An Oriole and 'The Incident' Billy Gardner's decision to skip his usual crabs roiled a family for years

July 07, 1996|By Jay Sweren

IT IS THE BEST OF TIMES, it is the worst of times. It is 1956, and at the tender age of 15, I have discovered girls but, alas, they haven't discovered me. But I still have my beloved baseball. And since the Orioles returned to the American League in 1954 (we stole a team called the Browns from another city -- anybody see a trend here?), my dad, Rube, no longer has to take me to Washington to see big league ball. He and my uncle, Milt, often take me and my cousin, Steve, to Memorial Stadium to see "The Mick" and now, finally, some our own local heroes.

But tonight there are only two tickets, and Steve and I will be left behind. Steve agrees, but only after Milt promises to bring him the autograph of his favorite player, second baseman Billy Gardner. After games when they are unencumbered by kids, the two brothers-in-law usually go to a local restaurant called Obrycki's, famous for steamed crabs, and frequented by many players and even umpires. And Gardner is an acknowledged crab addict and can usually be found in attendance with a tableful of jumbos stacked in front of him. But tonight, alas, Billy is nowhere to be found, and Uncle Milt is faced with a dilemma -- the promised autograph. The only solution, obviously, is to forge Gardner's signature, and the 6-year-old Steve is none the wiser. As a semi-adult, I am privy to the ploy.

Fast forward to 1975: Steve and I are both married now with kids of our own. During a pickup game of hoops at the Jewish Community Center, the normal trash talk ensues, and I finally needle Steve about the "phony Billy Gardner autograph your old man gave you." And suddenly the sun sets forever, and the earth stops turning on its axis. I have destroyed a boy's faith in his dad! And it doesn't stop with Steve and me. Ours was the poster family for the movie "Avalon" (remember the scene where they "cut the toikey"?) and now nobody speaks to me -- not even my own father. I am banished to that special purgatory from which there is usually no escape, a prisoner of the family with the memory from Hell.

Redemption! A year later and everyone is still angry. But, providentially, a special opportunity presents itself. A co-worker comes in one morning with a special find. He has been cleaning out his attic and stumbles upon his old baseball card collection which includes, Hallelujah!, the 1956 Topps Billy Gardner, in pristine condition. And this just a few weeks after Sports Illustrated has run an article on the Montreal Expos, with a coaching staff that includes none other than -- you guessed it -- a certain former second baseman for the 1956 Baltimore Orioles. And it is soon to be Milt's 65th birthday, for which a large party is planned. Serendipity! A devious mind goes to work. I write to Gardner, c/o the Expos, explaining the situation and, of course, blaming him. After all, if he hadn't no-showed that night none of this would have happened. But I offer him a chance to make amends (what a guy). If he will write a simple apology to Milt, and autograph the card I conned my friend out of, all will be forgiven. And several weeks later, much to my astonishment, a Special Delivery package arrives from Montreal, and in it is a Topps 1956 Billy Gardner, autographed of course, and a letter on Expo stationery:

"Dear Milt,

Happy Birthday.

I hope Steve enjoyed the autograph. Sorry you lost the one I gave you in 1956.

Best Wishes.

Billy Gardner."

With only a few days until the birthday party, I rush out to have these treasured documents mounted and framed, suitable for presentation. The day can't come quickly enough. Vindication. Restored to the family's bosom. Free at last!

Hah!

Remember Avalon?

From new, I am accused of fabricating the whole thing. The Expo letterhead. The autograph. Even the postmark. Everything. And worse, of keeping alive "The Incident." Can you believe it?

Fast forward two more years: Believe it or not, I'm still only barely tolerated by most of the family. Forget Milt's side -- that's a lost cause. But my dad now at least talks to me sometimes and mom, of course, never stopped loving me, but otherwise it's still pretty chilly. But there is a new development. Billy Gardner is now the manager of the Minnesota Twins, who are not only

almost a real major league team but are in the American League, and will actually come to Baltimore in a few weeks. And I now have season tickets for the O's, in the front row, no less, right next to the visitors' dugout (absolutely true, but another story for another time). And idle (but fertile) minds do the devil's work again.

I write to Billy Gardner again, telling him that I look forward to

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