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News Maryland Howard County Columbia

Bird's-eye view of Orioles' history

There are moments at Camden Yards, in the hour or so before a game, that Boog Powell is at his barbecue pit on Eutaw Street, while nearby Jim Gentile is signing autographs for Orioles' fans and slugger Chris Davis is on the infield taking groundballs in preparation for that night's contest.

"You have three generations of good-hitting first basemen. The grandfather remembers one [Gentile], the dad remembers one [Powell] and the son remembers the next one [Davis]," notes Bill Stetka, who is also well aware that all three sluggers hit from the left side.

Stetka, a resident of Columbia who grew up in Bel Air, is a treasure trove of Orioles' baseball history. A former public relations director with the team, Stetka has been the director of Orioles Alumni since 2008 and in that role has been able to rub shoulders — and became friends — with several of the legends and lesser-known players who have worn the Birds' uniform since the team moved to Baltimore from St. Louis in 1954.

"For a number of years while I was in PR we talked about doing more with former players," Stetka said. "We always had a core of guys who did a lot of things for us. But I knew there were more guys out there we could pull from."

"When I started the program I had some ideas. I also reached out to some other clubs who had alumni programs of sorts," Stetka said, listing the Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians as organizations he talked to for ideas. "We kind of melded some of our ideas with what some of the other clubs were doing."

One of the more visible parts of Stetka's role in bringing former players to Camden Yards is an autograph session on Eutaw Street before Monday and Thursday home games.

He tries to get at least three players for each game, and on April 14 former catchers Chris Hoiles and John Stefero, and one-time pitcher Ken Dixon signed autographs from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. before the game with the Tampa Bay Rays. After they sign, some of the players will go meet fans in the corporate suites at Camden Yards.

"I love it. I think it's a great thing," said Hoiles, who played for the Orioles from 1989-98. "A lot of these people were kids when I played. It is great to go back [to Camden Yards] and give back. I love talking to people."

Hoiles signs several times a year and has also been part of Orioles Dream Week in Florida, which Stetka also helps out with. The former catcher has been impressed with the attention to detail by Stetka and his staff: Steve Freeman, manager of Alumni Affairs, and Jennifer Steier, an Alumni Affairs assistant.

"Bill is awesome. I have been around Bill my whole career [with the Orioles], said Hoiles, who lives in York, Pa. "Bill, Steve and Jennifer do a great job of organizing everything. They do a great job of reaching out to the community."

Some of the other former Orioles who regularly make appearances at the request of Stetka include Al Bumbry, Larry Sheets, Tippy Martinez, Nate Snell, Tim Nordbrook, Scott McGregor, Bill Swaggerty and Joe Orsulak.

"If Brooks Robinson is Mr. Oriole, then Al Bumbry is Mr. Orioles Community," Stetka said of Bumbry, who has made hundreds of appearances since playing for the team from 1972 to 1984.

"The current players don't have as much time to get out and do things because of their travel," Stetka said. "We have [alums] go out and speak at functions, sign autographs at charity events, Little League openings, those type of things. If it is for-profit, the company has to pay, but we are not asking for a huge amount of money."

Another regular alum who Stetka works with is Billy Hunter, a former Orioles' infielder and coach. Hunter, the former baseball coach and athletic director at Towson University, threw out the first pitch at Camden Yards on April 13 to mark the 60th anniversary of the first Orioles' game ever — a game at Detroit in which Hunter was the starting shortstop.

Growing up with the club

Stetka was 6 when he saw his first game at old Memorial Stadium in 1961. He was there when Frank Robinson hit a homer completely out of the stadium in 1966, and was in the stands for World Series games in the 1960s and 1970s.

"I have kind of grown up with the club in a lot of respects," Stetka said. "There are things that I remember from being there or listening to the games in the radio."

Stetka played baseball and was a reserve in football at Bel Air High, then graduated from Towson University. His wife, the former Alex Thomas, was a gymnast at Centennial High and also went to Towson.

After college, Stetka worked for nine years as a journalist at the old News American. That involved a stint covering the Orioles, including the 1983 World Series victory over the Phillies.

He also spent several years as an official scorer at Orioles' games and ended up back at Towson working in public relations and as the alumni director. Stetka joined the Orioles' public relations staff in 1995 and made the transition to alumni director six years ago.

Stetka also speaks to school and community groups about Orioles' history and is the team's liaison to the Sports Legend Museum and the new Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball, housed at the Owings Mills branch of the Baltimore County Public Library.

Stetka said a small satisfaction about his job came a few years ago when he got a call from Darold Knowles, who spent 16 years in the majors but pitched in just five games with the Orioles, in 1965. Knowles said his wife was going to be in Baltimore and she wanted to get a few tickets for a game.

Stetka said Knowles admitted he didn't pitch that long for the Orioles.

Stetka assured Knowles that he remembered the pitcher and left tickets for his wife.

"His wife wrote me a nice note afterwards," Stetka said.

Another request came in July 2011, after former Orioles outfielder Tex Nelson, who played for the team from 1955-57, died in his native Texas. His family requested that he be buried in an Orioles' jersey. "We sent a jersey out to him," Stetka said.

When asked what was the best part of his job, Stetka said, "Wow; there are so many different things.

"One is having become friends with a lot of [former Orioles]. They are regular guys. I love interacting with people, whether it is fans on Eutaw Street or guys in the corporate suites or going out and talking about the Orioles. I am a baseball rat."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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