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Elrod's widow can't forget: 'Fact is they broke his heart'

John Eisenberg

John Eisenberg

April 4, 2006

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Her late husband's team began another season yesterday at Camden Yards. Her youngest son threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Merle Hendricks wanted no part of it.

"They asked me to take part in the pre-game ceremony, but I couldn't in good conscience be down there on that field giving the impression that I'm OK with everything, because I'm not," said the widow of the Orioles' longtime bullpen coach, who died suddenly in December.

As she spoke, she sat on a couch inside the club-level suite where her family and friends watched the Orioles' 9-6 victory. Like many of those in the suite, she wore a button with Elrod Hendricks' number, 44, on it - the number the Orioles didn't retire yesterday, as some thought they might, as a way of properly honoring Hendricks.

"I need to speak out to set the record straight. Because whatever nice is being said here today, the fact is they broke his heart. They broke my husband's spirit," Merle Hendricks said of the Orioles.

Tears rolled down her cheeks as the crowd cheered the Orioles.

"I can't get closure on his death because of it," she continued. "But I'm not speaking out for me. I'm speaking out because Ellie deserved better. I'm only doing this for him."

The club announced after last season that Hendricks, who suffered a minor stroke after a game in Tampa, Fla., last April, would leave the major league coaching staff after 37 years in uniform. His new duties hadn't been determined when he died eight weeks later at the age of 64.

"The fact that he was being reassigned is not the issue. That happens every day to all sorts of people in baseball. Ellie understood that. I understand that," Merle Hendricks said. "We used to laugh about how long he had hung on with one-year contracts. He knew better than anyone that it could end at any time.

"The problem wasn't the decision itself. The problem was the way it was handled."

She then reeled off what she believed were missteps committed by the club before, during and after the decision to make Rick Dempsey the bullpen coach under new manager Sam Perlozzo.

She said a member of the organization told Hendricks that the decision to replace him had been made before the end of the 2005 season but wasn't announced until later, denying Hendricks a proper ballpark farewell.

She said Hendricks was told in a 10 p.m. phone call from executive vice president Mike Flanagan that he was being reassigned - "hardly a dignified thing after all these years," Merle Hendricks said.

And, most devastatingly to Hendricks, she said, the club reassigned him without knowing what his new role would be, leaving him dangling and feeling he had been put out to pasture.

"They said they did it for his health, but the first job they suggested for him was scouting, which would have meant even more travel than before," Merle Hendricks said. "He said no. Then they suggested he go to Bowie and Frederick and work with the kids there. He said no again. That's farther away than Camden Yards."

Finally, she said, Flanagan asked what he wanted to do. Hendricks' suggestion, she said, was a job in which he would dress in uniform before home games and work with the catchers, then shower, dress, sit in the stands and scout during games and perhaps scout additionally.

Flanagan responded to her comments after yesterday's game.

"Elrod was my teammate and my friend for 30 years. No one could have been closer to him than me," he said. "We were trying to do something for him, not to him. That was the whole idea. Help him. Think of a way to have him do something meaningful with the club and be around and not have to travel so much.

"Elrod and I spoke about this for three hours one night shortly before he passed. He was going to be an assistant to me, go on special assignments, look at someone special when we needed it. It hadn't been clearly defined, but it was going to be meaningful, significant. I know Merle is upset. We have spoken several times. It isn't getting any easier for her [dealing with Hendricks' death], which we all understand, because he was so special."

Merle Hendricks agreed that it isn't getting any easier.

"I came out today only because my son wanted to throw out the ball in honor of his father, which I understand," she said. "But both my sons support me in this [speaking out]. We have talked a lot about it. It has sat heavy in my heart for months.

"Even if they had retired the uniform [yesterday], that wouldn't have made things better. Because really, he was always there for this organization, but when he needed them, they weren't there for him. They didn't shoot straight with him. I spoke to the friends of his that he ate dinner with on the night he died, and they told me he said that night that he was so disappointed and let down. And he was. You could see it in his eyes. He deserved better. He deserved so much better."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com