken Jr.’s phone number. Shortly after, Holliday called the franchise icon, which didn’t give the kid much time to worry.

“He was very respectful, but in a way I took the call,” Ripken said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Are you in the lineup tonight?’ He replied: “Yes, I reached ninth place.” I said, “Well, it won’t be for long.” »

Ripken told him he also reached eighth and ninth in the first few weeks of his big league career. By the end of the call, it was done. Hours later, Holliday debuted as the first Oriole to wear number 7 in decades. And the next day, Ripken Jr. — recently reinstated to the organization as a member of David Rubenstein’s new ownership group — was doing interview after interview with national and local media, talking about the kid, the number and his father , deceased. in 1999.

“Because we’re talking about it now, it’s a nice way to remember Dad. We’re talking about dad now,” Ripken said. “The spirit of the Orioles now, developing players in the minor leagues, sending really great talent to the big leagues – that was what Dad was all about. For the first 14 years of my life, he was part of an organization that continued to develop very good players in the minor league system and send them to the major leagues. So I thought it was a wonderful time to connect in that way.

Few teams funnel elite talent to the majors like the Orioles are these days, who have so many gifted players in their system that they barely have room for all of them. Holliday was one of a handful of young players from the Class AAA Norfolk Tides who would be part of many major league teams, a group that was nicknamed the Norfolk Five until his departure. The other four – Heston Kjerstad, Kyle Stowers, Coby Mayo and Connor Norby – could likely compete for spots on Baltimore’s roster right now. Stowers (1.087 OPS in Class AAA this year, entering Saturday) and Kjerstad (1.352 OPS with seven homers in 53 at-bats) have made a strong case that they should be here already.

In fact, as Holliday prepared to play his first game at Camden Yards Friday night, he did so opposite two former Orioles farmhands, left-hander DL Hall and infielder Joey Ortiz. Both were highly touted prospects who never found their way into the major leagues in the Orioles’ loaded system, but have slid straight into regular roles with the Milwaukee Brewers since being traded for the ace Corbin Burnes this winter.

But even in this busy system, Holliday emerged as something different. When he signed with the Orioles after being drafted in 2022, he admitted his goal was to make it to the majors in less than two seasons. He went through the minors in a year and a half.

When the Orioles left Holliday off the Opening Day roster, their general manager, Mike Elias, said they wanted left-handed hitting Holliday to see high-level left-handed pitchers. After all, the only thing he had never done in his minor league career was a home run against a lefty. As it happens, his first at-bat of the 2024 regular season came against a left-hander. He hit a home run. Then he drove in 18 runs in 42 at-bats. The Orioles, who could have gained an extra year of service if they had waited until next week to call him up, didn’t hesitate.

Because Holliday made his debut Wednesday, he will be able to accumulate 173 days of service time if he stays in the majors the entire season. Under the collective bargaining agreement, rookies who accumulate 172 days of service and finish in the top three in Rookie of the Year voting earn their teams an additional draft pick the following year. The Orioles, whose outfielder Colton Cowser also retains rookie status, saw Gunnar Henderson win the award last year. In most cases, it would be absurd to project anyone to win Rookie of the Year, regardless of their talent. The Orioles aren’t operating under normal circumstances these days.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed. By the time the Orioles returned to Camden Yards Friday night, Holliday had yet to record his first big league hit. He didn’t seem too worried. Balance, as much as preternatural talent, is what makes Holliday so different from most players his age.

When reporters swarmed his new locker at Camden Yards before Friday’s game, Holliday not only greeted them, but began by asking how everyone was doing before answering several minutes of questions without the slightest irritation. He was perfectly comfortable admitting that he actually liked the gift T-shirts the Orioles had made for his home debut, the ones that so many of his teammates wore during batting practice, apparently to seriously commemorate the moment experienced by the child.

When he stepped into the left-handed batter’s box at Camden Yards for the first time Friday night, he did so just a few feet from where Ripken Jr. was sitting. He also did it in front of 32,205 people, many of whom bought tickets just to see him, and all of whom were on their feet. They stood up every time he struck out, even though he struck out all three times.

Holliday is 0 for his first 11 in the majors and will have a day off Saturday. He’s now three no-hitters in his major league career, which is a long wait for a prospect under pressure. But it’s certainly not unprecedented. Ripken Jr. said he still remembers going 3 for his first 32, still remembers George Brett teasing him because it took him until his fourth big league appearance to get his first major league hit. Four decades later, he is the only one who has not yet forgotten this part.

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