Sliwka does another Top-notch job

John Steadman

January 08, 1993|By John Steadman

From all points of reference the Tops in Sports Banquet has something for everyone. It's baseball's version of the Academy Awards. For the last 29 years, Frank Sliwka, a onetime pitcher in the Washington Senators' farm system, has given body and soul, heart included, to elevating it to the exquisite classic it has become.

Sliwka is director and producer of this annual extravaganza put on by the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association, a collection of major and minor leaguers, past and present. They'll gather tonight for the 40th time at the Towson Center when more than 2,000 guests, paying $50 each, applaud some of the game's most storied heroes and raise funds for charity.

The head table doesn't stretch from Baltimore to Hagerstown but, upon reflection, maybe only half that far. Sliwka and his assistant, John Rommel, promise the speeches will be brief and the overall program controlled by co-toastmasters Vince Bagli and Scott Garceau.

It's an event that features awarding of the Babe Ruth Crown, a native son and Oriole discovery, whose deeds elevated him to that of a deity and, as late as last year, merited continual recognition when he was chosen among the 100 most illustrious Americans of this century.

There will be more Hall of Fame members present than any place outside of Cooperstown, N.Y., but aside from providing all of them individual patronage, other aspects of baseball will be spotlighted, including awards named for such respected Baltimore citizens, all identified with the game, as Jack Dunn III, Eddie Rommel, Sterling "Sheriff" Fowble and Walter Youse.

Before Sliwka became the banquet ringmaster, there were other chairmen before him, namely Joe Mellendick, Eddie Robinson and Lou Grasmick, who conceived the idea for a Babe Ruth Crown in 1956.

"That has become the centerpiece, the thing that separates us from all other banquets," said Sliwka. "No rival city can claim the Babe. He belongs to us.

"I think the greatest response for any single player came when we brought Sadaharu Oh from Japan to receive the Babe Ruth Crown, retroactive. It meant so much to him. He visited the Babe's birthplace in downtown Baltimore and was carried away with what it all meant."

Sliwka has a particular emotional moment to recall. It was when he honored the late Roger Maris, who had befriended his son, then seriously ill at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1960. Maris was represented by teammate Mickey Mantle, who broke down and cried, when the story was finally related in 1987. "I doubt if anything will top that for tugging on the heartstrings," Sliwka said.

Past recipients of the Babe Ruth Crown include Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Stan Musial, Ralph Kiner, Yogi Berra, Henry Aaron, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell and an elite list of others. The newly crowned champion for 1992 is Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers. The award is determined on a point system via the following categories: home runs, runs batted in, total bases and batting average.

"It's earned on the field," noted Cecil Fielder, "and this is what makes it so exceptional. No voting, no popularity contest but decided by the record. This banquet is special to me, which I why in the past I have gone out of my way to be in Baltimore."

As for Sliwka's lineup, there will be a mix of previous and contemporary performers, either receiving awards or presenting same. No need to have a scorecard. Such names will be there as Al Kaline, the only living Hall of Famer from Maryland; Brooks Robinson, Johnny Mize, Boog Powell, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, Johnny Oates, Frank Howard, Greg

Luzinski, Rex Barney, Mike Devereaux, Ryan Thompson, Ron Hansen, Harold Reynolds, Leo Mazzone, Fielder and the president of the organization, much respected Dick Hall.

The former public relations director of the Orioles, Bob Brown, now editor of the Oriole Gazette, will be cited for his 35 years of contributions to baseball and Baltimore. The American League's head, Phyliss Merhige, believes Brown's dedication was so extraordinary that she will be here to confer the plaque, symbolic long devotion to duty.

The Maryland star of the future is Thompson, now a New York Met, and a native of Edesville; the high school player of the year, John Bowles, and amateur coach of the year, George Henderson, who led Essex Community College to its first national championship of any kind, the junior college title in Grand Junction, Colo.

Members of the Orioles' front office who had a role in creating the new downtown stadium, namely president Larry Lucchino, vice president Janet Marie Smith and general manager Roland Hemond will be saluted. The executive of the year in the major leagues is Pat Gillick, general manager of the champion To

ronto Blue Jays, whose ability has long been respected for its high degree of professional effectiveness.

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