Jeremy Guthrie was driving solo from his Utah home to Las Vegas to see a Justin Timberlake concert when he got the phone call that changed the course of his baseball career.
The caller that day in January 2007 was Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, who informed Guthrie he had just been designated for assignment, all but guaranteeing the pitcher's departure from an organization that thought he would become an ace but grew tired of waiting.
"Honestly, my first reaction was excitement," Guthrie said. "I knew I had no shot to make that team."
Guthrie is Mormon and a man of devout faith, but not even he could have imagined things working out as they have. The Orioles claimed him off waivers before last season, a transaction that first baseman Kevin Millar called "basically a gift from God for this organization."
Now, after a rookie season in which he impressed teammates and opponents with his stuff and his competitiveness, the 28-year-old right-hander will sprint out to the Camden Yards mound this afternoon and fire the first pitch of the Orioles' season to the Tampa Bay Rays' Akinori Iwamura.
His seven career major league wins and 27 career big league starts suggest otherwise, but in a sense, Guthrie is the ideal Opening Day starter for this year's Orioles. The organization, which traded ace Erik Bedard and shortstop Miguel Tejada this offseason, is in full rebuilding mode and has been understandably written off already this season by just about everyone outside of its clubhouse.
There will be opportunities given to younger players and expectations placed on the older ones to hold the team together. In one year, Guthrie will be asked to become one of the older guys, having already made good last year on an opportunity that he wondered whether he would ever get.
"I think he's a great story for the Baltimore Orioles," said Dave Trembley, who will be experiencing his first Opening Day as a major league manager this afternoon. "It kind of epitomizes what we're trying to do here, with major league players and major league people. You have to have both if you're going to get back the fans."
Even though it was just last April, Guthrie remembers little about the home opener last year. He was still consumed by having made the Orioles' Opening Day roster as a long reliever, an accomplishment he considers the biggest of his professional career. He doesn't remember the smell, the sounds or anything that went on at mostly full Camden Yards. His only on-field memory was Millar doing his best Ray Lewis impression during pre-game introductions.
"Nothing even really sticks out," Guthrie said. "I don't remember sitting in the bullpen or how full the stadium was. I just remember the orange carpet and Kevin dancing."
Guthrie would make his first Orioles start about three weeks later against the Oakland Athletics, allowing one earned run in five innings. He joined the rotation full time in May because of Jaret Wright's shoulder problems and went unbeaten in 10 straight starts, though relief and run-support issues held him to three wins during that span.
"A year ago, I would have never thought it was possible or I would have never had this as an expectation," said Guthrie, who credited former pitching coach Leo Mazzone for helping him regain his confidence. "I was really able to enjoy it."
His defining performance was at Fenway Park in mid-May, when he held the Boston Red Sox to three hits and one unearned run over 8 1/3 innings. He ultimately watched the bullpen cough up a five-run lead. The loss became a microcosm for the Orioles' season.
Guthrie finished the year with a 7-5 record and a 3.70 ERA. His American League Rookie of the Year award candidacy was derailed when he went 3-3 with a 5.03 ERA after the All-Star break.
Still, his desire to take the ball every five days left quite an impression on his teammates. Guthrie suffered an oblique strain during his start against the Red Sox on Sept. 9, the same injury that ended Bedard's season. Bedard missed the last month with the injury, but Guthrie returned to the mound a little more than two weeks later to make one final start for a team that had little to play for but pride.
"You knew that he throws 95 [mph] and he was a gift from the Indians organization, but what that showed you is he's a ballplayer," Millar said. "He cares. He has passion. You've basically seen a guy take over the No. 1 role after taking advantage of an opportunity. You respect that kind of stuff."
Guthrie said he wanted to start again, so his final memory of a breakout 2007 season was of being on the mound, not on the trainer's table. He tried to persuade Trembley to give him one more outing out of the bullpen, but he was denied. The pitcher's determination was no surprise to his manager, who got to know Guthrie when they were in opposite dugouts in the minor leagues.