Today's vagabonds can't grasp Hendricks' connection

As I drove in to work yesterday, I listened to radio talk shows still mourning Elrod Hendricks' death. That was all the callers wanted to discuss.

When I got to the office and turned on my computer, I found my inbox jammed with responses to the testimonial column I had written after hearing the news. A quick spin around the Internet turned up hundreds of emotional postings about Elrod on an assortment of Web sites, including this newspaper's.

It occurred to me that someone uneducated in the ways of Baltimore or the Orioles might not understand. Why such an outpouring for a bullpen coach?

The answer, of course, is you had to be here. You had to see him build a figurative mansion of goodwill brick by brick over the years, with each brick representing a hand he shook, an autograph he signed, a laugh he shared.

Sports fans want to feel connected to the teams they support, and for thousands around here, Elrod was their principal connection to the Orioles. He was the one guy in uniform they had met, the one autograph they had procured, the one hand they had shaken.

It won't happen, but teams and athletes throughout the sports universe should note the response to his death and try to put its lessons to use.

A whole city is sad about the death of a bullpen coach because he became part of this community, living here, shopping here, putting his kids through school here, as opposed to dropping in from some gated community in Florida for an occasional royal visit.

Many athletes used to live where they play (dozens of Colts and Orioles did in the 1960s) and both sides now look back fondly at the days when neighbors cheered for neighbors. Elrod was a throwback to that era. He was really one of us.

Of course, those days are gone - the arrivals of free agency and big salaries have turned most players into vagabond hired guns scurrying from team to team. Putting down roots has become harder, and in many cases, a low priority.

Johnny Damon is going to make a lot more money than Elrod ever did by jumping from the Red Sox to the Yankees, but Damon will never experience the priceless satisfaction of belonging to a community and bettering it for thousands of people, as Elrod did.

Teams now have community relations departments because there aren't enough Elrods who care about their communities.

Maybe it doesn't matter - sports seem to be as popular as ever - but the lack of intimacy can't be good for business in the long run. At the very least, teams should never take for granted their individual relationships with their fans.

One of the worst of the Orioles' many blunders of the past decade was letting announcer Jon Miller leave after a contract dispute, a move that didn't affect the on-field product like the loss of Pat Gillick (officially the worst move of all), but represented a piercing blow to the fans.

Miller, who has worked in San Francisco since he departed in 1996, was an important connection to the team for countless fans, filling the ancient role of the village storyteller at a time when people still hung on every pitch. Purely and simply, he made it fun to be a fan of the Orioles.

I can't count how many fans have told me over the years that they were personally offended by Miller's departure, determining that it meant Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos didn't understand them or know what they wanted. An organization doesn't easily overcome such set- backs.

Along the same lines, overcoming Elrod's death might be an even tougher task for the Orioles than putting together their first winning team since 1997. Who is going to shake the hands he shook, sign the autographs he signed? Who is going to make it easy for fans to feel they have a connection to the team beyond the box scores they read in the paper?

Who is going to make people have a good feeling about the Orioles, period, no mean feat these days?

If you don't understand why so many people are so sad, or why columnists keep writing about Elrod, or why talk show callers keep mourning him, you don't understand what he did:

He made fans feel they belonged to what they were rooting for, as if they and the team were in it together. It was a rare gift he gave naturally to this city, and you can't put a value on it, and the only shame is it took his death for people to begin voicing how much they appreciated it.

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