A Hero's Welcome For one Orioles fan ballpark is field of dreams-come-true

October 01, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

The biggest smile in Baltimore yesterday was on the face of a devoted Orioles fan who shouldn't have much reason to smile at all.

Ed Kelly Sr., a devoted Orioles fan, is dying of prostate cancer. Earlier this year, his son wrangled tickets so he could take his father on his first -- and possibly last -- trip to Camden Yards to see the Birds play.

The tickets were for Sept. 12, the day major league ballplayers went out on strike. For the Kellys, the strike had stolen a son's gift to his father.

But yesterday, Mr. Kelly, 70, stood in center field, his name spelled out in lights on the scoreboard, playing catch with Boog Powell, swapping minor league stories with Mike Flanagan and joking with Elrod Hendricks.

The evening before, he, his wife and their son had dinner with Brooks Robinson. They laughed as the greatest third baseman who ever lived told stories about Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer.

An insurance agent from Rochester, N.Y., Mr. Kelly has been an avid Orioles fan since the team chose his town for its AAA farm team. For over three decades, he has tracked players as they moved their way through Rochester to the majors. He can spin tales about Dennis Martinez pitching shutouts and Boog Powell blasting home runs to every field.

But he'd seen the Orioles play at home only once before -- in 1971, when they played Pittsburgh in the World Series at Memorial Stadium. Camden Yards was a place he'd seen only on television.

Until yesterday. True, there was no ballgame. The only crowd at Oriole Park yesterday was the media swarm surrounding the Kellys as they joked with the Orioles veterans. The specter of the strike loomed large, as both father and son spoke bitterly of the labor stalemate that destroyed their plans.

But tossing a slow breaking ball to Mr. Powell, the man he labeled as his favorite Oriole, and knowing he was the reason veterans Ron Hansen, Tippy Martinez, Tim Nordbrook and Dave Johnson showed up at the park -- for Ed Kelly Sr., that was pretty special.

"Just to sit here and look at them," he said from his seat in center field, a few tears still straying from the corners of his eyes. "I don't know that I'll ever have another experience like this."

Standing quietly a few feet away, trying to ensure the spotlight stayed on his father and the athletes who had come here to see him, Ed Kelly Jr. enjoyed the sort of moment every son wishes he could orchestrate.

The Kellys' trek to Camden Yards began shortly after the strike, when Mr. Kelly Jr., 29, wrote a poignant letter to Sports Illustrated.

Faced with a bunch of players and owners seemingly inured to the effect their squabble was having on fans, he poured his anger into three paragraphs:

This is difficult to write. I am an average guy: raised in Rochester, N.Y.; youngest of seven kids; now living in New England. My father still lives in Rochester, and he has a love for baseball that spans 70 years.

Last December my wife and I gave my dad a framed print of the new ballpark in Baltimore, along with a promise to take him to the home of his beloved Orioles. The promise became a mission when I learned that my father has cancer and is not expected to HTC live to see another fall. It's not easy to get tickets to Camden Yards, especially living in another part of the country, but through a friend I got tickets for two Oriole games against my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox.

You know the rest. Here I sit. My father sits in Rochester. This trip was not about baseball but it needed baseball for it to happen. This trip was about fathers and sons resolving things and storing memories; about a son getting that one-in-a-million chance to make his parents' dreams come true, just as they always tried for him. Now the owners and players have canceled my dad's dream. For what?

"I felt it was a typical story," Mr. Kelly Jr. said Thursday night from his hotel room. "If this happened to me, there must have been hundreds of people throughout the country going through the same thing.

"I got a lot of really nice telephone calls," he added, "people calling to wish you well, people calling to share stories about their dad."

He also got the attention of two organizations that would be instrumental in bringing the Kellys to Baltimore. The Orioles' front office began making calls to pull together something to honor one of their biggest fans. "The Crusaders," a syndicated television show based in Los Angeles that tries to solve problems rather than just report about them, wanted to bring the Kellys to Baltimore.

The two groups coordinated their efforts. Mr. Hendricks, a coach and former Orioles catcher, rounded up some retired ballplayers anxious to meet the man who had cheered for them so rabidly as they worked their way though the farm system.

Mr. Kelly Sr. was told only that the television show was bringing him and his family to Baltimore to tour the stadium. The rest would be a surprise.

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