If you’ve ever stared down at a keyboard or sat with paper and pen in hand, known what you wanted to write but didn’t know how to start or finish, then you have an idea how this column finally found its way into cyberspace.
The thought process was to put together a review or at least bid farewell to the past year — the one that couldn’t go away soon enough and somehow managed to overstay its welcome. Just as it looked like it was over, when it seemed safe to start writing, the first days of 2021 provided a grim reminder of former Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta’s line, “The fat lady has not yet sung” — or as Yogi Berra might’ve said, “Even when it’s over, it’s not over.”
In the world of vision, 20/20 is interpreted as perfect, but even an ophthalmologist will tell you there is no such thing. And a quick look at the calendar will attest that the year 2020 wasn’t even close. It was more like a disaster that wouldn’t go away, hanging around like a bad New Year’s hangover.
It was a year that seemingly touched everybody, many personally, as a pandemic played havoc with daily life and put all activities on a tentative basis. Seasonal schedules were put on hold and those who spend time in the toys and games department got a glimpse of what life is like without sports. Or, at least, as we have been spoiled to know them.
Which in the grand scheme of things doesn’t even nudge the needle, as we all know … or should know.
It was the year that will forever be known for the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic that actually started a year earlier, has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and is still in effect as 2021 reminds us, as Berra did say, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”
Yogi’s words live on after him, but one of the Yankee great’s closest friends, Whitey Ford, was one of seven baseball Hall of Famers who passed away last year — but that’s getting ahead of the story that took almost two weeks to get started because of a year that wouldn’t go away.
Baseball, as noted, took a heavy hit in 2020, but so did the Baltimore community, which lost some of its own brand of heavy hitters, many of them familiar names, some not so much, all of whom made an impact along the way.
From a personal standpoint, like too many Marylanders, the hits came early and often, close to home and far away. It started with the loss of a dear sister, Dorothy, who had weathered more than her share of difficulties in the last few years and passed on to her reward before COVID-19 became a deadly factor.
As winter turned to spring ballparks and arenas were shuttered and the nasty virus started taking its toll, giving the faintest hint of what was to come. Al Kaline, who honed his skills on the sandlots of Baltimore, was the first of those seven baseball Hall of Famers who left us in 2020. His playing skills were mostly compared to those of Roberto Clemente, his people skills to Brooks Robinson, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.
In short order, Ford, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan and Lou Brock followed Kaline, and when Phil Niekro signed on late in the year, the class of 2020 became an historic group, matching the seven Hall of Famers who passed away in 1972.
But it wasn’t just those with Cooperstown credentials who departed. John Miller, a standout at City College and the only local player on the Orioles’ first World Series championship team in 1966; Calvert Hall product Phil Linz, whose harmonica unfortunately overshadowed his glove and bat, and minor-league legend Steve Dalkowski, who still inspires books though he never played a game in the major leagues, also answered the final roll call last year.
Jim Frey came on the scene as a coach for the Orioles and went on to manage the Royals and Cubs, for whom he also served as general manager — but he never wandered from the Baltimore roots he planted 50 years ago. Gary Hughes was always a scout at heart but also a baseball architect who helped put together organizations in Montreal, Miami and Colorado. Not a bad start for a front office.
Bob Brown, who was the best public relations director in baseball when he wasn’t serving as the traveling secretary during a 35-year run with the Orioles, would fit perfectly in this company. “Brownie” was a best friend or mentor, as needed, for anybody who covered the Orioles when they were “the best damn team in baseball,” which just happened to be the slogan he created.
The only thing missing from this group was a Hall of Fame manager, and those who knew him best will tell you they could hear Tommy Lasorda kicking and screaming “hold on, here I come” as 2020 turned its final page, and he took leave in the first week of 2021. Just another reminder that only the calendar says 2020 is over.
While baseball may have taken the most hits in the year we’d like to forget but won’t go away, Baltimore took more than its share. We lost Wes Unseld, without question the most unsung of our sports legends. The first five years of his career were the last five the Bullets played in Baltimore — but he and his family never left. The Unselds School has been a fixture in West Baltimore for more than 40 years. It’s hard to imagine a better, or more fitting, legacy.
Along the way Baltimore also lost a pair of television media giants — Vince Bagli and Jack Dawson, both beloved by the Baltimore community they so unselfishly served. They weren’t just neighborly faces on the evening news — they made community halls and press boxes friendlier places all around the region and remained staples of the community long after they left the airwaves.
Before putting this column to bed I’m going to end as it started — by indulging with another personal note. As opposed to most others mentioned here, Eddie Bibbs was someone I’d known for only about 15 years. He played the piano, sang and directed the choir at Blessed Sacrament, the church on Old York Road that I used to attend as a teenager and rediscovered later in life.
Eddie had one of those voices that commanded attention, a smile that could light up any room and a personality more infectious than any virus. He also had an ongoing battle with cancer and often had to work around painful chemo treatments, which he did as religiously as possible.
Tragically, two weeks before Christmas, Eddie passed away, not from the cancer that had tormented him, but as the result of a car accident. It left a hole in my heart — and in the heart of a small but vibrant church community that misses him dearly.
The calendar tells us that the year 2020 is over and one of these days it will be. It just doesn’t feel like it right now.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and NBA Photos