- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

It may have been too much for Elrod Hendricks to bear: not being in a major league uniform for the first time in nearly four decades.

Hendricks, who died Wednesday at 64, had come to the ballpark — Memorial Stadium and then Camden Yards — wearing an Orioles uniform for 37 years, but he would not be part of the team in 2006 after being let go from the coaching staff.

Club officials cited health factors, and there is no reason not to believe them. He had a stroke last year, and the demands of the job — particularly bullpen coach — were deemed too much at his age.

But mentally, what kept Hendricks alive was being part of the game. There was talk about him continuing on with the organization in some sort of community service role, because as anyone familiar with the Orioles knows, there never has been a better ambassador for the Orioles than Elrod Hendricks.

That may have been too much to ask, though, of any man, even one who enjoyed people as much as Hendricks did — to be an ambassador for this organization. He was a coach, not a glad-hander, and it was being part of the game that gave Hendricks the fuel he needed to spread good cheer.

Covering the Orioles in various capacities for 12 years, I got to know Hendricks well. I don’t want to say we had a special relationship, because nearly everyone who came into contact with Hendricks had a special relationship. That’s what he did: made you feel special.

For most people who came to Orioles games, the only contact they had with the team would be with Hendricks, who either signed autographs before the game or talked to fans from the bullpen during the game, and they would go home feeling special because someone in an Orioles uniform, someone who had played with Frank Robinson and coached Cal Ripken cared enough to speak to them.

Hendricks was a big boxing fan, and when I would cover a fight, I always tried to bring back a hat from it. He liked that, and loved talking about boxing. It was a connection we always had, and sometimes, when I came to the ballpark after an absence of a few weeks, he would pull me aside and tell me he had been waiting to talk to me about this or that fight. We talked about what a fighter did wrong, or how that fighter might have done against the great fighters of the past.

He listened to me talk about boxing, and I always listened to him talk about baseball whenever I had the chance, because he forgot more about the game than most of the people I have covered — a recent Orioles manager comes to mind — ever knew.

Before every home game, Hendricks sat on a stool in a small room near the dugout entrance beneath Camden Yards and took one ball at a time out of a bag, reaching into a small bucket of dirt, and rubbing the dirt on each ball, getting them ready to use in the bullpen. I would sometimes seek him out when he was doing this to talk baseball. And even during the tumultuous times this franchise has been through since 1997, Hendricks maintained his love for the game — a remarkable accomplishment, considering the beauty he had been part of when the Orioles were the crown jewel of baseball and the ugliness that envelops the franchise these days.

The best day to talk to him was Opening Day. “I love this,” he said to me before one season began. “They pay us to be part of this game, but I’d do it for nothing. I love to hear the sound of the ball hitting a glove, the smell of the clubhouse. There’s nothing like it.

“Every year around January, I start getting excited about spring training. Then, when spring training gets here, I start getting excited about Opening Day. I never get tired of this.”

There will be no excitement this January, though, because there will be no spring training for Hendricks. It is not unreasonable to think that this winter, knowing he was not returning to the Orioles, had broken his heart. He died of a heart attack while leaving a restaurant at the BWI Airport Marriott the night before his 65th birthday.

On the day they spread Steve Bechler’s ashes on the mound at Camden Yards in August 2003, Hendricks took part in the ceremony. He had gotten to know Bechler, who died at spring training in Fort Lauderdale from complications brought on by heat stroke shortly after using a dietary supplement that contained ephedrine.

“I think this is where he would have wanted to be, in the ballpark,” Hendricks said. “I’ve always said that all ballplayers should be buried in ballparks. This is where we belong.”

It’s where Elrod Hendricks lived.

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