MLB: Twins' O’Rourke talks about journey to majors
By Mike BerardinoSt. Paul Pioneer Press ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Last month, the bullpen crew at Triple-A Rochester dressed as their favorite wrestlers and acted out an elaborate skit in honor of Bret "The Hitman" Hart, who was in town to sign autograp...
By Mike Berardino
St. Paul Pioneer Press
ANAHEIM, Calif. - Last month, the bullpen crew at Triple-A Rochester dressed as their favorite wrestlers and acted out an elaborate skit in honor of Bret “The Hitman” Hart, who was in town to sign autographs at Frontier Field.
Alex Meyer was The Undertaker. Michael Tonkin was “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Logan Darnell was Hulk Hogan.
For rookie left-hander Ryan O’Rourke, there was never any doubt he would be The Ultimate Warrior, complete with elaborate face paint.
“I loved it,” O’Rourke said. “Are you kidding me?”
Born and raised in Worcester, Mass., O’Rourke grew up watching WWF on television. He’d even dress up as The Ultimate Warrior back then.
“When I was growing up, I’d put the tassels on and everything,” he said. “I did it up.”
Now 27, O’Rourke was stunned when Hart approached him after the routine with a heartfelt appreciation. James Brian Hellwig, The Ultimate Warrior’s alter ego, died in April 2014 at age 54.
“(Hart) came up to me after and was like, ‘You were intense out there,’ “ O’Rourke recalled. “I said, ‘That’s kind of how I pitch.’ “
Hart smiled and told O’Rourke that Hellwig “would have been really impressed” with his clubhouse tribute.
“You don’t realize how much of a compliment that is,” O’Rourke told Hart.
When O’Rourke’s coach at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., came to see him last month at Pawtucket, they shared a laugh over the pitcher’s wrestling tribute. As it turns out, Merrimack’s nickname is the Warriors.
“It’s kind of interesting how it all works out,” said O’Rourke, who had reeled off five scoreless outings since his July 7 promotion.
He would like to point out, however, that the estimable website Baseball-reference.com has it wrong when it comes to big leaguers from Merrimack. A 13th-round pick in 2010, O’Rourke is actually the first ex-Warrior to reach the majors, not the third.
Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski played collegiately at Notre Dame but he never suited up for Merrimack, as the website suggests. Yaz, who lives in the area, merely finished up his degree at the school.
As for former big-league right-hander Dennis Tankersley, that mistake is harder to fathom.
“Someone asked me about Tankersley, and I didn’t know who it was,” O’Rourke said. “I looked through out records and couldn’t find him.”
There was a good reason for that. Tankersley, who pitched parts of three seasons for the San Diego Padres (2002-04), attended Meramec Junior College in Kirkwood, Mo.
So O’Rourke’s arrival two weeks ago carried even greater meaning than realized at the time.
“I’m the only one,” he said with a smile.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound O’Rourke also has no qualms about being known as a lefty one-out guy or LOOGY in modern sabermetric parlance. After another strong showing on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Angels, O’Rourke has held lefty batters to a .067 average (2 for 30) for the Red Wings and Twins combined.
Righties hit .357 off him in 30 trips at Rochester, but the breaking-ball artist who works at 88-92 mph with his fastball learned long ago not to be ashamed of his particular skill.
Former Angels lefty Gary Lucas, now working as a Midwest League pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers after the Twins did not renew his contract last fall, was O’Rourke’s pitching coach for two seasons in Class A Beloit. He helped O’Rourke make the transition to the bullpen for good in 2012 after 24 so-so starts over his first three pro seasons.
“He’d tell me, ‘If you’re left-handed and you can get lefties out, you’ll be in this game a long time,’ “ O’Rourke said. “I don’t think it really rings true until you get up to the upper minors and even now. That’s when you realize it’s a pretty important spot to get the lefties out. I wish I had listened a little better to him back then.”
When O’Rourke got the surprise news of his first big-league promotion, he called Lucas to thank him.
“He was one of the calls I made that first night,” O’Rourke said. “I kind of waited for the news to come out on Twitter and gave him a call. He’s always been great to me. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him for what he did for me in my early career.”
The pitcher knows for a fact he’s not alone.
“I know there’s a lot of lefties down there, still coming through, who still talk about a lot of the things he said,” O’Rourke said. “He kept it really simple for us. He was awesome.”
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