Elrod Hendricks

Elrod Hendricks enjoys a laugh on the day he returned to Camden Yards from a stroke. (Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / May 6, 2005)

It is the area directly behind the home team's on-deck circle at Camden Yards, in between the Orioles' dugout and the netting that protects well-seated fans from foul balls.

Frequent visitors of the ballpark know the area simply as "Ellie's Place." Since the ballpark on West Camden Street opened, it is where the Orioles' beloved bullpen coach and the organization's biggest ambassador held court before games on so many days and so many nights. He tirelessly posed for pictures, signed autographs, delivered hugs and handshakes and shared stories from a baseball career that spanned 45 years, all but nine in an Orioles uniform.

"That was always Ellie's spot," said Julie Wagner, the Orioles' director of corporate relations. "Every night, fans knew he was going to be there."

Elrod Hendricks died on Wednesday night at Baltimore-Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, just a few hours shy of his 65th birthday. The longtime bullpen coach suffered a heart attack while at the BWI Airport Marriott in Linthicum, according to an Orioles team spokesman.

Patrick Manley, the director of operation at the hotel, wasn't working on Wednesday, but he said that he was told by a hotel official that Hendricks was walking from his car to one of the hotel's two restaurants when he went into cardiac arrest.

"We lost the most beloved Oriole of all time," said Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson. "He has touched more lives in this town than anyone else."

Services will be held next week at a date to be determined, according to an Orioles spokesman.

As either a player or coach, Hendricks wore the Orioles uniform longer than anybody else. He was the team's bullpen coach for 28 years, but was reassigned in October as team officials worried about his health because of the minor stroke he suffered in mid-April. Since 1968, when Hendricks joined the organization as a catcher, he had been with the Orioles for all but 1 1/2 of 37 seasons.

Hendricks spent 10 1/2 seasons in the major leagues, compiling a career fielding percentage of .990 and throwing out runners 41 percent of the time.

"This is a tremendous shock," said former Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken. "Elrod has been such a big figure in Baltimore for so long. He was as much a mainstay in the Orioles organization as anyone I could think of."

"An icon in Baltimore," is how former Orioles closer B.J. Ryan described Hendricks yesterday.

News of his passing rocked the Orioles organization and the city, leaving club officials and thousands of others who had gotten to know the good-natured and quick-witted man, to mourn the loss of a good friend.

"Hands down, Elrod is the greatest person I've ever met in baseball," said Floyd Rayford, a third baseman and catcher with the Orioles from the 1980s and currently a hitting instructor in the Minnesota Twins organization. "I don't think I've ever heard somebody say anything bad about him."

Said Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan: "Elrod was a walking history of the Orioles."

Hendricks said two months ago that he had gotten a clean bill of health from his doctor. Just two days before his passing, Hendricks dressed up as Santa Claus at the Orioles Christmas Party, delivering gifts and autographs to children from economically disadvantaged areas of Baltimore.

He told a group of reporters at ESPN Zone in the Inner Harbor that he felt good and was excited to be reprising his annual role as Santa Claus. When Hendricks, who is a long-time Randallstown resident, arrived at the party, Bonnie Downing ran up to hug him. The regional marketing manager at ESPN Zone, Downing got to know Hendricks as a girl growing up in Northwest Baltimore. Hendricks would visit the neighborhood to counsel and advise kids.

"I told him he looked good and I said to him, 'We're both still here,' and we both laughed," said Downing, who is a cancer survivor. "I held on to him for a minute. I am just completely devastated. It's hard to put it into words. We all lost a friend because he's touched so many lives across this country."

As she spoke, Downing said she was clutching a picture of Hendricks and her, from last year's Christmas party.

For Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, it was a cell phone message from Hendricks, left earlier Wednesday before his passing that resounded with him most.