Baseball banquet team refuses to take last strike

January 06, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

It might well have become a casualty of the internal wars of baseball, the owners and players forcing each other into a paralyzing headlock, but Baltimore's annual reception and dinner will continue as in the past.

That means next Friday night the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association and friends will gather for the 42nd time to stage their mid-winter banquet and oratorical session.

General chairman Frank Sliwka and assistant John Rommel are staying the course through troublesome times. It's not going to be easy, considering last year's event was disappointing in content and Sliwka was hoping for and promising an immensely better presentation this time around.

Then came the major-league strike, which devastated interest. This put Sliwka and Rommel in the unenviable position of fielding the storm of complaints they're hearing from the public. If you want an opinion, Sliwka says he hears the fans blaming the players more than they do the owners. But, bottom line, such a negative attitude doesn't enhance the sale of banquet tickets.

"The main criticism I hear is directed toward the players," he reported. "Our banquet guests [paying $50 a ticket] are asking me how any athlete making a million dollars can go on strike? I don't pretend to have an answer. How can you begin to explain it? Of course, the owners are at fault, too, but the players are drawing most of the heat.

"I've been told other baseball banquets scheduled in Cleveland, Montreal and Los Angeles have been canceled. Obviously, they have the same difficulties we've encountered."

Sliwka, Rommel and fellow members of the baseball association, comprised, for the most part, of men who played the game at either the minor- or major-league level, didn't delay in deciding to go ahead with the banquet at Towson State University. What kind of a crowd are they expecting?

"We're up to around 1,300 tickets and it may go higher, which under the circumstances isn't all that bad," answered Sliwka. "It's a terrible year for getting cooperation from the players and their agents. We decided to drop the awarding of the Babe Ruth Crown to the game's leading slugger because there was only three-quarters of a season. But we will continue to give a Babe Ruth Crown to a former player."

The recipient of the retroactive Ruth Crown, in this case, is Lee May, who accounted for 354 career home runs.

"We can't let this banquet die," Sliwka explained. "It has been too good for too long to allow the tradition to be abandoned. We've talked about turning over the banquet chairmanships to some of our young members if they step forth, but our concentration at present is on next Friday."

It's not an easy task. Sliwka and Rommel, for the most part, are a two-man band. They arrange the program, are responsible for selling most of the tickets and then have to put up with no-shows among the headline names. This has been infrequent but it's a risk that's always going to be there.

The lineup this year includes participation from an Orioles delegation headed by Cal and Kelly Ripken, who will be saluted for their sizable and ongoing contributions to enhancing literacy in Baltimore. In fact, Ripken is the lone active major-league player listed to be there.

Incoming manager Phil Regan will be introduced along with Syd Thrift, the new farm director and raconteur of exceptional ability. May, the batting coach, will step up to receive the Ruth Crown that goes to a retired player. Owner Peter Angelos and general manager Roland Hemond will make return appearances so, from the Orioles' standpoint, there'll be no lack of representation.

The sponsoring organization's president, Ron Hansen, highly effective in the role, is elated that Bob Turley, a former Oriole and New York Yankee who was a previous honoree while a pitching standout, will be the recipient of what is called the "success after baseball" award. It will be given in recognition of Turley's extraordinary business career.

Sliwka has turned to two umpires for the major entertainment aspect. He engaged John "Rocky" Roe as master of ceremonies and Durwood Merrill for after-dinner remarks. Both are veteran game officials in the American League and also entertainers on the banquet circuit.

The "Maryland Star of the Future" spotlight will be directed this year on co-winners Jay Witasick, a standout in the St. Louis Cardinals' farm system, and Brian Kowitz, drafted by the Minnesota Twins from the Atlanta Braves' affiliate at Richmond in the International League.

A contribution to baseball award will go to Leon Day, who was a leading performer in the Negro leagues. Day lives in Baltimore and is a nominee to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee that meets in Tampa next month.

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