Starting young, rich memories from '70s Orioles

August 01, 1999|By John Steadman

Happy and comforting recollections, built on his young years of being a visitor (not always with a ticket) to Memorial Stadium, emerge from Robert Jones the way water sometimes streams from a faucet.

His heroes from the past come front and center once again on the conversational baseball stage as he talks about the Orioles of the 1970s and how he got to know them. Players liked his enthusiasm, how he didn't press them for bats and balls and behaved in a well-mannered way.

He worked for the concessionaire stacking cases, was around the stadium, not far from where he lived, and this led to the opportunity to get to know the players. "I was under age, but was still employed at the stadium because I was a good worker. What really drew me there was a chance to see the Orioles."

Jones has the distinction of once giving a gift of a visit from Rick Dempsey to his mother on Mother's Day.

"I hadn't gotten her a present," he recalls. "I only had a few cents in my pocket. I asked Rick if he'd mind coming to see my mother after the game."

That's exactly what happened. Dempsey drove his own family, wife and two children and his passenger guest, Robert, away from the stadium. Minutes later, Dempsey went up the steps to the Joneses' rowhouse and, according to son Robert, "My mother almost had a heart attack when Rick walked in the living room. I let him go in first. I'll never forget the expression on her face. He gave her an autographed ball and a bat, which she still has. But having him visit was what we still talk about."

Little wonder why Rick Dempsey is his all-time favorite Oriole. And he's not ashamed to even say that now upon seeing his mother, Carolyn, so happy it brought tears of elation to his eyes.

Other Orioles, he likes to think, also became his friends, such as Eddie Murray, Doug DeCinces, Ken Singleton, Elrod Hendricks, Al Bumbry, Mark Belanger, Kiko Garcia, Lee May, Brooks Robinson and Carlos Lopez.

"Most of them, at one time or another, gave me rides home in their cars. I'd say Dempsey was the most approachable. What a personality. When he came to Wilsby, then a changing neighborhood racially, some of the kids wondered who that white guy was getting out of a yellow Cadillac and going into my house."

The Orioles gave him boxes of bubble gum, which he distributed to friends. Players also left complimentary tickets to games with the proviso they only be used and not sold.

"We got next to the players, would do small favors for them and, after games, if we wanted to throw the ball around, we could go into the outfield, not to play a game, but the groundskeeper, Pat Santarone, said no sliding into bases or damaging the grass, just throwing and catching."

Jones says his most significant game thrill was when Robinson was nearing retirement and the fans were hollering, "We want Brooks... We want Brooks." Robinson answered the public appeal by hitting a home run. As Jones remembers, it was into the right-field stands and won the game. "One thing about Brooks he always gave us kids time when we asked him questions."

He says Orioles manager Earl Weaver was usually too businesslike in his approach to baseball to give much time to what was extraneous -- a crowd of youngsters near the dugout and clubhouse door mingling with players who seemed glad to see them.

Clearly, Jones has become, in his own way, a lifetime admirer of the players he was around. "I remember Lee May's great smile and how Reggie Jackson could spit between his teeth. What came out looked like a perfect line of water. We all tried that but couldn't do it."

Jones, now 35, manages the Knights of Columbus Hall on Homeland Avenue, and was interested to hear that Jack Dunn, the Orioles' owner-general manager-manager of the seven-time pennant-winning Orioles, 1919 to 1925, is buried in the adjoining St. Mary's Cemetery.

Jones says he enjoyed playing baseball but never achieved any particular skills. "But I can get so excited watching the game," he says. "I enjoy it more than any other sport."

He remembers playing at what was originally St. Elizabeth's orphanage and home for black children. He says at first the nuns asked the children to leave, but eventually let them stay as long as they wanted.

"We kids would tell them, `Sisters, if you let us play here, we'll keep the bad kids out.' "

At one time, Jones' hobby was collecting bats. He estimates he had the bats of at least 70 Orioles, some given to him by the players, the Cashen batboys and the Tyler clubhouse attendants. Cal Ripken Sr. even handed him a fungo bat. He says there were times when he played with the sons of Belanger and Terry Crowley in the hallways of Memorial Stadium.

As he grew older, graduated from Northwestern High School and took a regular job in landscaping, the collection of bats and balls didn't mean that much to him, and he either discarded or gave them away. At one time, he even had a bat rack in his basement. "Imagine what all that might be worth today," he says.

Jones said he never got a glove from a player, but then-coach Ray Miller promised him one. "He told me, `If you stop asking me, I'll give you one when the season is over.' But I never saw him on the last day and missed out."

For Robert Jones, those memories are preserved providing enough enjoyment in their retelling to relive joyous chapters of his childhood past that shall always endure.

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