Cal Ripken Jr. has played 1,436 consecutive games, but Ernie Tyler's streak puts his to shame. Tyler, the Orioles' field attendant, has worked 2,499 straight games at Memorial Stadium. His streak began Opening Day 1960 -- four months before Ripken Jr. was born.
Tyler hasn't missed a pitch from his stool on the third base side of home plate since the final days of the Eisenhower presidency. Spry as ever, he's still jogging fresh balls out to the plate umpire, still retrieving foul balls off the screen.
The Orioles will honor him between innings Tuesday night when his streak reaches 2,500. Ripken, naturally, will participate in the ceremony. Ernie's many friends in baseball will be delighted. Lou Gehrig no doubt will wink from above.
Ernie was born April 30 -- "same as Ray Miller" -- but he won't give the year. "I'll admit to 63," he says, "but there's more than that." Apparently he fears a public outcry. "I haven't lost a step," he says with a smile. "Some guys said they never saw anybody get off a stool so fast."
So who's the real Iron man? And which is the real First Family of Baltimore? Nine Tylers have worked for the club at one time or another, including Ernie's wife, Juliane, and seven of their 11 children. One son, Jimmy, manages the Orioles' clubhouse. Another, Fred, manages the visitors'.
Some might argue that Ernie spent all those nights at the ballpark as a way of escaping his brood at home, a charge he doesn't necessarily deny. But family man that he is, he didn't even get upset when his son Phil got married before a day game years ago.
That was a close call, but what could Ernie do? Phil was home from Vietnam and headed for Europe. The hastily arranged wedding began at 10 a.m. Ernie left the reception at noon, and the priest tagged along to witness the first pitch at 2.
The closest his streak actually came to ending was in the 1971 World Series, when he suffered back spasms immediately before Game 6. He got through it fine -- plate umpire John Kibler walked over to him for more balls -- and Ralph Salvon, the Orioles' late trainer, got him ready for Game 7.
Tyler grew up at Howard and 29th streets, not far from the old Oriole Park. He played in the same football backfield as Mets general manager Frank Cashen at Mount St. Joseph's. And he served as an usher and ticket taker at Memorial Stadium in 1958-59 before taking up permanent residence on his stool.
Actually, this is Stool No. 2. "The first one is around here somewhere," Ernie says. "It came from the Colts." And frankly, he might still be an usher if his predecessor (last name Pipp?) hadn't picked up a live passed ball. "I almost did that the other night," Ernie admits.
Until three years ago, he worked full time for the state, and didn't get to the park until 5 p.m. His schedule was so hectic, he'd sleep 40 minutes in his car at lunchtime and nap in the umpire's room before games. These days he arrives at 2:30, and his pace is considerably more relaxed.
Early in the day, he performs various chores for the umpires, from shining their faucets to cashing their checks. Once the game begins, he's responsible for clearing photographers away from the screen and making sure the fences and rails are free of anything that could interfere with play.
For the most part, though, his job revolves around the balls. First he rubs them with the prescribed Delaware Mud, preparing 45-50 for an average game. An extra dozen are required if a hard thrower is scheduled to pitch; more balls will be fouled off into the upper deck.
During games he gets so busy, "half the time I don't even know the score." He makes sure the plate umpire always carries at least three balls. He prepares to duck when a lefthanded batter faces a lefthanded pitcher. And he plays the screen the way Yaz played the Green Monster.
In his younger days Ernie tried to catch balls before they bounced, but that got "too embarrassing." He says the ball can skip off the screen 40 different ways. Now he just sets up, waits for the hop and grabs the ball with his bare hands.
As you might imagine, Ernie is close with umpires -- "I'd love to write a book that umpires are human too," he says. Roger Clemens might be interested to know that he once fetched Terry Cooney for a summit with Earl Weaver, "and they've been pretty good friends ever since."
Ernie downplays his peacemaker's role, but he's an amicable guy who never plays favorites. "I don't show any emotion," he says. "But if the opposition is ahead 9-0 this seat gets as hard a rock. If we're ahead 9-0 it's soft as a feather."
Same as it's been for 31 years.