Catching up with … former Oriole Joe Nolan

Backup catcher was key reserve on 1983 world championship team

April 24, 2011|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

He was the consummate role player, one of those unsung Orioles who, in 1983, came off the bench, cold, to plug a hole or to hit in a pinch.

Joe Nolan did it right — he has a World Series ring to prove it.

"I keep [the ring] in a Ziploc bag, in the drawer," said Nolan, 59, then a backup catcher for the Orioles. "It's beautiful, but I'm not a jewelry-type guy. Even wearing a watch bothers me. But I'll wear [the band] to weddings, or to my daughters' graduations, or to an anniversary dinner with my wife."

He earned the ring. Twenty-eight years ago, in the Orioles' last championship season, Nolan hit a healthy .277 and spelled Rick Dempsey, the star catcher who was named Most Valuable Player of the World Series.

But it was a couple of role players, Nolan and outfielder Jim Dwyer, who helped the Orioles ice the division title. On Sept. 25, their home runs supplied all the punch in a 5-1 victory at Milwaukee. Having made the playoffs that night, the Orioles rolled on to win it all.

If only they had done it at Memorial Stadium.

"We clinched the division on the road, then beat the [Chicago] White Sox up there and won the World Series in Philadelphia," Nolan said. "Our home fans got cheated that year."

The antithesis of the colorful Dempsey, Nolan was laid-back and left-handed. He wore large glasses that would fog up on humid nights, under his mask, making it hard for him to see.

"I had sweat dripping into my eyes at all the wrong times," he said. "I tried contacts, but they didn't work. Those glasses were a royal pain in the butt."

For four years an Oriole (1982-1985), Nolan excelled as a line-drive hitter and accepted his platoon status, as did other veterans like Dwyer, infielder Lenn Sakata and outfielders John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke.

"Younger guys might have resented it, but we understood that the team needed good bench players," Nolan said. "And we all got enough playing time to stay sharp, which made it easier than it could have been."

Three times, he won games with clutch homers: a grand slam against the Toronto Blue Jays, a three-run shot to beat Milwaukee's Moose Haas (Franklin High) and a pinch-hit blast off Goose Gossage, New York's relief ace, that topped the Yankees in 11 innings.

"I was never much of a nostalgia freak," Nolan said, "but I remember rounding the bases that game at Yankee Stadium and thinking, How many people — [Babe] Ruth, [Lou] Gehrig and [Joe] DiMaggio — made the same trip that I'm making?

"I mean, I just happened to sneak the ball into the stands."

Nowadays, Nolan lives in Melville, Mo., and works part time as a manufacturer's rep for a firm that makes vinyl school ring binders. Married 42 years, he has three grown daughters and one granddaughter.

"I've always been lowest on the totem pole to use the bathroom," he said. "Dad has always had to wait awhile. We even have a female dog."

An avid outdoorsman, he enjoys walking wooded trails and hunting deer and wild turkey. He said he boasts a recipe for fried turkey breast that would wow fans at Camden Yards.

Released by the Orioles in 1985, Nolan, then 34, retired. After 11 years in the majors, his knees were shot.

"I wore a brace on my right knee the whole time in Baltimore," he said. "I'd already had five or six operations. I'd played as hard as I could, but I thought, enough is enough — it was time to get out."

To date, he has had both knees replaced, as well as surgeries on his shoulder and back.

"The only operation I can't attribute to baseball is the one I had on my gallbladder," Nolan said.

What is his legacy?

"I was very average, very mediocre," he said. "My career wasn't anything great — look at the stats — but I'm proud of what I did.

"How would I like to be remembered? Cal Ripken said it best: 'Just being remembered is enough.'"

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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