Friday, December 30, 2005

'A Walking History of the Orioles'

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

Elrod Hendricks could make you laugh without making any sense. His voice was a thick gumbo of island patois (he was raised in the Virgin Islands), crab-soaked Bawlmer-ese and regional accents picked up from the many small towns in Mexico and the American south where he played as a minor leaguer. The voice had the grizzled texture of a baseball lifer, and everything "Ellie" said seemed to come out as one jumbled (and often profane) grunt -- "Scragglyoldsumbitchgawnwhompupsidedathead" -- and was inevitably followed by a laugh so booming, its shock waves triggered involuntary spasms of laughter in your own chest, whether you understood him or not.

"It wasn't until the second or third year I worked there until I finally got to where I could understand him," said Rick Vaughn, the Baltimore Orioles' public relations director from 1984 to '94. "But you knew, whatever it was, it was funny -- because everybody was laughing."
Soon enough, once the shock and the sadness wear off a little, there will be laughter all over Baltimore, as folks start thinking back to their favorite memories of Hendricks, who died Wednesday night of a heart attack. Hendricks, who wore an Orioles uniform -- first as a player, then as a coach, 37 years total -- for more games than anyone in history, would have been 65 yesterday.

"This is a tremendous shock," Orioles legend Cal Ripken said, through a spokesman. "Elrod has been such a big figure in Baltimore for so long. He was as much a mainstay in the Orioles organization as anyone I can think of."

"We lost the most beloved Oriole of all-time," said Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, in a statement issued by the team.

Think of the biggest number you can imagine. That's approximately how many pitches Hendricks caught in his lifetime. He caught for parts of 20 years as a professional player, including 11 seasons with the Orioles. He then spent 28 seasons as the Orioles' bullpen coach, warming up one pitcher after another, day after day, from the first sunny mornings of spring training until the last bitter night of the season -- and sometimes during the winter as well.
"He'd be at the fantasy camps, catching all of us pitchers," said former Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor. "You'd be pitching to some 80-year-old guy, and [Hendricks] would put down the sign for a curveball. And you'd throw a curve -- just buckle the old guy's knees -- and Elrod would be back there, just laughing and laughing."

Hendricks caught Mike Flanagan when the latter was a rookie in 1975, then 16 years later warmed him up in the bullpen just before Flanagan entered for the ninth inning and threw the final pitch in the history of Memorial Stadium.

"He was a walking history of the Orioles," Flanagan said.

"It's amazing to think about, but if you add up all the hours, I've probably spent 12 complete years of my life with the man," former Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said. "He was the core of Orioles baseball, an ambassador for the organization."

They ought to bury Hendricks in a catcher's crouch, wearing his shin guards, with his catcher's mitt on his left hand and his mask propped up on top of his head. That's how many people remember him the most, lugging a big old bag of baseballs out to the bullpen to catch another side session some three hours before a game.

"He wouldn't gloss anything over," said Jim Palmer, a Hall of Fame pitcher and now an analyst for Orioles telecasts. "He'd be catching you in the bullpen [before a start], and when you were done, he'd say, 'Well, you'd better hook 'em' " -- throw lots of curveballs -- " 'because your fastball is horse----.' "

Ask Hendricks's friends for their favorite memories of him, and inevitably they ask whether you want only the printable ones. Hendricks's aptitude for cursing -- in complex conjugations, between syllables, in multiple languages -- was legendary.

"One day, Elrod is back there catching, and Palmer is yelling at him from the mound, and [Manager Earl] Weaver is yelling at him from the dugout," said Richard Justice, who covered the Orioles for The Washington Post in the 1980s and '90s. "And finally, the umpire says, 'How do you put up with this?' And Elrod says, 'I'll tell you what. You throw one of them out of the game, and I'll go beat the [expletive] out of the other.' "

It seemed everybody in baseball knew Hendricks, and half of them had played with him in some godforsaken place years ago.

Did you know you could pick any player in baseball history and, by examining historical team rosters for links, arrive at Hendricks in a maximum of four moves? Call it Four Degrees of Elrod Hendricks. Go ahead, try it.

Babe Ruth? That's easy. Ruth played with Frankie Crosetti (1934 New York Yankees), who played with Yogi Berra (1948 Yankees), who played with Joe Pepitone (1963 Yankees), who played with Hendricks on the 1972 Chicago Cubs.

Ty Cobb? A little trickier, but still doable. Cobb played with Jimmie Foxx (1928 Philadelphia A's), who played with Granny Hamner (1945 Philadelphia Phillies), who played with Billy Martin (1959 Cleveland Indians), who managed Hendricks on the 1976 and '77 Yankees.

But if Hendricks seemed to have a link to everyone in baseball, that was doubly so in the community. He signed so many autographs, folks used to joke that the only people who didn't have Hendricks's signature were the handful who had never tried. He was Santa Claus at the office Christmas party every year. He was the go-to-guy for the community relations staff whenever there was a charity appearance no one else was willing to make.

"I have this image of us driving to Cumberland [in far western Maryland] in the dead of winter, in January," said Vaughn. "We couldn't beg anyone else to do that one. And he had a blast. Everywhere he went, he knew everybody, and everybody knew him. To me, he's in the same circle as Brooks [Robinson] and Frank [Robinson] and Palmer. For what he's meant to this organization, he's in that circle."

"He just loved being in the organization," McGregor said, "loved being an Oriole."

The worst thing in baseball is a rain delay, but even rain delays had one redeeming quality for those who knew where to wait them out. That would be in the Orioles' dugout, where inevitably, Hendricks would be sitting there, spinning tales.

The young players in the clubhouse, with their Xboxes and iPods and cell phones, had no idea what they were missing. But the rain was beating down on the infield tarp, and the videoboard was showing clips of ancient games, and Hendricks was cursing up a storm, telling stories. And they were funny -- or at least you thought they probably were, if you could have understood what he was saying.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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