Forever a ‘Dirtbag’: Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was shaped by college baseball and a surprising speech

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It was April 23, 1997. A dreary evening inside a hotel lobby in northeast Wichita, Kansas, when Dave Snow summoned his team.

What followed inside that landmark meeting ground on the outskirts of the Shockers’ campus has become Long Beach State baseball folklore. It’s the Brandon Hyde story his former teammates retell. A watershed moment for the future Orioles skipper who helped pilot one of the greatest regular-season turnarounds in Major League Baseball, good for AL Manager of the Year finalist recognition.

Snow, a veteran baseball coach at Long Beach then in his ninth season, just watched the No. 17 Dirtbags drop back-to-back games in as many days to the 20th-ranked team in the country. They were 27-18 and fading. Snow was befuddled. He could feel the threads that stitched the group together slowly unraveling.

When a Wichita State base runner stole second earlier in the day and nobody was there to cover, the throw sailed into center field. One example of a costly miscommunication turned on-field disagreement that escalated toward a near-physical altercation in the dugout.

“We were struggling,” assistant coach Jon Strauss said of the 14-3 shellacking and 6-5 loss. “We had some issues. Guys weren’t on the same page. Things just weren’t going well.”

Snow was atypically short-spoken in that hotel lobby. He put the onus on his players. There was a brief, still moment. Hyde, a fifth-year catcher whose lack of playing time and reserved reputation didn’t make him the obvious choice, offered to speak.

Based on the collective memory of several Dirtbags present that spring day 26 years ago, Hyde’s speech went something like this:

You guys don’t know how lucky you are. I come to practice every day like you guys. I don’t complain about it. There’s other people around here that don’t complain about it. They come out here, they support you. And you guys don’t wanna work. You don’t understand the opportunities you have. Yeah, we lost tonight. But don’t let that be an OK feeling.

Listen, this could be our last chance this season. For some of us, our last chance ever. You have an opportunity to do something. What I do every summer is I work construction. I do stuff. I don’t get to do what you guys do [play baseball]. I do construction and come back here. After this [season], I’m done. I’ll probably do manual labor forever. I’m gonna tell you something. Work is a—. I don’t want to go work a real job. I want to keep doing this and have fun with you guys.

“It was like a mic drop,” former infielder Mike Stembridge remembers. “He just sat down. And there was nothing uncomfortable or uneasy about it. It was kind of like, ‘Yeah someone had to say it.’ … It sure showed that he had leadership qualities and he had that ability to lead men well before anyone realized that’s where his path was going.”

“That was the thing that always stood out because he wasn’t a big speech guy,” added Jaron Madison, a former Dirtbags outfielder now a special assistant to the Chicago Cubs’ president and general manager. “But he got his point across in as few words as possible and guys respected him.”

When Hyde speaks, even now, there’s no grandiosity in his voice. No physical exuberance. His effectiveness comes across in the low-baritone delivery and barrel-chested stature he’s had since college.

In Wichita in 1997, the right-the-ship monologue sparked six straight wins. The Dirtbags cruised through New Mexico State, No. 25 Cal State Northbridge and UC Santa Barbara, eventually finishing atop their conference with an overall record of 39-26 and earning a berth to the NCAA Tournament Regionals at LSU.

Hyde’s most memorable moment in two years with the Dirtbags (1996-97) was unequivocally the hotel lobby speech. But his shining contribution on the field came against Oklahoma in the first round of the 1997 postseason.

Marcus Jones pitched a two-hit shutout while Hyde blasted a homer that Jones recalls “might’ve put a hole in the LSU scoreboard” in a 1-0 win. The Dirtbags lost to South Alabama in the next round but charged out of the double-elimination loser’s bracket, later falling to LSU, the eventual champs, in the regional semifinal.

‘Understand the mentality’

Former players talk about the Dirtbags with a certain reverence, opposite its colloquial connotation. They wear the name like a badge of honor. It’s indicative of a hard-nosed style of play despite its perplexing nature.

The name traces to 1989, Snow’s first season coaching a team that better resembled the “Bad News Bears.”

In those early years, Long Beach State practiced at nearby Whaley Park, an all-dirt infield where barren soil left dogged players beaten, bruised and sullied. Assistant coach Dave Malpass nicknamed it Dirtbag Field. The previously named 49ers finished 14-45 in 1988. A year later, amidst a remarkable turnaround to 50-15, their newly formed reputation had been born.

Snow had a knack for recruiting guys with some callus. A band of misfits, as Madison called them. The rough-around-the-edges types who maybe didn’t see as many high-profile offers to fit the Dirtbag way.

