The Orioles paid homage to their other Iron Man yesterday, saluting Elrod Hendricks on the start of his 30th season with the club. Cal Ripken was in second grade in 1968 when Hendricks joined the Orioles. Talk about tenure: The catcher-turned-coach has seen a generation come and go, including eight managers, four general managers, three owners and a ballpark.
Ripken has played in 2,479 straight contests, but Hendricks has suited up for nearly twice as many Orioles games.
"That's a lot of national anthems," said Hendricks, honored on rTC Opening Day for his three decades in Baltimore, a club record. Brooks Robinson (21 years) is a distant second.
"It has gone by so fast," said Hendricks, 57, who played 11 years for the Orioles before becoming bullpen coach. "Baseball keeps me young, mingling with players and fans. In 30 years, I've taken nothing for granted. Being here, on this field, is something precious; I have an awful lot to be thankful for."
The feeling is mutual, the Orioles say.
"Elrod is the ultimate professional, an outstanding coach who heads off a lot of problems before they get to me," manager Ray Miller said. This year, Hendricks' duties include coaching the catchers, a job snatched from him by Miller's predecessor, Davey Johnson.
"Elrod was an outstanding catcher -- he threw out 41 percent of runners who tried to steal against him," Miller said. (The major-league average is one in three). "His talent there had been pushed aside, and I wanted it back."
The bullpen is his bailiwick, and Hendricks has no plans to leave. He managed the Orioles briefly in 1988, spelling Frank Robinson (bad back) and winning four of 15 games. Going from bullpen to bench was like moving to the front row of a theater, said Hendricks: "I kept saying, 'What was that pitch? What was that pitch?' From the dugout, everything looked the same.
"I see a lot better at a greater distance."
Besides, said Hendricks, he enjoys playing psychologist beyond the outfield fence, sloughing through the minds of his relievers, gauging their mood swings and learning what makes each tick. "My job is to know those guys better than they know themselves, so I know when they're ready to go in the game," he said.
Fans embrace Hendricks for his accessibility, both on and off the field. Between innings, he will chat with the crowd, sometimes offering them chewing gum or cold drinks. (One child pocketed his stick of gum to display in his trophy case.) On hot days, Hendricks may hand ice-cold towels through the fence to fans in distress.
"I'm very conscious of their presence," he said of Orioles patrons, some of them longtime acquaintances who call him Poppy or Uncle Ellie. "I want them to come back to my 'house' again."
Hendricks' appeal was apparent yesterday: Singled out for a rousing pre-game welcome, he doffed his cap once, twice, waving to the crowd and shaking hands with appreciative fans from the edge of the bullpen.
"Elrod has probably signed more autographs than any Oriole who ever lived," said Miller, who called him the club's "conscience."
Hendricks regularly visits the sick in area hospitals and has been known to make house calls. He won the heart of a Chilean woman who once asked him to comfort her daughter, a cancer patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The girl, who spoke no English, had become despondent. Her attitude changed after three hours with the personable Hendricks, who speaks fluent Spanish.
He cherishes letters like that from a Towson woman thanking him for visiting her husband, a fan dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.
"Those I can help make me feel good about myself," Hendricks said. "We in baseball receive a heck of a lot more from these fans than we can ever give back."
Pub Date: 4/01/98