A Team Blessing Even when the Orioles don't have a prayer, they have their priest's friendly ear.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A figure in black walks briskly across the deep end of the outfield just after 5 p.m. in Camden Yards as the Orioles prep for their second fight against the Yankees. On his cap is a silver cross. Seeing it glitter, a player stills his bat, tips his hat.

The Rev. Martin A. Schwalenberg returns the salute, but pushes on to his intended target: right-hander Sydney Ponson, still basking in his career-making shutout of the Yanks the previous evening.

"Don't let it go to your head," the priest razzes the rookie.

An usher edges down the dirt, but makes no move to oust the man in black from the players' sacred turf. It's tough to stop somebody whose employer is, well, God.

In the 40 years Father Marty has been the unofficial chaplain to the O's, he has become sacred himself. Not even Cal Ripken gets as much respect as the man who wears the silver cross and carries Communion in a gold box in his pocket.

Like the breeze that fills the ballpark, Father Marty roams unfettered, and is everywhere expected. He alone can be found with players in the locker room after 6: 45 p.m.; he alone can march onto the field during practice. In the clubhouse, he gets a daily shoe shine from third-base coach Sam Perlozzo, and in the cafeteria, a free meal. ("Who knows when I might need him?" the cashier says.)

If a player is hurt, Father Marty runs down to the dressing room. He denies appearing in the bullpen during the game, though some -- perhaps hoping for a miracle -- claim to have seen him there. On occasion, he has followed the team onto the field, hand over heart, for the national anthem. When he's done roaming, he takes Seat AAA 3, directly behind the back stop, until somebody with big bucks claims it. (His own tickets in a terrace box, four for each game, he gives away.)

He even blessed the new stadium.

"Yes, I did," Father says. "Nobody asked me, but I did it."

He'll be there tonight as the O's begin their home stretch with the Florida Marlins. Of 80 home games a year, he misses maybe three or four. Nobody pays him, either.

"The big thing with all these guys is to be there," Father Marty says.

Wherever there's a need

The first priest of baseball was invited to hang around the O's back in 1958 by third baseman Brooks Robinson. Nowadays it's common for a team to have a preacher, but in the cities of the American League there's still nobody like Father Marty:

Every game day at about 5 p.m., after visits of comfort to the old and sick, the Roman Catholic priest drives 25 minutes from his Riviera Beach home to the stadium and parks his polished black 1997 Oldsmobile in the best space in the players' lot.

His shirt pocket bulging with a fresh stack of calling cards engraved with the prayer of St. Francis and his home numbers in Maryland and Florida, he heads to the field for batting practice.

He mingles, talks. After a spell on the field and in the dugout, he follows the players into the clubhouse to see if anybody needs him. Then he heads over to see the other team.

The only striking thing about him leaning on the batting cage at home plate analyzing practice alongside left fielder B.J. Surhoff and batting coach Rick Down is that he doesn't have a number on his back.

"Way to go," he tells Surhoff, one of his favorites. Rafael Palmeiro and then Brady Anderson swap him one-liners as they run between field and dugout. The raindrops are coming.

Entering the O's clubhouse, Father Marty spots catcher Lenny Webster putting away bats. Webster, his face dripping wet, breaks into a smile and drops the bats. "Give me some of that sweat," Father Marty says as the two grip each other in a bear hug.

The priest, moving on, pushes open the door to the batting-pitching tunnel. Inside, Cal Ripken, swatting ball after ball, gives him a side glance. "Cal," Father Marty says. " 'Signor," Cal replies, working all the while. Father closes the door. He loves when people use the more respectful "monsignor," as they have these past few years.

The priest is back in the dugout praying for the rain to stop when he gets a signal from a Yankees trainer that somebody on the other team wants to see him.

Father hustles over as if he's about to deliver the Last Rites, nearly slipping on the wet American League mat. For the next 20 minutes he answers questions about faith, about Baptism, from a "young Yankee, good player." Good questions, Father Marty says.

His collar is his pass into the Yankees dugout when all other civilians have been banished. Moments before the game, he marches back in to get the Yankee's address. Only when the fans crowd him do security guards move in.

Despite the orange bird on his cap, the priest says he doesn't take sides -- he's got too many friends on both teams. "Hey Straw!" he yells at the Yankees' Darryl Strawberry when he sees the pole figure stride across the field.

But coming out of the dugout, Father Marty jokes that he's excluding Yankees when he warns passers-by about the wet mat that nearly took him down. "I was hoping they would slip on it so they'd break their necks," he mutters.

It's not his job to approach players in a slump or cheer them on a bad day or suggest prayer for troubled times. He waits for players to come to him. "And they come. I remind them: 'Any time I can do something for you, tell me. You gotta tell me.' "

Still, some suspect he exerts influence on the game.

Strawberry hit the longest home run ever at Camden Yards the day Father Marty shook his hand. The Yankee who discussed faith in the dugout made three critical defensive plays against the O's. Webster's daily exchange of sweat with Father Marty accompanied a string of hits at home. Mike Bordick, who declared himself an atheist while Father Marty was in the clubhouse, struck out.

