In his own way, Elrod Hendricks was the most valuable Oriole every year. He was a one-man community outreach program, forever taking the time to sign autographs, chat up fans, make appearances, giggle with kids - the kind of stuff that pro athletes used to do all the time.

Elrod - last name not required in this town - never felt he was too swell for that just because he had played and coached in the major leagues. To the contrary, he realized it was more and more important that he fill the role because fewer and fewer of his baseball brethren did.

His death last night leaves a void that can't be filled. Without people who do what he did, a sports franchise can become a faceless operation, cold and calculating and hell-bent only on winning. The Elrods of the world warm things up, make them human, accessible, even funny.

Elrod walked the walk on this as the longtime operator of a summer baseball camp in Reisterstown. He would come off road trips and be up early the next morning, teaching kids how to hit and introducing them to Hall of Famers like Eddie Murray. Thousands of area kids came through his camp, including one in my house. Elrod made them all fans.

As a player he broke in with Earl Weaver in 1968, started World Series games and spent a decade behind the plate. As the Orioles' bullpen coach for years, he became the last link to the franchise's glory days, the one guy in the clubhouse you could turn to to hear how Brooks and Frank and 'Cakes got it done. A splendid storyteller with a booming laugh, he had the rare insight and perspective of someone who had been around for decades.

Six years ago, I undertook a massive assignment, publishing an oral history of the Orioles, the first of its kind. I interviewed dozens of former players, coaches and managers, gathering hundreds of hours of tape. My session with Elrod was the longest. I lost track of time.

He was a unique figure in the history of the franchise. He knew almost everyone and had seen almost everything, and wise as he was, he could comment, analyze, interject, further the story. I came away from our session understanding that, in a sense, he was the conscience of the franchise.

Baltimore is a lesser baseball town with his death. To say he will be missed is to state the obvious.

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