- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Paying tribute to icons and heroes who have left this earth is tricky business. Major League Baseball failed to set aside a special tribute to Tony Gwynn, the beloved great hitter who died from cancer of the salivary gland a month earlier, and was roundly criticized.

A country mourned the loss of Robin Williams, who took his own life earlier this month, and two entertainment broadcasts attempted to pay tribute to him. One — the Emmys — seemed to hit all the right notes. The other — MTV’s Video Music Awards — only seemed to anger fans of the dead actor.

Tributes honor the departed, but they exist for those left behind who, somewhere along the way in their own lives, were touched by the departed — either directly or, like Gwynn or Williams, by performing in a way that people embraced.

The Baltimore Orioles know too well about loss. They have suffered through the tragic death of their public relations director, Monica Pence Barlow, this year, as well as one of their owners, Tom Clancy, who passed away in October, among others. They honored the memory of those and others in an Opening Day video ceremony — including former Orioles center fielder Paul Blair, who died in late December at the age of 69.

For some Orioles fans, the Opening Day video mention wasn’t enough. They believe Paul Blair deserved more.

So they have taken it into their own hands with a grassroots movement to honor the eight-time Gold Glove outfielder with plans for a simple display of tribute on Sept. 12, when the Orioles face the New York Yankees.

They are asking fans to simply show up with a sign honoring Blair.

Rafael Alvarez is a long time Baltimore writer (his latest work is a series of short stories about Baltimore called “Tales from the Holy Land”) who grew up with memories of those great Orioles teams led by Frank and Brooks Robinson. Blair was the center fielder on those teams, and he represented a certain style and grace about those teams.

“He was such a big part of those great Orioles teams I grew up watching at Memorial Stadium,” Alvarez said. “I’m a Baltimore guy, and for one night I get to be 12 again, honoring Paul Blair getting under the ball in center field on the warning track.”

Joining him in organizing this grassroots Blair tribute is another Baltimore writer, Charlie Vascellaro.

“I remember Paul Blair as an exciting and dynamic player on the dominant Orioles teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s at a time when African American players dominated the game,” he said. “He’s part of the personification of the game realizing its ideals in the generation following Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough. He broke into the big leagues less than 20 years after Robinson and on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement.”

The Orioles are wearing a patch on their uniforms this season honoring Clancy. Vascellaro thought that was an honor appropriate for Blair, who played 13 of his 17 major league seasons, from 1964 to 1976, in an Orioles uniform, wearing number 6.

“The Orioles had a lot of death associated with the franchise during the past off-season, not the least of which was Monica Pence Barlow, which had to be the most tragic, and I feel like Blair just got lost in all of it,” he said. “I had naturally assumed that the Orioles would wear a number 6 patch on their sleeve this year, like they did with [Earl] Weaver’s number 4 last year. I was kind of surprised to see Tom Clancy take precedence, but perhaps ownership had a closer relationship with him.

“We felt that even if the organization didn’t make a formal tribute to Blair we would. Blair’s death was every bit as significant as Weaver’s was to the long-time Orioles fans that I know.”

Greg Bader, Orioles vice president of communications and marketing, said the club felt it had honored Blair with its Opening Day ceremonies.

“We did honor Paul on Opening Day and remember him as one of our great players and a true ambassador of Orioles baseball,” he said. “Of course we would never discourage any outpouring of support for the Orioles past and present players, including Paul Blair.”

Both Alvarez and Vascellaro maintain this is not a protest, and they are not at odds with the Orioles. They simply wanted to start a true fan tribute to a player who meant so much to Orioles fans.

“I am 56, and remember when fans would show up at Memorial Stadium with signs that kids would make up for their favorite players,” Alvarez said. “We want to bring that to Camden Yards on Sept. 12 for Blair. We’re spreading the word, person to person, on Facebook, any way we can. Everybody that cares, come to the stadium on Sept. 12 with a sign that shows we love Paul Blair.”

They are working on Paul Blair T-shirts, with any proceeds to go to St. Jude’s Hospital, Blair’s favorite charity, Alvarez said. They are also creating a web site honoring Blair called eightgoldgloves.com.

And now, with a second game scheduled that day against the Yankees — the postponed game from the rain out earlier this month — Alvarez is hoping they have even more opportunity to honor Blair.

“Originally, those tickets for Friday night’s game (Derek Jeter’s last trip to Camden Yards) were hard to get,” he said. “Now, with the doubleheader, we are redoubling our efforts to honor a true sports hero.”

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.

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