At backstop, Cal's streak distant 2nd

March 30, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

The streak lives.

Not just Cal's.

Ernie's.

Ernie Tyler, 71, will take his customary position for today's exhibition game at Camden Yards, sitting on his stool next to the backstop.

And Monday, the Orioles' longtime umpires and field attendant will extend his streak of regular-season home games to 2,833.

The streak began on Opening Day 1960, but Tyler will cherish this opener like none other.

Ten weeks ago, he underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his liver.

Tyler has had close calls before -- back spasms before the seventh game of the 1971 World Series, the removal of his gall bladder after the '93 season -- but nothing like this.

He made it with the support of his wife of 50 years, Juliane, not to mention their 11 children and 19 grandchildren.

And he made it with the care of his doctor, Keith Lillemoe, an Orioles fan who had once treated Tyler's daughter-in-law and knew all about Ernie.

"When I got the call and they told me it was Ernie Tyler, the guy who worked for the Orioles, I said, 'This is the guy who has the streak in Baltimore, not the other guy," Lillemoe said.

This is the guy you see retrieving foul balls off the screen, and jogging to deliver new ones to the umpire with that nice, easy stride.

He's also the guy who assists the umpires before, during and after games, and prepares the balls by rubbing them with Delaware River mud.

From Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards, the Tyler family has been more of a fixture at Orioles games than any player or manager.

One of Ernie's sons, Jim, manages the Orioles' clubhouse. Another, Fred, manages the visitors'. Nine Tylers have worked for the club at one time or another.

And at the center of it all is Ernie, who was kinder and gentler long before any president started yearning for the return of such virtues.

A few weeks ago, he visited Camden Yards, and as he strolled the tunnel underneath, stadium workers of all ages joyously welcomed him back.

He's at the ballpark by 1 p.m. for night games. Baseball is so much a part of his life, his son, Fred, believes he was ill at the end of last season, but refused to admit it.

"All our graduations and weddings, we've always worked them around baseball," Fred said.

"I'm not saying he worked an illness around baseball, but I think he put something in his head to make sure it wasn't affecting him."

Fred recalled seeing his father in pain when he bent over to pick up balls in August. Ernie said he lost six pounds in the final month of last season, but "didn't think anything of it."

All that changed on Jan. 17.

Ernie and Juliana went out to dinner, and on the drive back to their home in Forest Hill, he began experiencing sharp pain under his ribs.

"When we got home, I couldn't sit down and bend over," Ernie said. "All I could do was hold my arms straight up on the door."

His son, Philip, took him to Fallston Hospital. At first, doctors suspected Tyler had food poisoning, but they asked him to come back the next morning for a CAT scan.

It was then that a doctor discovered that Tyler's liver was bleeding, and called an ambulance to take him to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

After another CAT scan confirmed the tumor, Dr. Lillemoe told him his schedule was tight, but he could schedule surgery for that Sunday.

"What if I wait?" Tyler asked him.

"Well," Lillemoe said, "You could die."

"Well," Tyler replied, "let's do it Sunday."

His condition was that urgent.

"Kind of like a time bomb," Lillemoe recalled.

Lillemoe said the tumor in Tyler's liver had ruptured, but the bleeding had been confined within the liver, preventing the cancer from spreading to his abdomen.

"We see this sometimes with people who have trauma, someone who has an auto accident," Lillemoe said.

The surgery was scheduled for Jan. 21.

And yes, the goal was for Tyler to recover by Opening Day.

"He [Lillemoe] said, 'I want you to know one thing: I guarantee you if I do it Sunday, you'll be back April 1," Tyler said. "I said, 'Strong?' He said, 'Strong as you'll ever be.'

"He brought it up. He was a baseball fan."

The morning of the surgery, Tyler's sons, Jim and Fred, decided to get to Hopkins early, and accompany their father to the operating room.

Little did they realize the same idea had occurred to the rest of the family.

"It's 6 a.m. on a Sunday, and I'm waiting for Jimmy in the cafeteria," Fred recalled. "He shows up. I figure we lived the closest. We'd be the only ones there.

"When we got up there, there were like 15 people in the room. You could tell he was going to pull through. He had so much support.

"It was one of the most touching moments of my life."

A nurse arrived to wheel Tyler to the operating room, and Fred said that he left the room "shaking hands, like he was running for president."

The family piled into the elevator with him, saw him into the operating room, then went to church.

Tyler smiled at the thought.

"They must have bombarded God with all these prayers," he said.

The surgery lasted 4 1/2 hours.

Tyler stayed in the hospital only nine days.

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