Barney's 'Memories' are not all upbeat

January 16, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

"Orioles Memories" is, at first glance, just a collection of rambling anecdotes by Rex Barney, the Orioles' public-address announcer and a sports talk-show host on WBAL radio. In many ways, "Orioles Memories" is much like Mr. Barney's radio shows -- folksy and genially bland. But in other ways it is surprisingly sharp, and in some cases, there's apparent bitterness that one might not have detected before.

Mr. Barney never played a minute for the Orioles -- he pitched for the Dodgers in the late 1940s and early 1950s -- but through his work as public-address announcer and radio personality, he's now closely identified with the team.

As a sports talk-show host, he seems an anachronism in an age in which hip, trash-talking types rule. Mr. Barney is unfailingly polite and even-handed with his judgments. When I wrote a profile of Mr. Barney a few years back for The Sun, one reader called up and complained: "What is it about Baltimore and this guy? How can people buy his corn-pone act?"

My answer was that while Mr. Barney's approach may be corn-pone -- the man admits as much himself -- his down-to-earth demeanor appeals to a lot of Baltimoreans. So "Orioles Memories," too, has plenty of reminiscing about a great bunch of fellas. But what's striking is that Mr. Barney, considered by some a house man and apologist for the Orioles, has rather damning assessments of former managers Earl Weaver, Cal Ripken Sr. and Frank Robinson, among others.

He begins his chapter on Orioles managers with the observation that "players make managers look like geniuses, not the other way around." Then he writes of Mr. Weaver, whose teams won four pennants and one World Series: "But Earl a genius? Anybody can be a genius when he has the kind of talent Earl had during those winning years." He also suggests that some of Mr. Weaver's favorite managing stratagems, such as keeping an index-card file on opposing players and battling umpires, were overrated.

He writes that Mr. Weaver "was drinking pretty heavily" when he managed the team in the mid-1980s -- "nobody wanted to be around him when he was in his cups." He also writes that the former manager, who was short and built like a fireplug, once confided he had a nickname he hated: "Toulouse-Lautrec." Mr. Weaver cautioned him: "If you ever tell anybody else, I'll kill you."

Mr. Barney tells the story, then adds, casually, to the reader: "Whatever you do, don't tell him I told you." This is a side of Mr. Barney we don't hear on the air.

Mr. Ripken, he believes, was an outstanding coach who was in over his head as manager. As for Mr. Robinson, Mr. Barney writes that he was the typical superstar who couldn't deal with less talented players. These are hardly new observations, but it's interesting to see Rex Barney echo them.

Regarding former owners, he pictures Edward Bennett Williams as a likable guy whose contributions became negative as he meddled in personnel decisions -- that he knew a lot less about baseball than he pretended. But he defends Eli Jacobs, the object of wide derision in Baltimore in the early '90s, as an owner who brought several important players to the team and generally stayed out of the way of the true baseball men in the organization.

Even when making his pronouncements, Mr. Barney generally tries to put a nice spin on things. But in the first chapter, in which he looks back on his 50 years in baseball, it's clear he's not happy with many of the changes -- the influence of big money, the attitude of many contemporary players, and so on.

What's interesting is that, although he obviously thinks little of today's players -- saying the big salaries have made them less committed to playing hard and more pampered -- he says nothing about how all this money might have affected the owners, a notoriously greedy and hard-headed bunch. Mr. Barney sounds just like another former player who's bitter at the bounty reaped by players of the 1990s, and it's rather unseemly.

In fact, this book may have revealed more about Mr. Barney than he intended -- that he's done a good job on the air of masking some strong feelings. It's certainly not a rip job or an out-and-out settling of all existing scores; there are plenty of warm reminiscences of players such as Brooks Robinson and Eddie Murray. But while I don't think "Orioles Memories" signals Mr. Barney's declaration of "no more Mr. Nice Guy," it may be hard to listen to him in quite the same way again.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Rex Barney's Orioles Memories 1969-1994"

Author: Rex Barney with Norman L. Macht

Publisher: Goodwood Press

Length, price: 263 pages, $19.95

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