Like Hyde, who took the junior college route in his hometown of Santa Rosa then jumped to St. Mary’s College of California before walking on at Long Beach in 1996. To keep his baseball dream afloat, he worked summers in construction back home. Hyde even spent his redshirt season as a part-time bouncer at Acapulco Inn, the campus’ local watering hole, to make a few extra bucks.

That was the mold of a Dirtbag — the groomed and highly touted need not apply.

“It was because of the grit that those guys showed [in 1989] and the willingness to do whatever it took to get work in,” Jones said. “It’s like living up to them and what they had to do to survive.”

There was a standard that needed to be met.

First baseman Jeff Tagliaferri remembers certain practices running well into the night. There, they’d repeat drills in the darkness until getting it right. Snow used to also hand out blank hats with shorts and sneakers on the first day of practice for them to work out in. That was a long-standing custom requiring players year after year to exemplify what it meant to be a Dirtbag before rewarding them with the moniker.

“You start to understand the mentality of it,” he said.

Seeing the familiar persona on a much greater stage in September 2021 perked up the ears of a few Dirtbags. Hyde had a quasi-viral moment when the manager was caught on a hot mic in a tiff with Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Robbie Ray. Ray seemed to take issue with a lively Orioles dugout, to which Hyde responded using some colorful language in his players’ defense, later admitting he felt like they were being unfairly accused.

“I loved every second of that because that’s how we were,” Jones said. “Don’t look over here, don’t peek your head in our dugout. We’re gonna call you out for it. And if you wanna get after it, let’s go! That’s what I loved about Brandon. Brandon wasn’t very outspoken. … until [it] hit the fan then the grizzly bear came out.”

Dirtbags watching the rebuild

Hyde was hired to manage the Orioles shortly after the 2018 season. He was plucked from the Cubs to inherit Buck Showalter’s 47-115 team that finished at the bottom of the league.

At the time, reactionary ambivalence washed over Hyde’s former teammates. On one hand, it’s a joyous moment for a friend to reach the pinnacle of coaching in baseball. On the other, they thought maybe he’d been hired only to be the fall guy of an organization seemingly lacking clear direction.

“My thought was, ‘Oh [expletive], that’s gonna be a tough job,” Tagliaferri said. “I would’ve said the same thing if Joe Torre was getting the job. It just was gonna be a tough road.”

“You know what happens in these rebuilds,” Strauss said. “You bring a guy in to lose and right when you’re ready to win, you bring in Joe Maddon. Or you bring in another big-time guy.”

Credit the courage of Hyde leaving St. Mary’s to walk on at Long Beach. Maybe the extra jobs in and out of season to stay afloat for extra motivation. Or the Wichita State blunders that forced Hyde’s hand at his only team address in two years. The Dirtbag nature of earning everything every day and every year, his former teammates say, surely guided him to becoming an effective manager in Baltimore.

It more notably helped Hyde maintain control of the wheel, navigating the Orioles through a soul-sucking rebuild, climbing from 110 losses to 101 wins in two years and earning the organization’s first playoff appearance since 2016, despite a 3-0 sweep to eventual World Series champion Texas Rangers.

When the final out was recorded in the Orioles’ AL East division-clinching win over the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 28, Hyde emerged from the dugout holding back grown-man tears. Former Dirtbags outfielder Chuck Lopez, who bums an MLB streaming subscription off a friend to see his former teammate, watched the scene unfold in 4K from his home in Murrietta, California.

“HYYYDE,” he texted from 2,600 miles away, as fireworks lit up the Camden Yards night sky.

Lopez quipped maybe Hyde told his 2023 team the speech from college. Maybe he felt the resemblance of not wasting an opportunity as the Orioles closed in on their first 100-win season since 1980 and first AL East title since 2014.

Stembridge was streaming history from his laptop. He works as a physical education teacher in Los Alamitos, California, catching innings in his office between classes to see Hyde as well as Anthony Santander and Félix Bautista — both were on his fantasy baseball team.

Luke Fitzpatrick played with Hyde in college and the minors. “Probably more than anybody I played with,” the pitcher said, “you’re like, ‘Oh, this dude’s gonna be a coach.” Fitzpatrick and his baseball-crazed son have been following every stop along Hyde’s career, starting in the Florida Marlins farm system in 2005, up through Chicago. And now at the helm in Baltimore, winning the league’s toughest division with the second thinnest payroll in the majors as a strong candidate for Manager of the Year.

“He’s earned it all, nothing has been handed to the guy,” Strauss said. “Dirtbags are guys that have to earn everything themselves. Nothing is handed to them and he’s the perfect example. Original Dirtbags, old-school Dirtbags, this is how we see Dirtbags. It’s not a marketing tool for us. It’s the way we played, it’s what we earn and Hyde is definitely a Dirtbag.”


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