The best lifetime ERA in the Orioles' bullpen belongs to a man who never drew a paycheck as a pitcher, who took the mound in one game, who blanked the opposition and who gladly never returned.
Ask bullpen coach and batting practice pitcher Elrod Hendricks about his shining moment on the hill and he laughs.
"It was just one of those weird days," Hendricks says.
He says he would just as soon forget it, although people often bring it up. In any case, no ceremony was held this week to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the time Hendricks played stopper on The Day the Pitching Staff Collapsed, the day Earl Weaver sent six men to the mound against the Toronto Blue Jays, four of whom had actually been hired by the Orioles to pitch.
Hendricks wasn't, of course. Neither was Larry Harlow. But desperate circumstances required desperate measures. At Exhibition Stadium on June 26, 1978, the Blue Jays, in their second big-league season, scored 24 runs, the most ever scored against the Orioles in one game.
The Orioles were down 19-6 in the fifth inning when Weaver, who was trying to conserve pitchers for a doubleheader the following day, sent for Harlow, an outfielder who had pitched one inning in the minors in 1971. Weaver later said Harlow claimed ownership of a slider, and was "throwing the ball at 92 miles an hour on our gun."
Perhaps, but Harlow only lasted two-thirds of an inning, yielding five earned runs, two hits and four walks and striking out one Blue Jay.
The score stood at 24-6 and Weaver needed someone to put an end to the fifth inning. He called the bullpen and got Hendricks, the former catcher who was on the roster as player-coach that season. Hendricks had thrown batting practice that year, but that was the extent of his pitching experience.
Hendricks recalls it well, although he says he's embarrassed about the whole episode. Sitting in the clubhouse one afternoon before a night game early this month, he smiles just to think of it.
"Weaver called up, he was halfway laughing," Hendricks says. "He said, 'Can you throw strikes?'
"I said, 'Yeah. . . .'
"He said, 'How long would it take you to get ready?'
"I said, 'You're speaking to Elrod. . . .' L "He said: 'I know. How long would it take you to get ready?'
"I said, 'For what?' "
"He said, 'Well, you're in the game.' "
It was some of the sharpest baseball dialogue since "Who's On First?" but judging by the next day's newspaper accounts, the Blue Jays were not amused. They felt Weaver was slighting Toronto fans once again, having already pulled his team off the field and forfeited a game in 1977, ostensibly in a dispute over the placement of the bullpen tarpaulin. The Orioles were losing 9-0 at the time.
"He's made a mockery of baseball in general," Toronto president Peter Bavasi said of Weaver after the Harlow-Hendricks pitching caper.
For his part, Hendricks had concerns more immediate than protocol. Fear of bodily injury, for example.
"I remember walking in from the bullpen thinking, 'What is the record for most runs in a ballgame?' " Hendricks says. "My next thought was, 'Don't let them hit it back up the middle.' "
Hendricks had suffered his share of broken fingers and foot fractures in 12 years of catching. But the idea of standing 60 feet, 6 inches from the batter with no mask, chest protector or shinguards, without the protection of the batting practice screen was, to say the least, unsettling.
"My whole plan was to throw it inside and hope they pull it. I don't care how far they hit it," Hendricks says. "I thought, 'Just throw it as slow as you can, try to mess their timing up.' "
So he did. No hint of a fastball, although he did try a breaking pitch, "a little spinner," Hendricks calls it, to give them something else to look at. He bounced it in the dirt. Mostly his assortment of pitches was similar to batting practice, only slower, his deliveries floating in at maybe 45 or 50 miles an hour.
"I was mixing speeds," Hendricks says. And he laughs.
The first Blue Jay to face Hendricks, shortstop Tim Johnson, hit one up the middle, a routine grounder that looked to Hendricks like a cannon shot. He stepped aside and let it pass, through the infield and into center field for a single.
"I thought, 'This is going to be a long day.' "
Of course, it already had been. Mike Flanagan had given up six runs, Joe Kerrigan yielded seven, Tippy Martinez six and Harlow five. Hendricks closed the door, giving up Johnson's single, a walk and no runs in 2 1/3 innings. He even struck out a batter, although he doesn't recall the fellow's name.
"It was a 3-2 pitch," he says. "I thought, 'How did he miss that?' "
Former ace Jim Palmer watched it from the dugout. Asked to account for Hendricks' effectiveness, Palmer says, "Either Elrod had his good stuff that night or they just got tired."
Hendricks suggests the latter.
"They got themselves out," he says.
Palmer recalls that Hendricks used a little neck jerk motion reminiscent of changeup artist Stu Miller. "They swung at the neck twitch," Palmer says. "It seemed like they could have swung twice" by the time the ball crossed the plate.
When Hendricks' pitching debut was over, his ERA a tidy 0.00 and right-hander Don Stanhouse on the mound to finish the game, Weaver approached Hendricks and "he said, 'Nice job.' I'm thinking, 'Yeah, but don't think about it again.' . . . I'd like to say it was fun but it really wasn't."
He says he would rather forget. But that's not Palmer's version.
"Heck, no," Palmer says. "The next day we went down to get the papers and there were none left. Elrod had bought them all."