Friday, on the way to the office, the news came across my car radio that Orioles Great, Ernie Tyler, had died. For those of you not from Baltimore or who don’t follow the Orioles, you might ask: “Who is Ernie Tyler? What was his ERA, or his batting average, on base percentage…?” Well, those were not statistics that were associated with this legend of Baltimore sports. You have no doubt heard about Baltimore’s Iron Man – Cal Ripken, Jr., who was drafted in the second round by the Orioles in 1978, played his final game on October 6, 2001, and set the all-time record for consecutive games played at an astounding figure of 2,632. Now you should know about Baltimore’s other Iron Man – Ernie Tyler, who put-up a bigger consecutive games number than Cal – 3,769.
Why haven’t you heard about this Iron Man? Why hasn’t he been featured by national media? Maybe because Ernie was one of those behind the scenes people, without whom the game would not be the same. The irony is, however, that Ernie really wasn’t behind the scenes; he was front and center at every Orioles game – he was the Orioles’ “umpires attendant,” who performed his job with grace, diligence and panache for over 50 years!
Sure, I saw Ernie performing his job whether I was sitting in my seat at a game or watching from my couch. I didn’t know the man personally, but every Orioles fan must have that feeling that they did know Ernie. He didn’t perform his tasks of delivering new balls to the home plate umpire with a unique flair or in some attention-grabbing outfit. When a foul ball was lying listless in the dirt behind home plate and needed to be removed so the game could play on, there he was, with what is described by former Oriole’s great, Mike Boddicker, as his “meat hooks” hands, swooping down on the ball, with his “side-to-side trot” in one graceful movement so the game could resume without delay. We all know that balls need to have the shine treated before games so that pitchers can get a better grip.
Well, it’s estimated that Ernie mudded-up over 350,000 balls for the games he oversaw. But stats are not what Ernie was all about. They belonged to the man, but he belonged to the fans of the Baltimore Orioles.
The “other Iron Man” breaks his streak for “the Iron Man”
If you want to get a glimpse of what this man was like and why he is revered by Baltimore fans, just ask yourself: how and why did Ernie’s consecutive games streak end? The answer: when Cal Ripken, Jr. was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he asked Ernie to attend. Having faithfully performed his duties from 1960 to 2007, without missing a game over that span of time, Ernie elected to break “the streak” and attend the celebration in Cooperstown, N.Y. Once the festivities were over, he dutifully returned to his place near the Orioles dugout and continued to do “his thing” for the next few years. Ernie was still snatching foul balls and replenishing the umpire’s supply of fresh balls, he had mudded-up well into his 80’s.
Loved by so many and now to be missed by all who knew him
The stories of Ernie and his love of the game, the Orioles, its players, its fans, the city of Baltimore and most of all his family are chronicled in today’s edition of the Baltimore Sun and need not be repeated here. For those of us who only “knew” Ernie from afar, he nevertheless left an indelible mark on our lives. He touched us – and I simply cannot be alone in this feeling – in a very special way. His passing brings to mind stories my father used to share with me as a boy of his growing up in Brooklyn and living next to players from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Time spent on the porch and sharing stories of the Bums, who walked the streets and worked the same jobs as many of their adoring fans. Ernie reminds me of a man of that era – a real baseball man, who lived and breathed the game and brought a smile to the faces of countless baseball fans. A legend among the gods of baseball – in his own special way.
Many have left the game with grace; some with not so graceful an exit. Many have touched the souls of countless fans of America’s sport. Those plaudits are usually reserved for the men who play between the lines from April to October each year. But when a man such as Ernie Tyler passes, a very special word of praise and thanks is in order. So – thank you, Ernie! We’ll miss you dearly. You are a sports legend of a special kind; the kind of legend that permits the game to pass from generation to generation with grace and charm.