The spring training competition to watch? In Orioles camp it's … LEGOs


SARASOTA, Fla. — The Baltimore Orioles’ season, and their quest to repeat as American League East champions, begins in a little more than two weeks.

But first, two of their most promising young players have a field trip to take.

Before spring training wraps, Gunnar Henderson and Colton Cowser will once again make the 50-mile drive north from Orioles camp in Sarasota to a LEGO store located inside a Brandon, Florida, mall to pick out the enormous set that will make up their third annual build-off — and break a contentious tie.

In 2022, Cowser, a highly regarded outfield prospect fighting to make the Opening Day roster, was the first to assemble a 7,541-piece Millennium Falcon (though Henderson noted that the tail end of the competition coincided with his ascension to the major leagues). Henderson, the Orioles’ 22-year-old shortstop phenom, secured the second round of the competition last year, centered on another iconic “Star Wars” aircraft, the 6,187-piece Razor Crest. Cowser in this case added that he was at a disadvantage while making three different stops during the season.

“I completely won that one,” Henderson argued. “The year before, I guess, was the technicality.”

Orioles third baseman Jordan Westburg witnessed that inaugural LEGO build-off first hand.

In some ways, he was actually in the middle of it.

When Henderson was called up to the major leagues near the end of August in 2022, Westburg lifted one end of a picnic table and helped him move a half-built Millennium Falcon onto the floorboard of his pickup truck for the four-hour trek from Norfolk, Virginia, to Baltimore. Days later, Cowser, who had recently been promoted from Double-A to Triple-A, moved into Henderson’s vacant room, and Westburg helped transport the rival starship onto their dining room table.

“It was déjà vu a little bit,” Westburg said. “I had just watched Gunnar do this, and now my new roommate is doing the exact same thing.”

The Orioles, fresh off a 101-win season, are as good as they are young, powered by an emergent group of position players who bond over the types of things one might expect from young men not far removed from childhood: video games or “Catan” or, as was the case throughout their clubhouse last summer, the card game “Monopoly Deal.” But the annual LEGO battle waged between Cowser and Henderson operates at a different level.

“Gunnar is probably one of the more competitive people in this clubhouse — in everything,” Westburg said. “Colton is more of like — if he can beat you at something, he’s going to hold it over you. And I think he wants to have that over Gunnar.”

Henderson grew up in competition. He and his cousin would match up against his older brother and another friend after school every day, competing in everything from whiffle ball to football to RipStiks. Two springs ago, Henderson strolled through the LEGO section of a nearby Target with his now-fiancée and thought it might be fun to build a set. He identified a worthy adversary in Cowser, who was staying in the room across from him, and turned it into a game.

They’ve each built somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 LEGO sets since then, stunning teammates and coaches with the amount of money they’re willing to spend (the Millennium Falcon retails for more than $800; the Razor Crest set them back $600 plus tax).

It’s an intense hobby, but it’s also a tool. “A decompression,” Cowser called it, critical in an industry so demanding.

“Probably everybody in this locker room has something, whether it’s video games, whether it’s a TV show enthusiast,” Cowser said. “A lot of guys have kids now, so anything they’re doing with them. I have no kids, so mine’s LEGOs. It’s good to leave the field and not try to think about what you did on the field that day. I like it too because it works your mind a little bit.”

Cowser, 23, transported his Millennium Falcon four separate times in 2022, stacking pillows on the floor of his car up to his passenger seat to create a larger base. In hopes of avoiding a similar situation last year, he didn’t begin building the Razor Crest until his first major league call-up in July. But his stint with the Orioles lasted just five weeks; a 7-for-61 showing sent Cowser back to Triple-A around the middle of August. Late-night, postgame building sessions helped keep him from spiraling.

Henderson slashed only .201/.332/.370 through the first two months of his first full season in the major leagues last year, but building a nearly 5,000-piece Imperial Star Destroyer helped take his mind off his struggles. He slashed .276/.322/.535 the rest of the way and unanimously won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, riding a similar, LEGO-infused rise from the one he experienced in Double-A the year prior. Coincidence?

“I mean, I play well whenever I do it,” said Henderson, who hid his engagement ring inside a completed Millenium Falcon before proposing. “I don’t know if it’s a direct correlation, but it helps me to wind down so that I can get some sleep and perform better, at least.”

The Orioles have begun each of the past three years with the No. 1 prospect under ESPN’s rankings — first Adley Rutschman, then Henderson and now Jackson Holliday, who has a realistic chance of opening as the Orioles’ everyday second baseman at just 20 years old.

Six Orioles — Holliday, Cowser, third baseman Coby Mayo, catcher Samuel Basallo and outfielders Heston Kjerstad and Enrique Bradfield Jr. — made Kiley McDaniel’s Top 100 this year, tied for the most of any team. (A seventh top-100 prospect, shortstop Joey Ortiz, was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers in the February trade for Corbin Burnes.) All of them were drafted or signed between 2020 and 2023, and many of them — also Rutschman, Henderson, Westburg and starting pitcher Grayson Rodriguez, all of whom have graduated from prospect status — are ascending to the major leagues at roughly the same time.

“People have told me that it’s uncommon to have a good group of guys like this in the clubhouse,” Cowser said. “I think it’s very beneficial during a long season.”

A channel runs through the back of the complex where Henderson and Cowser are staying this spring, triggering an informal fishing competition among a small group of players. As of March 6, Henderson had jumped out to a five- or six-fish lead over Cowser. Westburg, 25, is rooming a half-hour away and had yet to get on the board. He planned to spend last Thursday’s off day catching up.

Westburg has thus far abstained from the LEGO competition, largely because of cost.

But he sees the merit.

“You get lost in that process,” Westburg said. “Here is very process-oriented, like when you’re getting work in the cage, you’re on defense. But then the game is so results-based. It’s good to get out, away from the field, and have another very routine-oriented process. In their mind it’s like, ‘Oh, I can get lost in this,’ because it’s just following the instructions, putting one brick together at a time. If you want to get deep, there could be a lot of parallels between like building a LEGO, something like that that takes a year long, and going about your work every single day, trying to play the games.”

Like building a season?

“Building a season,” Westburg repeated, “piece by piece.”



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