Play ball

September 29, 1990

A lot of folks in town know Ernie Tyler; they just don't know they know him. Tyler's the guy who sits on a little stool behind home plate during every Orioles home game and fields foul balls for the plate umpire.

If you've been to an Orioles game any time in the last generation, you've seen Tyler, because he's been on that stool for every home game since the 1960 season. That's right, 31 years.

Tyler figures if he can keep up the pace, sometime in June of next year he will have worked 2,500 straight games.

"And I haven't missed a pitch."

He means that. If the field attendant (or "ball boy," as he likes to call himself) doesn't pay close attention to every pitch, he could get hurt. Take the night 20-some years ago when Steve Barber "put one in the fence." A foul ball, that is, not a pitch.

"There's still a dent there," says Tyler of the ball that just missed hitting him in the arm. The ball boy has to be quick, not only with his eyes, but in retrieving the ball as unobtrusively as possible and returning it to the umpire.

Tyler, who admits to being "at least 60," probably hops off the stool a few dozen times a night, depending on who's on the mound. "The more fast balls, the more foul balls," he says.

The only time his streak has been jeopardized was before two games in the late '70s when cool temperatures sent his back into spasms. But advice from Orioles trainer Ralph Salvon and a little time in the whirlpool before the game helped him get through the night.

Tyler's first job with the Orioles was as an usher in the upper deck. "Then one day [business manager] Herb Armstrong asked if I could fill in behind home plate for two weeks." Tyler accepted the assignment, but after two weeks "nobody ever came to take the job back." He's been there ever since.

Until March 1988, Tyler held two jobs -- one behind home plate and one at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He retired from the latter after 31 years.

When asked if he's the oldest ball boy in the American League, he quips, "I'm the oldest ball boy in the world." Tyler lives in Forest Hill with his wife Judy and two of their 11 children.

It's hard for the field attendant to name the most exciting time with the Orioles, but it might be winning the World Series in 1966 in four straight games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He also remembers well the Saturday afternoon game in the mid-'60s that was his first time on nationwide television. Tyler was so nervous he missed the first five balls off the screen.

"[Coach Billy] Hunter called me over and told me, 'You're embarrassing us. Why don't you go home?'"

Of course, he didn't. It was that sort of camaraderie that kept him coming back another couple decades.

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