By reaching out to others, Hendricks touched us all

Maybe Elrod Hendricks could only have happened in Baltimore, where our heroes don't have to be bigger than life. They just have to be like us ... or, in Elrod's case, they just have to like us as much as we like them.

I mean, in what other city could the bullpen coach be one of the main attractions on the team's annual cruise? And I ask that question without any underlying sarcasm about the current level of starpower in our sports community.

Plenty of players and former Orioles stars take advantage of the opportunity to cruise the Caribbean for free in exchange for their willingness to schmooze with the paying customers, but I'm going to tell you a little secret that might bruise some of their egos.

Elrod was the king. Everyone who came back from a week on one of those party boats had an Elrod story and a new friend because Elrod never met an Orioles fan he didn't like.

"He had a kind word for everybody and a smile for everybody," said Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

Sounds simple enough, but when everybody really means everybody - everyone who ever lined up for an autograph or showed up at a baseball clinic or just ran into Elrod picking a can of chili off the shelf at Safeway - then it becomes something different.

He wasn't a superstar like Brooks or Johnny U., but he came from the same generation and he possessed the same Everyman quality that allowed Baltimore fans to feel like he was a neighbor instead of a local celebrity. He may have grown up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but he was as Baltimore as the Diner guys or the Bromo Tower.

It isn't all that hard to make sense of his death on a purely rational level. Elrod would have been 65 yesterday. He was not a young man and he had suffered a stroke during the 2005 season. But try telling that to all the kids who ever attended one of his baseball camps or learned about the Orioles Way first-hand on one of his unannounced evening visits to the B.A.T.T. Club in Glen Burnie.

I had to tell one of those kids last night. My son is 21 now, but when he was a marginal rec-league second baseman with no footspeed and sportswriter athletic genes, Elrod dragged him off to the corner of the workout facility and spent an hour teaching him how to crouch behind the plate and block pitches.

The kid was never a great player, but he went on to catch four years in high school and play a couple years in college and I don't remember ever walking by Elrod in the clubhouse when he didn't ask how "our boy" was doing.

Our boy wasn't doing too good late Wednesday night and neither was I, but the thing that made me feel the worst was thinking about his kids - particularly his youngest sons Ian and Ryan - because no kid conversation was ever complete without him bursting with pride at both their athletic exploits and, more importantly, how successful they were in the classroom and now in the real world.

Elrod was not a highly educated man, at least not in the traditional sense, but he knew what was really important and he knew that baseball was more about people than on-base percentages or profit margins.

He also knew that the only way for the Orioles to stay connected to their fans during this difficult downturn in the team's competitive fortunes was to connect with them one at a time.

The guy spent countless hours standing at the railing before games at Camden Yards signing autographs and talking to fans, trying to maintain the intimate Orioles ambience that stretched back to his days as a young catcher, playing in the shadow of Frank and Brooks and Palmer at Memorial Stadium.

"We lost the most beloved Oriole of all time," Brooks Robinson said yesterday. " ... He has touched more lives in this town than anyone else. From 1968 to 2005 he was the Orioles' Goodwill Ambassador. Even though it's a sad day for all of us, I do have a big smile on my face when I think of Elrod."

The local talkshows buzzed all day yesterday as fans remembered the times when Elrod touched their lives with a handshake or a hospital visit. Friends and former teammates lined up on the radio hotlines to eulogize him. No doubt, the Orioles will find an appropriate way to do justice to his understated - yet undeniably important - place in franchise history.

Of course, it's very sad that Elrod collapsed at an airport hotel and passed away so suddenly that there was no time for goodbyes. That seems so cold and impersonal for such a personable man, but on that count, there really is no need for concern. Elrod Hendricks died Wednesday night surrounded by close friends - hundreds of thousands of them.

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