For Hendricks, it's hard to say goodbye ...


October 03, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

He calls the new ballpark "the palace," and a palace it will be, all shiny and new, the envy of the nation. Only Elrod Hendricks, like so many of us, isn't sure he wants to go. He spent much of his adult life at Memorial Stadium. It's a simple place, but it's home.

A huge banner hangs now from the House of Magic, informing the world that the final three Memorial days are upon us. One last series against the Detroit Tigers, and the Orioles call it an era. Tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday. Going, going, gone.

Hendricks, 50, can stare out from the home dugout and see it all before him. Winning the 1970 World Series, his biggest thrill. Losing it in '71, his biggest heartbreak. Catching Palmer's no-hitter in '69. The final weekend in '82. The 0-21 disaster in '88.

He went from an ordinary catcher to an anonymous bullpen coach, yet he has worn the Orioles uniform at the stadium for a remarkable 1,771 games -- more than Brooks, more than Frank, more than anyone in the club's storied 37-year history.

Three more Memorial days, and then they tear Elrod Hendricks' house down. Not right away -- the NFL may yet return -- but soon enough. A new football stadium is coming too, if the city gets a team. The future plans for 33rd Street include homes, office buildings and open space.

"I'm really concerned about what they're going to do with it, how it's going to look two to three years from now," Hendricks said last week. "From time to time certain things come up during the course of a ballgame, and I'll have flashbacks to playing here, coaching here, how much fun it was.

"I'd like to see it kept for high school or college baseball and/or football. I know when most ballparks get torn down, they usually build high-rises. I know people do need homes, affordable homes. That would be fine. But I wish every young man who plays baseball in Baltimore could get an opportunity to play in this ballpark."

What is it about the place? No one will ever confuse it with the classic old parks, like Wrigley or Fenway. Yet the Orioles are planning the most dramatic stadium closing imaginable. "I haven't given it much thought," Hendricks said. "Maybe because I don't want to."

His professional life unfolded here, against the larger backdrop of his team coming of age. Hendricks' first year was 1968. The home attendance that season was 868,709. He remained with the club 22 1/2 of the next 24 years. The home attendance this season already exceeds 2.5 million.

As a player and coach, he has served under six of the Orioles' nine managers, worked with 22 of their 39 coaches, dressed alongside 293 of their 512 players. His original fans bring their children down to field level to greet him. "I say, 'You've got be kidding me,' " he said. "But they've got kids 7-8 years old."

The support for the team is nearly overwhelming now, and Hendricks is one of its most popular and enduring figures. Julie Wagner, the club's community relations director, said he makes 80-100 appearances a year. It's difficult to grasp, considering his beloved stadium was once as empty as Cleveland's.

"We were the new kids on the block," Hendricks said. "The Colts were the fathers of sports in Baltimore. They were winning. It was difficult. But in 1976-77 when Wild Bill Hagy and the rowdies up in Section 34 started livening up the place, people started coming back and joining in. They looked forward to that. And the ballclub responded."

The team grew on the city. The stadium grew on the fans. The Colts were a big part of that, of course, but they bolted for Indianapolis in 1983. Since then it's been all Orioles. Elrod Hendricks making his appearances. Forty thousand people on a Saturday night.

In that sense, little will change. But Hendricks wonders how the new ballpark will feel. For 15 years, he has dressed in the same locker, fifth from the left entering the clubhouse. Before that it was the first on the right. The clubhouse of Ripken and Murray, of Palmer and the Robinsons.

"This locker has been a death trap for a lot of guys," Hendricks said, pointing to his immediate left, and the stall now occupied by Arthur Rhodes. "I've warned them too. I tell 'em Dennis [Martinez] left a curse on it. An awful lot of people come through here. One guy came in and lasted about two days."

The new clubhouse surely will include a death trap of its own, but it will take years before anyone figures out where it is. That's the thing about new ballparks, about new structures of any kind. You can build a palace. But you can't give it history.

It will come, in time, in time. Hendricks no doubt will be there, surviving the expected changes in the coaching staff, joining everyone for the grand opening at Camden Yards. "You can get used to it," he said. "You can get used to anything if you put your heart into it."

But first there is this weekend. He will stare out at the field and see Blair in center, Belanger at short, Boog at first. He'll see his son Ryan, playing in a high school All-Star Game. He'll even see himself, stroking a hit in his first major-league at-bat.

Three final Memorial days.

A stadium full of memories.

Going, going . . . never gone.

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