A hot-shot athlete himself once, dominating the soccer field at Calvert Hall, Father Marty gave up baseball at Loyola College for the collar. "That's what the Lord wanted for me," he says.

Ordained a priest in 1945, he sought out ways to mix ministry with sports, whether playing tennis with friends or offering his expertise to schoolchildren.

Seeing some girls play softball outside the school at St. Charles Borromeo in Pikesville, where he was pastor 18 years, Father Marty couldn't resist.

"Here," he said, taking the bat, "let me show you how to do it." Margaret Cassaday, the parish secretary helping with gym that day, recalls that she pitched the ball to him and Father Marty whacked it right through the school window.

But what child didn't love a pastor who got baseball's greats to help him deliver awards and report cards? Or a famous catcher like Rick Dempsey to take them out for ice cream?

It was a friend, Hal "Skinny" Brown, an O's pitcher, who introduced the young priest to Brooks Robinson, then on a farm team in York, Pa. Brooks and Father Marty became close; eventually, Father Marty baptized Brooks. The Hall of Famer gave Father Marty his Gold Glove award from the 1970 World Series, the thick ring he now wears.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Brooks, Mark Belanger, Andy Etchebarren, Scott McGregor, Terry Crowley and Mike Boddicker were among the regular visitors to the rectory. The priest married them, baptized their children, comforted them.

The night in 1979 Yankees catcher Thurman Munson died in a plane crash, Father Marty answered the bell at the rectory to find Dempsey crying "big manly tears" on his doorstep, certain that life would never be the same. "You'll get through it," Father told him.

In the clubhouse or on the field, and even in the press box, he is apt to lock both arms around a guy's neck, look him in the eye and pray -- "O Holy Spirit of God, giver of the gift of life ..."

"Things happen in the game," Father Marty says. "I just want to see it turn out well for them, and for their families."

Sundays during home games, Father says Mass in the warehouse for employees; sometimes a handful of players and their families show up. (A couple of Jewish guys come, too, he says, because he invites them.) An hour before the game, he also brings communion to players at their lockers.

To Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar, who grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school, considers the religion part of his family life, Father Marty brings a personal peace and a chance to talk about things different from baseball. The two steal away to a corner and pray together, the player says. "He helps me to help others," Alomar says.

Utility player Jeff Reboulet belongs to a church in Ohio but never gets there because of his schedule; with road trips so tough, he says he's thankful to find a priest so flexible.

Indeed, Reboulet even got his Lenten ashes on the field. This spring, Father came over from his Fort Lauderdale condo on the first day of Lent with a paper cup full of ashes he gave out to players -- and some spectators. "I never should have done that," Father Marty says. "People were coming out of the stands ... 'what is he giving away?' "

His service is so singular, and by now, so expected, that when he forgot to bring communion to a pair of traveling umpires one recent night, they barked: "Be here tomorrow!"

The next night he was waiting with his gold box when John Hirschbeck and Mike Reilly returned from a pre-game dinner at Sabatino's.

"When it comes to bringing the sacraments to the guys, you take them where you can get them," Father Marty says.

It's not just spiritual stuff he brings the clubhouse, either.

With the O's on the defensive now, Manager Ray Miller is pulling out the stops. Wasn't that Father Marty looking over the starting line-up in Miller's office one recent night?

Miller says he seeks the monsignor's advice and friendship every day. "He's helped me through many tough things in my personal life, family problems, sicknesses," Miller says. In the very competitive business of baseball, he says, it's sometimes hard to share your problems with co-workers. "Father Marty cares about you not only spiritually but also as a friend."

Slowing down

At 78, the monsignor is in his twilight with the club.

"I wish you had seen me two years ago," Father Marty says. "I used to know all these players so well."

To his immense frustration, he sometimes can't remember No. 17 -- "What's his name? J.C.?" -- and stumbles, too, on the prayer he says for rain delays, slumps, sacraments, even nonbelievers: "O Holy Spirit of God, giver of the gift of life, we thank you for the gift of our lives today and now enable us to dedicate them. ... I forgot it again. I say it every day. Time to hang it up ... how about ... 'to the greater honor and glory of God our Father."

Since an operation a year and a half ago for a double aneurysm, he says, "I've slowed down a lot."

Most days now he leaves before the fifth inning. Once home, he pours himself a half a glass of beer, turns on the game, and falls asleep. He was at home for the Big Brawl with the Yankees. "I picked up a bat, and then I realized it wasn't going anywhere."

He doesn't like to walk out early -- he worries it will make the players wonder about his commitment. So he does everything he can not to let them notice.

In mid-May, a few weeks after he turned 78, Father Marty had been to the ballpark and back when he glanced at the TV and saw Mike Mussina flat on the ground, his face and nose bloodied from a ball to the eye.

"Geez, that's the pitcher," the priest said. The man in black ran out to his car and drove straight to the University of Maryland hospital to give Mussina "a few words." He stayed until midnight.

"I don't try to prove anything," he says. "I'm just there for them."

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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