Sore wrist forces Unitas to pass up pass No. 19 bears scars of long NFL career


One more time, John Unitas slipped into the familiar blue jersey with white numbers to take a snap and drop into the pocket.

"But I'm not going to have any grass stains on it when I take it off," he said, standing in a tunnel behind home plate at Oriole Park last night.

Two days before Baltimore was to hold its first pro football game in nine years, the Colts' Hall of Fame quarterback participated in the Orioles' first-ball ceremony. Predictably, his stoop-shouldered shuffle-gait drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

There were two glaring incongruities, though.

The first-ball ceremony was with a football, not a baseball. And Unitas never threw the pass.

The man generally regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time took a snap from the Oriole Bird, then lateraled the ball to an old teammate, Tim Matte, who threw a ceremonial toss to Orioles second baseman Mark McLemore.

Because of recent surgery on his right hand for carpel tunnel syndrome, Unitas is unable to throw a football these days. And he hasn't been able to button a shirt for a while, either.

"I have no strength in the hand," he said. "I tried to throw a ball the other night and couldn't do it."

The ailment came about, Unitas said, from his throwing motion. "Turning my hand over when I throw," he said.

At age 59, Unitas' body is showing the effects of a football career that spanned three decades.

He has a painful rotator cuff injury in his right shoulder that requires surgery. And he says he needs two knee replacements. But none of this is covered by the benefits package available to RTC NFL players of Unitas' era. So the operations are put off until a later time.

These days, Unitas works at the head of public relations for Matco Electronics, which manufactures and assembles circuit boards.

And if Baltimore winds up with an NFL franchise in the near future, Unitas said he would like to be part of it, either in public relations or working directly with the team.

"I think it's great we're trying to get a franchise," he said. "And I think we will get it."

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