Hendricks' 'Oriole Way' gone, current O's are just wayward

It was an appropriate sendoff. Elrod Hendricks was remembered fondly by his family, friends and former teammates in a heartfelt and spiritual memorial service yesterday that drew 1,000 mourners to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. What else would you expect for a man so loved and respected in this close-knit community?

Well, if you want me to nit-pick, I would have expected more than one current member of the Orioles' 40-man roster to be in attendance for a ceremony to honor the memory of the guy who spent more time in an Orioles uniform than anyone else in franchise history.

Melvin Mora was the lone active Orioles player, which shouldn't surprise anyone. He has made Baltimore his home, and he's a standup guy. B.J. Surhoff was there, too, but he is - technically - a former Oriole now. The cathedral was filled with well-known former players and dignitaries who were touched by Hendricks' magic smile and warm heart, but not with the young fellows who dressed alongside Elrod or sat with him in the bullpen during the 2005 season.

That's too bad, because it speaks to something that hung pointedly over the entire event - the apparent disconnect between the old "Oriole Way" and a struggling franchise that can't seem to get it right even when its heart is very much in the right place.

Several of the eulogies that opened yesterday's service included subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at the organization for the way that Hendricks was relieved of his duties as the team's bullpen coach earlier this season, even though the decision was made out of legitimate concern for his well-being after he suffered a stroke in Florida last April that could have seriously debilitated him if it had occurred outside the presence of the club's medical staff.

It was no secret that Hendricks was unhappy with the decision. He had experienced life out of uniform while he was recovering from the stroke and he didn't want any part of retirement, but executive vice president Mike Flanagan made the hard decision to replace him in the bullpen and move him into a less demanding role with the team.

No one can blame his family for sharing his frustration and reflecting it at a time of such intense sorrow - especially with his death coming so soon after his reassignment - but the Orioles didn't do him wrong. He was a fixture in the organization for nearly four decades, and he was immune from the periodic changes that take place in every major league coaching staff. He certainly earned that job security with his never-ending service to the team and the community, but I don't think his loyalty to the franchise went unrewarded.

I do believe that the Orioles' organization has lost its way over the past decade or so, and the sad reality of that was on display on this sad occasion.

Dozens of well-known Baltimore sports heroes showed up to pay their respects to a friend who transcended his particular sport to touch us all, yet only the classy Mora showed up to represent the Orioles as they are currently configured.

There are always reasons. Several Orioles, including Miguel Tejada and Jorge Julio, are playing winter ball. Some others are traveling abroad. But former Orioles Eddie Murray, Doug DeCinces, Jesse Orosco and Mike Young traveled from the West Coast for the memorial service, and many others came in from out of town. I've got to believe that a few more current players could have made it here on a week's notice.

Which brings us back to the apparent divide between what it meant to be an Oriole during the team's glory days and what it means now - eight difficult years into an organizational collapse that has eroded the team's fan base and chipped away at the credibility of what was once one of baseball's most respected franchises.

Elrod was there during that amazing string of 18 straight winning seasons. He played for the Orioles in three World Series and coached in two others. He played with Brooks Robinson, coached with Cal Ripken Sr. and remained committed to the Oriole Way long after a lot of people in the organization had lost touch with the concept.

Clearly, he was hurt by the decision to take his uniform away, and that pain was reflected in the comments of his son Ryan who said during his eulogy that the reason he joined the Air Force was to maintain a sense of family in his professional life ... "a sense of family the Orioles used to have, but now is long gone."

Still, I have to believe that Elrod never doubted the Oriole Way, because he lived it right up to his last breath. Maybe the game has just changed too much over the past generation for such a fundamental organizational philosophy to remain vital and relevant, but there were a lot of people in that cathedral yesterday who still believe in it.

That's why I wish more of today's players had shown up. They might have learned something.

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