A Team Blessing Even when the Orioles don't have a prayer, they have their priest's friendly ear.

June 30, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

A figure in black walks briskly across the deep end of the outfield just after 5 p.m. in Camden Yards as the Orioles prep for their second fight against the Yankees. On his cap is a silver cross. Seeing it glitter, a player stills his bat, tips his hat.

The Rev. Martin A. Schwalenberg returns the salute, but pushes on to his intended target: right-hander Sydney Ponson, still basking in his career-making shutout of the Yanks the previous evening.

"Don't let it go to your head," the priest razzes the rookie.

An usher edges down the dirt, but makes no move to oust the man in black from the players' sacred turf. It's tough to stop somebody whose employer is, well, God.

In the 40 years Father Marty has been the unofficial chaplain to the O's, he has become sacred himself. Not even Cal Ripken gets as much respect as the man who wears the silver cross and carries Communion in a gold box in his pocket.

Like the breeze that fills the ballpark, Father Marty roams unfettered, and is everywhere expected. He alone can be found with players in the locker room after 6: 45 p.m.; he alone can march onto the field during practice. In the clubhouse, he gets a daily shoe shine from third-base coach Sam Perlozzo, and in the cafeteria, a free meal. ("Who knows when I might need him?" the cashier says.)

If a player is hurt, Father Marty runs down to the dressing room. He denies appearing in the bullpen during the game, though some -- perhaps hoping for a miracle -- claim to have seen him there. On occasion, he has followed the team onto the field, hand over heart, for the national anthem. When he's done roaming, he takes Seat AAA 3, directly behind the back stop, until somebody with big bucks claims it. (His own tickets in a terrace box, four for each game, he gives away.)

He even blessed the new stadium.

"Yes, I did," Father says. "Nobody asked me, but I did it."

He'll be there tonight as the O's begin their home stretch with the Florida Marlins. Of 80 home games a year, he misses maybe three or four. Nobody pays him, either.

"The big thing with all these guys is to be there," Father Marty says.

Wherever there's a need

The first priest of baseball was invited to hang around the O's back in 1958 by third baseman Brooks Robinson. Nowadays it's common for a team to have a preacher, but in the cities of the American League there's still nobody like Father Marty:

Every game day at about 5 p.m., after visits of comfort to the old and sick, the Roman Catholic priest drives 25 minutes from his Riviera Beach home to the stadium and parks his polished black 1997 Oldsmobile in the best space in the players' lot.

His shirt pocket bulging with a fresh stack of calling cards engraved with the prayer of St. Francis and his home numbers in Maryland and Florida, he heads to the field for batting practice.

He mingles, talks. After a spell on the field and in the dugout, he follows the players into the clubhouse to see if anybody needs him. Then he heads over to see the other team.

The only striking thing about him leaning on the batting cage at home plate analyzing practice alongside left fielder B.J. Surhoff and batting coach Rick Down is that he doesn't have a number on his back.

"Way to go," he tells Surhoff, one of his favorites. Rafael Palmeiro and then Brady Anderson swap him one-liners as they run between field and dugout. The raindrops are coming.

Entering the O's clubhouse, Father Marty spots catcher Lenny Webster putting away bats. Webster, his face dripping wet, breaks into a smile and drops the bats. "Give me some of that sweat," Father Marty says as the two grip each other in a bear hug.

The priest, moving on, pushes open the door to the batting-pitching tunnel. Inside, Cal Ripken, swatting ball after ball, gives him a side glance. "Cal," Father Marty says. " 'Signor," Cal replies, working all the while. Father closes the door. He loves when people use the more respectful "monsignor," as they have these past few years.

The priest is back in the dugout praying for the rain to stop when he gets a signal from a Yankees trainer that somebody on the other team wants to see him.

Father hustles over as if he's about to deliver the Last Rites, nearly slipping on the wet American League mat. For the next 20 minutes he answers questions about faith, about Baptism, from a "young Yankee, good player." Good questions, Father Marty says.

His collar is his pass into the Yankees dugout when all other civilians have been banished. Moments before the game, he marches back in to get the Yankee's address. Only when the fans crowd him do security guards move in.

Despite the orange bird on his cap, the priest says he doesn't take sides -- he's got too many friends on both teams. "Hey Straw!" he yells at the Yankees' Darryl Strawberry when he sees the pole figure stride across the field.

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