Banquets, at their best and worst, have been known to bring on acute indigestion and a migraine of boredom that can only be relieved by either (1) medication or (2) abruptly pulling the plug on the microphone.
The Maryland Professional Baseball Players' Association and its "Tops In Sport" dinner has attempted to serve a palatable change of pace that the public can look forward to enjoying, not merely enduring.
There is a difference.
The sponsoring organization's roster numbers 174 former players at the major- and minor-league levels, from the 1930s to the present. If they ever played professionally, be it in Mooresville or Muskogee, Cincinnati or Chicago, they are eligible for membership. Each winter they assemble for this annual oratorical presentation and distribution of awards.
Come Jan. 14 at the Towson Center, close to 2,000 enthusiasts will buy tickets priced at $45 for what directors Frank Sliwka and John Rommel, plus president Jerry Bark, believe will be another memorable celebration that gives baseball, even in the middle of winter, an identity no other sport can challenge.
You won't need a scorecard to tell the lineup. The introductions will be handled by two eloquent and time-conscious masters-of-ceremonies, Vincent Bagli and Scott Garceau. They know how to make a program move, not drag, by the pace and the order they maintain.
"Sometimes you can establish a definite theme for a banquet," said Sliwka. "Other times you just get as many baseball personalities as possible and blend it together. Next week, we'll be honoring three off-the-field men that have made vital contributions to Baltimore baseball. I'm talking about Jerry Hoffberger, a former great Orioles owner, and the present owner, Peter Angelos, along with Gov. William Donald Schaefer."
Other honorees include Fernando Valenzuela, Chris Hoiles, Rick Sutcliffe, Tommy Lasorda, Juan Gonzalez, winner of the Babe Ruth Crown (for the second time); Eddie Robinson, a founder of the association; Tony Perez, recipient of the retroactive Babe Ruth Crown; and Tommy Byrne, who will receive the newly established "Achievement After Baseball" award.
The Maryland Stars of the Future category, which in the past has provided distinction for a myriad of later major-leaguers, such as Dave Boswell, Tom Phoebus, Ron Swoboda, Jim Spencer and Phil Linz, this time will have co-winners -- Brian Bark, owned by the Atlanta Braves, and Steve Mabry, a St. Louis Cardinals' prospect.
Bernie Walter, who has been saluted before, will be back to accept another distinguished achievement, the national high school coach of the year citation. One of his former players, Steve Gillis, from Arundel High, who attends the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, was picked as Maryland's outstanding high school player and he, too, will be on the dais.
The head table also includes such recognizable baseball figures as Roland Hemond, Johnny Oates, Jeff Nelson, Rex Barney, Lois Mayoral, Ron Rizzi, Ron Hansen, the Rt. Rev. Monsignor Martin Schwallenberg, the chaplain; and a sportswriter, Charles "Chuck" McGeehan.
Two leading contributors to the baseball community -- Bob Footlick, president of Bond Distributors, and Steve Burch, general manager of Comcast -- also will be introduced.
"One of the great moments in our banquet's history was having Mickey Mantle talk about Roger Maris, and Tommy Lasorda, in a later year, being so highly entertaining," said Sliwka. "But let's not forget last year when Dick Hall, one of our own members, who is bilingual, interpreted for Juan Gonzalez. We sincerely hope Dick will do that again."
Is it impossible to get tickets?
"Not at all," Sliwka answered. "I'm glad you asked. I want to dispel talk that we are sold out. You can still make arrangements by calling either John Rommel at 321-5772 or me at 252-3552. We expect the audience will reach around 2,000, but even that's not capacity.
"Unfortunately, the autograph situation has gotten out of control, the way some fans hassle the players at the banquet.
"This year we are taking steps to control what has become a problem all over the country. Players come here as our guests and we don't want them subjected to anything that makes them uncomfortable."
The plans, as outlined by Sliwka, Rommel and Bark, sound as if they'll fit into a presentation that will afford an evening of Baltimore baseball entertainment that is now entering its fifth decade of uninterrupted longevity. Some years are better than others, true, but no one yet has asked for a refund.