No place like home for hitter Family, community remain important for Orioles player Baines

September 27, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAELS -- After the last out is made today in a disappointing season for the Orioles, Harold Baines will head straight back to the hometown he has never really left.

Through nearly 20 years around baseball's big leagues, Baines and his wife, Marla -- who, not surprisingly, were high-school sweethearts -- have clung to a small-town atmosphere they say can't be matched by bright lights or big cities.

Seemingly unfazed by the popularity and wealth that come to a professional athlete, they have steered their family toward a low-key lifestyle in St. Michaels. But they have acknowledged the power of celebrity by lending Harold's name to an increasing number of community improvement projects and programs in the historic Eastern Shore town.

If it's not a PTA function at the elementary school, chaired by Marla or enlivened by Harold scrawling autographs, it's a Habitat for Humanity board meeting or a planning session for a charity golf tournament.

"I've always come home in the winter," Harold says. "Maybe the biggest part of it is that both our families are here. I think I'm fortunate enough to have grown up in the right spot and to like it enough to stay. This is a very desirable area."

Coming home

A self-described homebody, Baines eschews a downtown hotel room whenever the Orioles are playing in Baltimore, making the 90-minute commute between Camden Yards and St. Michaels for home games.

"After all these years on the road, it's worth some extra drive time just to be able to sleep in my own bed," he says.

Old friends say the couple are too modest, too quick to shrug off a deep commitment to their community. All four Baines children, ages 8 to 14, they point out, attend public schools in St. Michaels. Marla is vice president of the PTA at St. Michaels Elementary School.

"Obviously, Harold and Marla have the means to send their kids anywhere they want, but they've made a conscious choice to stick with public schools," says Lynn Cannon, assistant principal at St. Michaels High School, home to fewer than 500 students in sixth through 12th grades.

Marla, 37, who earned a degree in early childhood education from Bowie State University, says her children have thrived in the close-knit neighborhood schools where it is not uncommon for faculty members to teach two generations of the same family.

For several years, she worked closely with teachers who provided lesson plans so that Marla could home-school the children for two- to three-week stints in Florida during spring training.

"I just think that public schools work, at least here," she says. "We have small class sizes and a strong parent group. My first commitment was to the public schools."

Locals admit they're likely to sound sappy when talking about the Baines family. It's nearly impossible to find anyone in St. Michaels who has an unkind word. Everyone calls them by their (( first names and almost everyone has a story about some mammoth home run or golf shot Harold blasted as a youngster.

"I've known Harold 23 years and he's always the same," says Cannon, who was Harold's gym teacher and Marla's field hockey coach. "Both of them are community members, and true community members. I think that says a lot about a person."

Dedication to community

Their most visible project is the Harold Baines Scholarship Golf Tournament. Now in its seventh year, the event brings in more than $30,000 after expenses. Fellow Orioles such as Cal Ripken, Rafael Palmeiro and Brady Anderson help out, providing autographed balls, hats and bats that are sold at auction.

The tournament has provided the bulk of support for the Bay 100 Youth Task Force scholarships of $500 to $1,000 that have helped send 43 students from St. Michaels, Easton and Cambridge high schools to college or trade schools. Another 15 students will receive scholarships this year.

Christina Phillips, a secretary at St. Michaels High, says a 1993 grant to her daughter Tara -- and another last year for her youngest child, Amber -- was a godsend for her and her husband, Warren, a waterman.

"At one point, we had three kids in college and by the time Amber finished high school, we still had loans that hadn't been paid off," Phillips says.

Task force founder David B. Frey, a retired telephone company executive who lives in St. Michaels, has grown close to the couple in the seven or eight years since he sought their help for the nonprofit organization. Like Harold, he gives Marla much of the credit for the success of the October golf tournament.

"Harold has a real dedication to the community," Frey says. "But with his schedule taking him away from home for so much of the year, Harold will tell you it's Marla who gets a lot done. I think she has had a tremendous impact."

According to Marla, who grew up in rural McDaniel just outside St. Michaels, the youngest of eight children in her family, community involvement provides immediate gratification.

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