O's should do right thing, retire Hendricks' number

March 31, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Opening Day at Camden Yards is just days away, and the Orioles still haven't decided whether to retire Elrod Hendricks' uniform No. 44.

"Nothing has officially been determined yet. It's still an open question," team spokesman Bill Stetka said yesterday. "There are a number of things in the works."

Monday's pre-game ceremony will assuredly be all about honoring Hendricks, the team's longtime bullpen coach and goodwill ambassador nonpareil, who died from a heart attack last December. The team is considering several permanent tributes such as a scholarship fund and a ballpark marker.

But retiring his number would be the greatest honor and by far the most meaningful. It also would be entirely appropriate. Without it, any other tributes, no matter how well-intentioned, would be a cop-out.

When they finally get around to deciding what they're going to do - any day now, gang - the Orioles would commit a major misstep if they didn't retire number 44.

It's a no-brainer. The fans would love the poignant nod to an all-time favorite. And of course, most importantly, Hendricks deserves it.

Yes, he was just a career .220 hitter who sat on the bench for long stretches during his 12-year playing career, which ended in 1979. And then he was a bullpen coach. On the surface, it hardly makes sense to hang his number by those the Orioles have already retired, all of which belong to Hall of Famers. (Or, in the case of Cal Ripken Jr., a virtually certain Famer-to-be.)

But Hendricks' value went far beyond talent or statistics. He was the face of the team in the community, a mentor to countless young players, an outstretched hand that helped connect the Orioles to the city they represent.

He spent thousands of hours making speeches and hospital visits, attending bull roasts and holiday parties, tirelessly promoting the Orioles and baseball. He did it on days off, over the winter, when he easily could have taken the phone off the hook and gone on vacation. But his heart was much too big to say no.

During the season, he contributed more than anyone outside the club knew. He was an unofficial assistant pitching coach; Mike Mussina says no one knew him better in his years here. He was a de facto player parent, the only coach who chose to sit in the back with the players on charter flights instead up front with the coaches.

He evolved into the wisest of heads, the ultimate bearer of institutional knowledge, the conscience of the team. Retiring his number would allow the Orioles to show not only that they respect and appreciate what he did, but also that they understand such contributions were vital.

Even Hall of Fame players can be replaced. But the Orioles will never have another Hendricks.

There's no guidebook for retiring numbers; it isn't a league issue, or, like the Hall of Fame, subject to a litany of protocol and beliefs. Teams can do whatever they want. And while most retired numbers (there are more than 140) do, in fact, belong to Hall of Famers, there's also a history of honoring special cases.

The Angels retired the number of the late Jimmie Reese, a longtime coach who garnered only 742 major league at-bats in the 1930s and was best known for being Babe Ruth's roommate, but, like Hendricks, was a beloved figure.

The Reds retired the number of Fred Hutchinson, a popular former player and manager who died of cancer at age 45. The Marlins retired the number of Carl Barger, a team president who died suddenly, just to make sure he would be remembered. Same with the Cardinals and owner August Busch Jr.

Some in the Orioles organization have fretted that honoring Hendricks would be a disservice to others who might deserve the honor, such as pitcher Dave McNally, a 181-game winner for the Orioles, or Cal Ripken Sr., certainly a unique figure in team history. I don't think it's appropriate to compare candidacies. Let's not do that. This isn't about anyone else. This is about Hendricks.

Here are the questions to ask: What were his contributions? And do those contributions warrant the permanent honor? The answer is obvious.

Hendricks spent 37 of his 64 years wearing the Orioles uniform and bringing respect to it, through good times and bad. No one was more devoted to the organization. No one served it better.

No one should ever wear No. 44 again.

Teams retire numbers when the time is right to honor the right person, and clearly, that time has arrived. To do anything less would be a disservice to the lifetime of small, personal triumphs that Hendricks piled into a mountain, all for the benefit of the Baltimore Orioles.


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