A tribute brighter than Elrod's smile

Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, groundskeeper Dave Nehila and ex-Orioles Doug DeCinces and Rick Dempsey were among the many who gathered yesterday to mourn Elrod Hendricks (pictured left), who spent a record 37 years in a Baltimore uniform but was remembered more for befriending everyone than for his prowess on the field.
Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, groundskeeper Dave Nehila and ex-Orioles Doug DeCinces and Rick Dempsey were among the many who gathered yesterday to mourn Elrod Hendricks (pictured left), who spent a record 37 years in a Baltimore uniform but was remembered more for befriending everyone than for his prowess on the field. (Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)
The stoic Hall of Famer, the one with the icy glare and unnerving calm in baseball's most pressured situations, stood outside the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in a spitting rain yesterday contemplating his most difficult challenge.

An hour earlier, Orioles legend Eddie Murray had spoken to a congregation of about 1,000 mourners, telling them how much Elrod "Ellie" Hendricks had meant to him. The intensely private Murray spoke from his heart, retelling amusing anecdotes about the former teammate who became his big brother.

"That was the toughest thing I probably ever had to do," said Murray, one of 10 eulogists during the 2 1/2 -hour memorial service for Hendricks. "The little strength I got today came from his wife. ... Me, just knowing what she is going through personally, I just tried to step up and just lighten some of the [mood] that was in there, because I tell you everybody in there loved him."

Hendricks, the club's former World Series catcher, bullpen coach, baseball ambassador and storyteller extraordinaire, died of a heart attack Dec. 21, one day before his 65th birthday. Former teammates Murray, Lee May and Curt Motton, former Orioles manager and pitching coach Ray Miller and Hendricks' sons, Ryan and Ian, were among those who honored Hendricks with testimonies that mixed humor and sorrow.

Murray recounted his first meeting with Hendricks in winter ball in the mid-1970s, when the veteran catcher chided the youngster for swinging and missing at curveballs and jokingly offered congratulations to him for not being selected in the 1976 expansion draft.

Murray was "very upset" and said he tried to move his chair away from Hendricks as a group met for dinner later that night. But Hendricks disarmed Murray with his charm, telling the kid that he had a great future and that he shouldn't be bothered by things beyond his control.

Soon, Murray said he was taken in by Hendricks and his wife, Merle, becoming part of their family forever.

"I am definitely one of them, and it's a privilege just to have known the man," Murray said.

Hendricks, who was born in the Virgin Islands but has made his year-round home in Randallstown for decades, spent a record 37 years in an Orioles uniform and participated in five of the club's six World Series as a player or coach. He was remembered yesterday more for befriending people from all walks of life than for his prowess behind or at the plate as a 12-season major leaguer. His widespread appeal was apparent by the eclectic gathering of family, friends, former teammates, fans and local dignitaries at the cathedral.

"He was a friend of everybody and to everybody," said Orioles traveling secretary Phil Itzoe, one of the speakers. "I expect it will be a very, very long time before the next Elrod Hendricks comes along."

At least 50 former Orioles players, coaches and clubhouse personnel were in attendance as part of a who's who of former greats, including Hall of Famers Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Murray as well as Cal Ripken Jr., Boog Powell, Rick Dempsey, Ken Singleton, Mike Flanagan, B.J. Surhoff and Paul Blair.

"It's a terrible way to have a reunion of great people," said Flanagan, the club's executive vice president. " ... We could have stayed in there another six, seven hours and we wouldn't have scratched the surface."

Owner Peter Angelos, former managers Miller, Mike Hargrove and Lee Mazzilli and present manager Sam Perlozzo attended, as did third baseman Melvin Mora, the only current Oriole at the service. Mora, who lives in Baltimore in the offseason, didn't comment on the absence of his teammates, saying only, "I am here because I care about him."

Local luminaries included Mayor Martin O'Malley, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and former congressman Kweisi Mfume. Baltimore Colts Lenny Moore, Tom Matte, Bruce Laird, Rick Volk, Toni Linhart and Stan White attended.

Eleven of the 12 ushers were members of the Orioles Advocates, the club's volunteer booster and service group. There also were fans carrying Orioles umbrellas and wearing team jackets over dress shirts and vests. One family of four, including the father in an Orioles jersey, walked to the front of the altar 30 minutes before the service and studied five placards containing Hendricks' photos - with the father pointing out the identities of former ballplayers to his children.

To their left stood a man in a dark pinstripe suit, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief while examining a photo of Hendricks in a gloriously white Orioles uniform carrying a bag of balls and walking, head down, through the bullpen gate at Camden Yards.

It was practically the only picture in which Hendricks wasn't flashing his trademark, megawatt smile, something mentioned time and again yesterday.

"It came through loud and clear, the love of his family, the love of the Orioles, the love of baseball," Flanagan said. "And that smile, that smile is the hardest thing, I think, to let go."

There also were some pointed words from the pulpit, something not completely surprising considering Hendricks, who had a stroke in April, was relieved of his coaching duties this offseason against his wishes. Hendricks' attorney and longtime friend, Harvey Okun, implored the club to retire Hendricks' uniform No. 44. And Hendricks' son Ryan talked about how his father was a living example of the "Oriole Way" before it "became a catchphrase and lost all of its meaning."

But the consistent theme was this: Hendricks loved his family, his teammates and the community with an unparalleled zest. And he wasn't afraid to show it.

That point was driven home most eloquently by Miller, the former Orioles manager whose third stint as club pitching coach ended this offseason when he had surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. While in mourning last week, Miller received a letter from Hendricks apparently written just before his death.

The best friends had supported each other during tough times for years, and this was more of the same. Hendricks told Miller to keep fighting and improving.

The letter ended the way the two tough, old ballplayers always finished their conversations. It ended with a sentiment that enveloped the cathedral yesterday as a city and a franchise said goodbye to its beloved Oriole.

It ended with four simple words:

"Love You Old Dude."


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