Another Opening Day looms - but one without beloved press-box veteran

April 01, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE BALTIMORE Orioles will open their 48th season tomorrow, their first without John Steadman looking down from the press box. He's got heavenly box seats now, and the view is fine. But those who used to sit with him on Opening Day of baseball will miss his insights, his sense of history, his grace, his puckish sense of humor.

There's an old rule about no cheering in the press box (though John occasionally bent the rule by blowing a bugle after a Baltimore Colts touchdown), but there's no rule on chatter, which can fly like errant throws to first.

For a lot of Opening Days, John could be found with such veterans as Washington writers Shirley Povich and Mo Siegel, broadcaster Vince Bagli, Neal Eskridge of the News American, Sam Lacy of the Afro-American, Gordon Beard of the Associated Press, Bob Maisel of The Sun, and the guy writing this piece, who felt privileged to sit with the grown-ups.

One year at Memorial Stadium, Dave Johnson, the local kid, was the Opening Day pitcher.

"Hey, Steadman," called out Mo Siegel, who bounced among every Washington newspaper. "Would you say Dave Johnson's the best Johnson since Walter?"

That was Siegel's ascerbic way of declaring: If Johnson's the Opening Day guy, the Orioles might be a little thin on pitching.

"Maybe not," Steadman said. "Would you settle for Connie?"

Connie Johnson was beautiful to watch in the 1950s. It was Steadman's gentle rejoinder, and a hint of how much he remembered from a franchise's entire run.

He never tried to one-up anybody on his sense of history - but you knew that he knew. He knew from growing up here and devouring the daily sports pages; from playing ball at City College and in the minor leagues; and from a half-century career covering the games.

"Good days and bad," he'd say if you complimented him on a piece.

It was the grandest boast ever offered by this humblest of men. About himself, he was self-effacing and sometimes mocking. When asked about his election to the sportswriters Hall of Fame, he said, "It was an off-year, that's why they picked me." When asked about his season playing minor-league baseball, he said, "I hit .125. But it was a hard .125."

"Where was that?" I asked him one Opening Day at Memorial Stadium. The game was dull, the day chilly and overcast, and we were killing time while a relief pitcher lumbered in from the bullpen.

"The York White Roses," he said. They were a Pittsburgh Pirates farm club, and John signed with them right out of high school - for $175 a month.

"Remember the biggest day you had?"

"Yeah," he said, "but it wasn't in the game." It was a May afternoon, and the White Roses were playing in Trenton. Steadman was pulling off his catching equipment after the game, he remembered, when his manager said, "Don't get out of your uniform for a while."

The ballplayers were ushered back onto the field, and an announcement was made that Germany had just surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II's fighting in Europe. John said he remembered standing with another kid near first base, and the two of them crying tears of joy. And then there was beer in the clubhouse, which some of the guys poured over one another's heads. And then John, being who he was, went for a celebratory ice cream soda after the game.

It was a sweet story, and captured some of his earnest innocence. In the press box the day he told the story, the reverie was broken only when Mo Siegel, struggling to write a lead on a lifeless game, looked up from his keyboard and called out, "Hey, Steady, have they given out the Pulitzers yet this year?"

"Yeah," John said.

"Then the hell with it," Siegel said, "I ain't bearin' down."

The two men seemed, in that moment, opposite sides of the same coin: Siegel with his glad edginess, his instinctive reach for the joke as his approach to the sporting life; and Steadman with his respectful vision of the game as American ritual.

A year ago, though, the mood in the press box was different. John was fighting the cancer that would take his life. His friends all made sure they came by his seat to wish him well. And, as the game wore on, he became wistful.

He remembered his father, who was the No. 2 man in the city's fire department but died of a heart attack as a young man. And he remembered his mother, who struggled to raise three children on her own. To the end, he carried in his pocket a letter his mother had written him when he was in the minors.

The letter reminded him, "Don't forget to say your prayers."

On the first Opening Day at Oriole Park, a decade ago, John decided to hire a small plane to carry a banner over the crowd. Everybody in town had read stories about Babe Ruth growing up in the neighborhood. The plane's banner would read, "The Babe Says Hi."

It was his way of reminding everybody of our shared history, our roots, and the fact that The Babe was one of our guys.

It's comforting to think that, when John reached heaven last winter, there was a welcoming message at the pearly gates: "The Babe Says Hi."

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