Something to put a smile on your face: Triandos, first Oriole hero, is visiting

PRESS ROW

January 15, 1993|By John Steadman

No drum rolls or trumpets are sounding, but there should be. Gus Triandos is "home" again. The Orioles' first hero has returned for a visit, which makes for fond memories, jocular reminiscing and an awareness that his still-loyal fan club is approaching senior-citizen status.

This is where a street in Baltimore County was named in his honor. It's called Triandos Drive. In his self-deprecating sense of humor, he wonders if homeowners there ever requested a name change.

"Gee, to think I spent eight years with the Orioles and never saw Fort McHenry," he said after arriving to attend a memorabilia show tomorrow and Sunday at the Pikesville Armory. "I hope they don't boo me when I sign autographs. One thing that's going for me is I'm so old nobody remembers."

Triandos, never one to take himself seriously, believes age -- he's now 62 -- has given him a cover for his identity.

"All my magic mirrors are broken," he said. "Our 5-year-old granddaughter wanted to know who the baseball player was in a picture at the house. I told her it was grandfather. She said, no, I didn't have enough hair and too many wrinkles in my face to be the same man."

Since leaving baseball, Triandos has owned a courier business in San Jose, Calif. The times haven't all been pleasant.

Fifteen years ago, an Iranian tourist went through a stop sign and hit his car, inflicting physical damages.

Then, four years ago, he was involved in a near-fatal car crash. While driving to visit his daughter, he suffered a blackout, his van rolled off the road and injuries were so extensive he spent 5 1/2 months in the hospital.

The bills came to over $500,000.

"Thank God, my wife, Evelyn, had a great insurance policy," he said. "It covered most of the expense. I was really banged up. Doctors can't believe I'm alive."

A trip to Baltimore brings a different set of memories.

Some, admittedly, are bittersweet, like the 1958 All-Star Game. Hometown pride was stung when Casey Stengel, the American League manager, replaced Triandos for pinch-hitter Yogi Berra.

"I guess he couldn't stand looking at me any longer," joked the Orioles favorite of yesteryear.

He played for a collection of managers, including Paul Richards, Gene Mauch and Stengel. Who was best?

"It might be surprising but I don't have to think too long," Triandos says. "I preferred Bob Scheffing. We were together awhile in Detroit and it was too short a time. There was no egomania with him. Just a solid man in every way."

As for Richards, reticent by design and a bit aloof, he remarked, "It's honestly hard to say if you disliked him or not. How could anyone tell? He was distant."

But the Triandos years in Baltimore brought him together with Bob Nieman, who became his closest friend in baseball. "Talk about first-rate, that was Bob," he says.

Then he brings up the names of others he held in near-similar regard: "Yeah, how could you beat Brooks Robinson or George Kell? And Jim Gentile, Jerry Adair, Lou Sleater, John Miller, Jim Lehew, Mickey McDermott, Dick Hall, Willie Miranda and Boog Powell.

"With Boog, his personality lets him adjust to any situation. I'm happy for the success I hear he's having."

Powell returns the compliment. "Look, when I was 18 years old and coming to an Oriole camp the first time, it would have been enough if Gus merely said hello," Powell said. "But he always made a kid feel at home. He looked at my baseball shoes that first day. They were cheap and turned up at the toes. He asked what size I wore. Then he told me to take either one of the two new pairs in his locker. How you like a star doing that for a rookie?"

The finest pitcher Triandos ever faced?

"That's easy," answers Gus. "It was Sandy Koufax. I batted .500 off him. Yeah, 1-for-2 years."

As for the most gifted hitter, he picks Al Kaline. "He was beautiful to watch," Triandos said. "I'd call him a technician. Hard to throw the ball past him. He didn't have a lot of strength but he could move the bat and was outstanding in every way."

While in a reflective mood, he mentioned Gentile's production for the Orioles in 1961, a .302 average, 46 home runs and 141 runs batted in.

"It was the best year I ever saw any player have," Triandos said. "He threw temper tantrums once in awhile but now he's matured. I heard, though, at these fantasy camps some teams hold that if Jim doesn't get a hit he gets depressed. Same Jim, I guess, but a real good guy. We're really good friends."

Triandos was an Oriole when Memorial Stadium was the largest park in the league, before the fences were shortened. He still pumped 30 home runs in the 1958 season, including the homer that won it when Hoyt Wilhelm no-hit the New York Yankees, 1-0.

Wilhelm's erratic knuckleball became a worry for Triandos. Did he talk himself into its being a catching problem?

"Gee, I don't know," he said. "I'd like to say that was exaggerated but eventually it gets to you. The trouble is you'd catch 99 percent of them. Then one of those knucklers would get away with runners on base and it hurt the club. You get tired fielding passed balls. It beat me down."

Gus Triandos, who preferred to smile rather than complain, always made himself the brunt of criticism.

He played the "heavy," searching for a laugh in any circumstance. But he was totally unselfish and always gave much more than he took away.

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